THE 1990s promise to be a time of wrenching transition for American colleges and universities. A period of nonstop growth that has lasted for a century is finally grinding to a halt. With budgets declining and criticism rising, many universities - especially those in the vast middle-ground of higher education - find they may have to make sweeping changes to stay in business into the 21st century.
Some early signs of the turmoil that is forcing change: The University of Minnesota closed its Waseca campus in June to save money. The University of California has been criticized by the Legislature for extravagent spending. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is torn by racial strife.
Now a heated debate has started over the future of US higher education - a future that will be affected primarily by three forces: the demands of a wider cross section of the population for access to higher education; soaring costs and tuition, which limit access; and the demands of business for skilled workers, which puts a premium on educational excellence.
"We're asking everything from who ought to be taught, to what ought to be taught, to how they ought to be taught, to how we ought to pay for it. All that is up for grabs now," says Arthur Levine, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.
The only thing virtually all sides in the debate agree on is that American colleges and universities today are redefining their missions, much as they did a century ago.
Until the late 19th century, colleges were small institutions that provided a classical education for the well-to-do. Around the turn of the century, reformers succeeded in refocusing colleges' curricula in more practical directions. Thus was born the modern research university, which combined a host of disparate missions: undergraduate and graduate schooling, basic and applied research, professional education, and service to community.
But small, liberal-arts colleges, which stress undergraduate education above all else, didn't disappear. They continued to grow and flourish alongside the new "multiversities." The past 100 years has seen almost unbroken growth in virtually every sector of American higher education.
That growth has culminated in a higher-education system widely acknowledged as the world's finest - and by far the largest. Today, the US has 3,559 colleges and universities, with a combined annual budget of $140 billion, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Together, the Chronicle reports, these institutions have provided some education to 45.2 percent of the country's adult population.
But will today's structure stand as higher education's crowning achievement or merely serve as another chapter in a unbroken story of progress? The outlook is uncertain.
University budgets across the country are being hard hit as private donors give less and as government support at all levels declines. State and local governments used to provide 35 percent of higher-education funding, while the federal government chipped in another 20 percent. Today, according to the Pew Higher Education Research Program in Philadelphia, those figures have dropped to 30 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
Why the declining level of support? One big factor has been the end of the cold war, which has resulted in sharp cutbacks in federal research funding. Another major force has been budget crunches in many states. In California, for example, the University of California system saw its budget cut by 10.5 percent this year; the California State College system took an 8.8 percent cut.
The common factor linking declining public and private support for higher education is the recession. "The generally depressing state of the economy is like a big, wet blanket on institutions," says David Breneman, a former president of Kalamazoo College in Michigan who now teaches at Harvard University.
"For public universities, it means that state support drops. For private universities, it means that donors are feeling harder up," he says.
But academia today faces more than budget cutbacks: It confronts a new populist attack for a variety of perceived excesses.
In California, for example, outrage bloomed this year when it was revealed that the University of California gave its outgoing president a $1 million bonus and spent thousands of dollars to buy Wedgwood china settings and Iranian carpets. Across San Francisco Bay, Stanford University has been forced to give back thousands of dollars in federal research grants after the government questioned the way the university billed the United States for such "overhead" expenses as new sheets for the president's hous e.
Then, of course, there is the epidemic of "political correctness," which has drawn withering scorn from a variety of conservative and liberal critics. But, says Martin Anderson, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, "The problems run deeper than political correctness."
Foremost among the other problems is the apparent neglect by large research universities of a fundamental mission: teaching students.
At many big universities, most discussion and laboratory sections are taught by graduate students, and undergraduates have little contact with professors. This trend has reached a zenith of sorts at Harvard Law School, where second-year students instruct their first-year counterparts in a required course on "lawyering."
University administrators' alleged failures have reduced the public's trust in higher education. Pollster Louis Harris found that the number of Americans with confidence in "the people running higher education" has declined from 61 percent in the mid-1960s to just 25 percent this year.
And not only the public is upset. "Behind the scenes, governors and legislatures and businesses are very angry," says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States. "They see universities as arrogant and unresponsive."
Faced with budget cutbacks and growing public dissatisfaction, most colleges and universities - such as the University of Connecticut (see story, Page 12) - have not reacted by altering their basic mission but rather by trimming at the margins. A study by the American Council on Education (ACE) reveals that most schools are cutting budgets for building maintenance and library acquisitions, freezing hiring, and deferring salary hikes.
But perhaps the most universal response has been to raise tuition. About two-thirds of US colleges and universities have raised fees recently, ACE found. During the past decade tuition hikes have been running well ahead of the rate of inflation.
At San Diego State University, tuition rose from $200 in 1980 to $1,308 today, while class size has ballooned. "No one gets out in four years," says student-body president Dwayne Crenshaw. "The classes you need to graduate are full up."
Although tuition hikes and library cutbacks are not popular, they are more palatable to administrators than cutting departments,
programs, and faculty.
"All universities are like department stores," says Professor Levine. "In the next few years, many institutions will move from department stores to boutiques."
So far, it has been easier to make choices at less prestigious schools than at elite universities. A proposal to cut several departments at Yale University to pay for needed building maintenance, for example, was one of the factors that led to the resignation of the university's top management.
By contrast, schools like the University of Maryland at College Park have trimmed entire departments with relatively little protest. Massachusetts state colleges have launched an even more radical reform. Each school will adopt a "distinctive and unique focus" to cut down on the overlap between institutions.
The greatest change has been occurring at small, private colleges like Mount Ida College near Boston (see story, Page 12). These schools, says Dr. Breneman of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, "are at the mercy of the market. There's not enough prestige, not enough demand for them to control their own destiny. They have to serve what people want...." He estimates that as many as 400 of these colleges switched from a liberal-arts curriculum to more practical job-training during the past decade.
Programs at graduate business schools are also changing in response to a changing business climate (see story, Page 13).
The big question is whether larger, well established schools will make radical changes. This is the crux of the current higher-education debate.
Some, like Clark Kerr, president of the University of California during the 1960s, argue that no fundamental changes are coming. "Higher education for 800 years has been constantly expanding and doing the same things. It's not going to go the way of the dinosaurs," he says.
But many education reformers point to several trends that they say are rapidly making traditional colleges obsolescent:
* The changing nature of the student body. Only 42.5 percent of US college students fit into the traditional 18-to-21 age range, according to the Census Bureau. More and more adults are attending university, either full- or part-time. And an increasing number of students commute to school, rather than living on campus.
* The changing nature of technology. Multimedia systems combine graphics, text, sound, animation, and video to allow students to learn on their own. And "interactive television" allows students to take part in a seminar with a professor hundreds or thousands of miles away. The Vermont State College system already teaches classes in nine interactive television centers.
"The four-year, ivy-covered campus, to some extent, is a hairy mastodon on its way out," says Marshall Witten, a longtime member of the Vermont State College board of trustees.
No one doubts that the top universities - whether "multi-versities" like Duke University in North Carolina or small, liberal-arts schools like Grinnell College in Iowa - will continue to exist and perhaps flourish. But for the vast middle ground of American higher education, the future may bring radical transformations.
Possible changes in the future include separating the research and teaching functions of a university; focusing more on lifelong learning, rather than a four-year education; spreading a college's students around the country or around the world, rather than gathering them on one campus.
"A four year, straight-from-high-school, cloistered experience on campus will be reserved for the very wealthy and the very able," predicts Mr. Witten. "Everyone else is going to catch post-secondary education on the job, after work, at home, and at local institutions that may not look like a traditional college setting."