According to a report released in April by the American Association of University Professors, the gap between the salaries of faculty at private and public universities is widening. The AAUP’s “Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession” stated that at public institutions full professors’ salaries averaged $130,039 and assistant professors’ $77,446 in 2014, while at private institutions the average salary of full professors was $177,600 and assistant professors $95,312. The salary gap has been growing year by year and decade by decade as a reflection of the growing wealth gap between public and private universities.
Even while the rest of the economy struggled over the past few years, college and university endowments did reasonably well, surging by an average of 11.7 percent in 2013 and 15.5 percent in 2014, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. While a few public institutions, such as the University of Texas system, possess large endowments, private institutions hold the overwhelming proportion of billion-dollar-plus endowments and have disproportionately benefited from the most recent six-year bull market in stocks.
Things have gone downhill, meanwhile, for public colleges and universities as legislatures across the country have cut back on appropriations for higher education. According to the AAUP study, state legislatures reduced appropriations for higher education by an average of 16 percent between 2008-09 and 2012-13, even as many of the same legislatures placed caps on tuition increases. The financial squeeze has taken a toll on the quality of instruction offered at some of our best public institutions. Unfortunately, the situation is likely to get worse in the years ahead given the condition of state and federal budgets and the intense competition for public funds.
But current financial pressures have only brought out into the open a process that has been going on for several decades: Public institutions—especially the so-called flagship institutions—have been losing ground to private colleges and universities since the 1970s. This is not good news for middle- and working-class students, who have long relied on public universities as avenues for upward mobility.
There was a time not so long ago when elite public institutions, such as the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin, more than held their own against competition from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and other elite private institutions. Berkeley’s reputation for academic excellence in the 1950s and ’60s was unsurpassed; indeed, in the mid-1960s many experts considered Berkeley the finest university in the world. Flagship universities in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Virginia earned rankings in the top 10 or 20 universities in the country. Few private institutions could match the range of outstanding research programs offered at flagship state institutions, particularly in expensive fields like the sciences and engineering. Admission to these institutions was widely sought after by out-of-state students willing to pay premium tuition to gain access to high-quality education. With enrollments in excess of 25,000 and in some cases 35,000 students, these institutions dwarfed the privates in scale but delivered a great deal of educational “bang for the buck.” Degrees from Berkeley, Michigan, and Wisconsin were judged equivalent to those from the top private institutions.
Today the situation is greatly changed. Only one public institution is listed among the top 20 schools in the 2014 ranking by U.S. News and World Report—Berkeley, which ranked 20th. Virginia and UCLA came in at 23, Michigan at 28, and the University of North Carolina at 30. The rankings changed little in 2015: Berkeley remained at 20, Virginia and UCLA at 23, Michigan dropped to 29, and the University of North Carolina remained at number 30. Thus, among the top 30 national universities in the U.S. News study, only 5 are public institutions.
The Forbes ranking, which uses a different methodology that takes into account both the cost of the college and the quality of its educational program, lists only 1 public institution in the top 20, West Point, and just 7 more in the top 50—certainly an indictment of the quality of instruction offered at the less costly public institutions. In that survey, Berkeley comes in at number 37, the University of Virginia at 40, and Michigan at 45, while flagship universities in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota do not make the cut at all. For the first time, private institutions—and not just the Ivies—dominate the roster of our best colleges and universities.