Public and private colleges vie for students and funding

It was just a routine meeting of a board that included representatives from both public and private colleges and universities, but the end result is symbolic of the conflict that is beginning to replace cooperation between these two groups throughout the United States.

The Board of Trustees of the Association of Colleges and Universities of the State of New York, meeting Sept. 15, was to develop a program for the full meeting of representatives from both public and private schools in the state scheduled for the following month. Up for consideration was a report - a year in the making - on linking per-pupil state funding of public schools with a similar proposal for private schools.

Representatives of the public schools declined to hear the report; the meeting quickly became mired in debate and eventually broke up shortly thereafter. The long- simmering public-private college feud in New York State had once again bubbled to the surface.

Although such an incident is dismissed by some as ''New York confrontation-style politics,'' there is increasing concern among academicians and others that the economic crunch in higher education may lead to widespread bickering between public and private schools over dwindling resources.

''What was once a more or less friendly rivalry for quality in programs has become an unhealthy scramble for students and resources,'' said Frank H.T. Rhodes, president of Cornell University, in a recent speech. ''And what was once restricted to good-natured jockeying for position at budget time has erupted in too many places into open warfare between the two sectors.''

In only a few instances have behind-the-scenes battles burst into public view. New York is one state where they did; Michigan, one where they did not.

''There is a great attempt by educators on the state and national level to be diplomatic and deal with the reality of the '80s, recognizing competiton, but not making their case on the back of the other,'' says Gary Quehl, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. ''There is a real desire to avoid this kind of confrontation. The schools are the losers, and the American public is a loser.''

Under contention are two ingredients that until the late '70s were in abundant supply: students and outside funding. The declining pool of college-age students (up to 25 percent fewer are expected over the next decade) and the drying up of resources for everything from financial aid to research contracts have put economic pressure on colleges and universities and turned common hunting grounds into battlefields.

The public-private dispute isn't limited to a tug of war over previously shared resources, either. Each side has begun to tread on turf that until now was jealously guarded by the other. Private-school lobbyists are beginning to buttonhole state legislators, asking for more student-aid money. And several public universities have begun new efforts to seek funds from corporate and foundation donors, usually a primary source of outside funding for private institutions.

While few would say each dollar donated to public schools is a dollar lost to private institutions, there is concern at private schools that fund-raising efforts - such as the University of Virginia's three-year, $90 million private-source program, the first in the school's 164-year history - will negatively affect their fund drives.

Other sources of friction: reported instances of admissions officers recruiting students on private-school campuses; public schools altering tradition by promoting themselves on the basis of lower tuition costs (US private-college tuition is on averages roughly four times more expensive than public-college tuition); and the tendency to duplicate programs when public and private schools are neighbors rather than share students and resources.

A number of educators say the shrinking resource pool is only a superficial source of tension between the public and private sectors of education - that a number of myths are really responsible for driving a wedge between the two.

Among the ''myths,'' according to these educators, are suggestions that:

* Public schools provide a production-line education geared to the ''average'' student, while private schools provide top-of-the-line education.

* Public schools serve the public good, while private schools serve only the elite.

The scramble for a bigger piece of a shrinking pie is not universal; there are numerous cases of cooperation between public and private schools. For example, a new law in Connecticut allows the state to sign contracts with private colleges to provide programs that are not available at public schools. The intent is to keep the cost to students about the same as a similar course at a public school.

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