US News and World Report released their annual list of best colleges in September and the usual suspects held steady at the top of the list. Princeton retained its spot as the top national university, while Williams was named as the premier liberal arts college and UCLA took the title of highest ranked public university in the United States. While many of the overall top spots comprise of private schools on the coasts, the public university rankings begin to tell a different story: 20% of the top fifty public schools in this year’s list are in the Midwest.
The 2020 rankings paint a picture of what has been a long and storied tradition of excellence of public higher education institutions in the Midwestern United States. One-third of US public universities that are members of the Association of American Universities are in the Midwest, tied with the Western US for most of any region and double the number of AAU public university members in the South and the East. Many of these universities can lay claim to notable achievements of their own, as the University of Wisconsin-Madison has graduated the largest number of Fortune 500 CEOs, the University of Michigan recently produced the most Fulbright Scholars of any public institution, and Purdue University has the highest share of American astronauts as alumni outside the military academies.
Public institutions rely on three general pools of funding to operate: student tuition dollars, state appropriations, and gifts, grants, and operational revenue. In the past two decades, however, two of those components have essentially traded places as the cuts in state financial support have been replaced by fast rising tuition rates. This phenomenon has also been compounded by recessions, especially the 2009 downturn. The very institutions of public higher education that relied on their home state tradition for support found themselves in the industrial and manufacturing belt that was being hit hardest and would take the longest to recover.
The beginning of the 2010s brought budget cuts to state governments across the country, with 43 slashing expenditures to higher education in an attempt to make up for reduced tax revenues and honor balanced budget amendments. Not all universities, however, passed on these significantly higher tuition costs to students. More specifically, not a single one of the twelve states in the Midwest were among the top twenty-five states in percent increase of tuition at a state four-year school. While the average tuition at a non-Midwestern state school increased by 45.2% between 2008 and 2018, Midwestern states saw an average increase of 21.7%, less than half of their non-Midwestern counterparts.
These numbers not only minimize the burden on students who are facing historically high levels of debt and unaffordable living expenses but also lead to benefits for the universities themselves. Up until Fall 2020 and the Coronavirus pandemic, each of the five states in the Midwest with the lowest average percentage increases in tuition were seeing long-term enrollment growth, sometimes by the thousands, at a time when overall enrollment in public four-year universities is down nationwide. Purdue University has served as the gold-standard in this regard. They have kept their tuition and fees for in-state students flat at $9,992 since 2012, and have seen an enrollment increase every year since at least 2014. The flat tuition rate has drawn a larger pool of applicants, more revenue, the ability to hire more prestigious faculty, and increased licensing income which Purdue credits with a 136% increase in donations. This cycle allows Purdue to keep costs to students low while the University thrives.
Institutions like Purdue, by their nature, are places for close collaboration, international travelers, and social gathering, all of which are strongly discouraged now. The ongoing global pandemic has proved devastating to nearly every industry, but few face the same logistical nightmares that institutions of higher education are currently facing. While the pandemic is incomparable to any challenge the higher-ed sphere has faced in the past, recent history has pointed to the Midwest as the place to look for answers and best practices, such as targeted efforts to increase out-of-state enrollment to offset state funding cuts in the wake of the last recession. The cuts cannot be danced around, however, as they still disproportionately impact in-state students for whom the universities were established to serve. Places like the University of Iowa have started turning to alternative means to procure funding, such as turning to political action committees to elect candidates promising to increase state support. The next year will prove critical in how universities respond to likely future cuts in the wake of another economic collapse, but if history holds true, look to the Midwest for how institutions fight through and not only survive, but continue to thrive.
Public universities in the nation’s heartland prove that rethinking how universities operate and recruit can be fruitful. They prove they can punch above their weight with the schools on the coasts. They prove to be the birthplace of leaders, scholars, and innovators. While the heartland still faces troubles with population decline and a changing economy, their universities will continue to prove to be the example for excellence in public higher education.
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