The Elite Universities Play Pacman with the Educational System

Continuing with the discussion of elite universities, Business Week reports on the difference between elite universities and the rest. With massive endowments and donations from the wealthy, these schools can poach the most promising or famous faculty with bloated salaries, while Stanford can provide a nice stable for students to keep their horses and Princeton can build a luxurious mansion/dorm. At the same time, public universities fall further behind.

“It’s only fitting that Whitman College, Princeton’s new student residence, is named for eBay CEO Meg Whitman, because it’s a billionaire’s mansion in the form of a dorm. After Whitman (Class of ’77) pledged $30 million, administrators tore up their budget and gave architect Demetri Porphyrios virtual carte blanche. Each student room has triple-glazed mahogany casement windows made of leaded glass. The dining hall boasts a 35-foot ceiling gabled in oak and a “state of the art servery.” By the time the 10-building complex in the Collegiate Gothic style opened in August, it had cost Princeton $136 million, or $272,000 for each of the 500 undergraduates who will live there.”

“Whitman College’s extravagance epitomizes the fabulous prosperity of America’s top tier of private universities. Princeton and its “Ivy Plus” peers (the seven other members of the Ivy League, plus Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have long flourished as elite institutions, both socially and academically.”

“The gilding of the Ivies offers a striking manifestation of the contemporary American tendency of the rich to get much richer.”

“Fancifying campus living isn’t the half of it. The Ivy Plus schools also are investing huge sums to enlarge their central role in research. Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania are developing whole new science-centric campuses, and Yale just acquired one ready-made, buying a 30-building complex from pharmaceutical giant Bayer. The schools are adding more top-notch faculty members and shrinking class sizes. And they are increasing financial aid outlays for lower-income students who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend.”

“… the increasingly plush Ivy Plus model casts into sharp relief the travails of America’s public institutions of higher learning, which educate 75% of the country’s college students. While the Ivies, which account for less than 1% of the total, lift their spending into the stratosphere, many public colleges and universities are struggling to cope with rising enrollments in an era when most states are devoting a dwindling share of their budgets to higher ed. “Policymakers seem to have concluded that flat funding is all that public higher education can expect from the state,” says Ronald G. Ehrenberg, an economist who directs Cornell University’s Higher Education Research Institute.”

“Even the most prestigious of public universities are increasingly hard-pressed to repulse richly financed Ivy Plus raiding sorties seeking to steal distinguished faculty members and their research grants. Public schools are being drained for the benefit of the ultra-elite, says Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. “The further you project into the future, the more frightening it becomes”.”

“It’s unlikely that more money has ever been lavished on the education of so few. Even as Ivy Plus budgets have spiraled upward, the schools’ enrollments have barely budged. From the 1997-98 academic year through 2006-07, graduate enrollment at the 10 institutions inched up by 10%, to 55,708, while the number of undergraduates actually fell by 1.4%, to 68,492.”

“Meanwhile, the wealth gap between the Ivies and everyone else has never been wider. The $5.7 billion in investment gains generated by Harvard’s endowment for the year that ended June 30 exceeded the total endowment assets of all but six U.S. universities, five of which were Ivy Plus: Yale, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, and Columbia. Ivy dominance extends to fund-raising. A mere 10 schools accounted for half the growth in donations to all U.S. colleges and universities last year. All of the top five on the list were Ivies, led by Stanford, which set a record for higher education in 2006, collecting $911 million in gifts.”

“During 2006-07, the Ivy “Big Three”-Harvard, Yale, and Princeton-collectively spent $6.5 billion on operations, up over 100% from a decade ago. This was more than double the 41% average budget increase for all U.S. colleges and universities over this period and quadruple the 26% rise in the consumer price index. The Big Three sank a further $1.2 billion into new construction and other capital spending last year. “Yale is wealthier now, so we can add resources in almost every dimension,” says its president, Richard C. Levin.”

“Stanford spent $4 million to restore the Red Barn, a Victorian-era structure that’s part of the university’s equestrian center and now provides a place for undergraduates to house their own horses at a cost of $500 a month. Seven employees groom and feed the steeds and clean their stalls.”

“The $106,496 average salary earned by full professors at PhD-granting public universities in 2006-07 amounted to just 78% of what their counterparts earned at private universities, according to the American Association of University Professors. This figure was 91% in 1980-81.”

“One of the many academic areas in which Yale has brought its financial muscle to bear is physics, which until recently was chaired by Ramamurti Shankar. “Yale told us: Let’s go after who you want. We will make it happen,'” says Shankar, who is particularly proud of having bested several other top private schools to lure the quantum mechanics expert Steven M. Girvin away from Indiana University, a Big Ten public stalwart. “There was a huge war,” Shankar says. “Everybody wanted him.” Shankar declines to disclose the price he paid for Girvin in 2002, but says that the going annual rate today for theoreticians of his caliber is $400,000 to $600,000, which includes salary and research support. This is for an assistant professor, the level at which Yale does most of its hiring. The price tag for top experimentalists, who have far more extensive laboratory needs, is $1.5 million to $2 million, according to Shankar, who remains on the Yale faculty.”

“To house their enlarged faculties, the Ivies have turned their campuses into continuous construction zones. Each now boasts a new science facility that is its most expensive structure ever. At Stanford, the distinction belongs to the $140 million “Bio-X” building. Designed by the famed British architect Norman Foster, the glass-walled center provides offices and labs for 30 faculty members whose research combines cutting-edge subspecialties in biology and medicine. Over the next few years, says Stanford President John L. Hennessy, the school plans to invest an additional $600 million to put up five more buildings at an astronomical cost of $800 per square foot on average. Under President Amy Gutmann, Penn is launching its expansion onto 24 acres adjoining its Philadelphia campus by building three high-tech medical research facilities at a total cost of $682 million. Harvard is beginning work on a $1 billion complex that includes a new stem cell institute, the first stage of a planned 200-acre adjunct campus in Allston, Mass.”

“The research productivity of elite private universities is roughly twice that of their public counterparts, according to a recent study of America’s 102 top research universities by economists James D. Adams and J. Roger Clemmons. The study measured volume of academic papers and citations during 1981-99. “You are going to have an edge in research if you have great students, but not too many students; freedom from bureaucratic and political meddling; and generous alums who are more interested in academics than the football program,” says Adams, acting head of economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private college in Troy, N.Y.”

Bianco, Anthony. 2007. “The Dangerous Wealth of the Ivy League.” Business Week (29 November).

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