A rocky year for colleges

Budget deficits and concern over free speech on campus mark 2002

Student enrollment soared, state appropriations plummeted. Free-speech issues flared, affirmative action in admissions began to dominate headlines. Foreign students got better security screening, but more found themselves stuck in visa limbo.

If you look back at 2002, the record of American higher education is as jagged as a stock market chart, with leaps into positive territory countered by dramatic plunges and plenty of red ink.

The year will be remembered as the big reversal: After a long stretch of public largess, states slashed higher-education budgets, sending tuitions soaring at public institutions.

With at least 29 of 43 states facing budget crises this year, the 2002 recession has created huge deficits and put big multi-year cuts into the higher-education pipeline, says Travis Reindle of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

"It's a perfect storm," Mr. Reindle says. "If low-income students can't afford to attend, I don't know what consequences this holds for social cohesion in this country."

The University of Virginia, where students saw a 20-percent drop in tuition in 1999, is planning a midyear "surcharge." At Ohio State, tuition jumped 18 percent for new students, 9 percent for returning students.

At private institutions, meanwhile, analysts expect more budget cuts after another tough year for the stock market. Last year's 3.6 percent drop in college endowment value may be easily surpassed this year - the first time since the 1970s that endowments have dropped two years in a row.

Academic ideals dented

An important theme cropped up in education stories this year: the sense that even long-cherished academic ideals - campus diversity, academic freedom, and freedom of expression - were open to challenge.

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers made headlines when, at a prayer meeting with students and faculty on Sept. 17, he warned of an "upturn in anti-Semitism" around the world.

But what really grabbed people's attention was his strong criticism of people on a number of campuses who support a divest-from-Israel petition aimed at changing Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

"Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent," said Dr. Summers, Harvard's first Jewish president.

With Harvard often leading on emerging academic issues, the idea that thoughtful signers could be unintentional supporters of anti-Semitism rattled many in higher education.

Some say Summers's comments seemed aimed at damping down free speech. "There is nothing anti-Semitic about the petition, neither in effect nor in intent," says Daniel Fox, a linguistics and philosophy professor at MIT who is also Jewish and who helped organize the petition drive.

Israel and freedom of expression were not the only issues coming up for review. Laws to tighten national security have increased scrutiny of foreign visas, backing up lines of would-be graduate students from Beijing to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The USA Patriot Act and the Bioterrorism Act also prompted concerns about limits they might impose on academic freedom.

This is also the year that campus racial diversity - supported by decades-old affirmative-action admissions practices at most selective colleges - has gone toe-to-toe with legal claims of reverse discrimination.

This month the US Supreme Court announced it would hear two lawsuits against the University of Michigan, one by Jennifer Gratz and the other by Barbara Grutter. Both women sued the University of Michigan in the early 1990s, claiming that minorities with lower grades and test scores were admitted while they were rejected.

Ms. Gratz, who ended up attending another school, challenged the undergraduate admissions policy. Ms. Grutter, a mother of two who challenged the law school, says she would still like to attend there.

"One of the considerations when I decided to go ahead was my children," she said in a Monitor interview last year. "Win or lose, I think my children have a sense of pride that I stood up for what I thought was right."

Self-scrutiny was another major theme in 2002. Many are attempting to quantify what's happening inside what is sometimes called "the black box" of higher education.

Francis Oakley, a former president of Williams College, was among those leading a charge to goad historically number-shy disciplines such as English, history, and the arts to "quantify the humanities."

His premise is that it would be good for higher education to know - as it does in copious detail in the sciences - how many faculty and students were involved in which courses and reading which authors - Pope, Locke, and the rest.

A logical follow-up might be, for example, to count how many students became English majors and graduated to careers in journalism or public relations. Quantifying such things presumably would demonstrate the humanities' overall value and demonstrate the need for higher faculty salaries in these areas.

From a history professor's viewpoint, this tends to become more imperative when upstart disciplines such as forensic science pop up on campus as hot majors.

By contrast, math departments are losing majors. A July study shows bachelor's degrees granted in mathematics fell 19 percent from 1990 to 2000 - though overall undergraduate enrollment rose 9 percent.

Reports took schools to task

This was also the year of the introspective report. No fewer than three major studies on the effectiveness of American higher learning dropped onto the scene.

One, a report card, graded each state on students' ease of access to higher education, their level of preparation for college, and the rates at which they completed college.

Still, it was the National Survey of Student Engagement, a relative newcomer, that zeroed in on how well students actually learn in college.

Among other things, the NSSE found students are spending less time than ever on homework. Professors say students need to spend about 40 hours a week preparing. Only 12 percent of freshmen spent 26 or more hours per week on homework, with 63 percent spending 15 hours or less.

That's not a good sign, says George Kuh, NSSE director at Indiana University, Bloomington, since "students only learn what they study."

For 2003 the overriding theme is likely to be affirmative action.

Whichever way the Supreme Court rules (a verdict could come in June), expect colleges and universities nationwide to review and revamp their admissions procedures amid a flurry of press coverage.


of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.