Privatization in and of Higher Education in the US

D. Bruce Johnstone

Privatization in reference to higher education refers to a process or tendency of colleges and universities (both public and private) taking on characteristics of, or operational norms associated with, private enterprises. Although the term is not a precise one (any more than the distinction between a "public" and a "private" college or university), privatization connotes a greater orientation to the student as a consumer, including the concept of the college education as a "product"; attention to image, competitor institutions and "market niches"; pricing and the enhancement of net earned revenue; and aggressive marketing. Privatization also suggests the adoption of management practices associated with private business, such as contracting out, or "outsourcing" (i.e. turning to private firms to perform non-academic services such as printing, food services, bookstore operations, or general building maintenance), aggressive labor relations and minimization of payroll expenditures, decisive decision-making and "top down" management, widespread use of audits and accountability measures, and an insistence that each unit (department or academic program) contribute to profitability, or at least to the organization’s particular metric of "success." Proponents of more privatized higher education claim that it makes colleges and universities more responsive to the needs of students and employers alike, in addition to generating efficiencies that can enhance the institution’s goals, whatever they may be.

Movement in the direction of greater privatization may mean any or all of the following:

- Seeking greater autonomy from government, as in getting relief from state budget "line" or "billet" controls and moving toward "lump-sum" budgeting.

- Raising tuition (at least in the public sector).

- Putting considerable resources and managerial attention to marketing.

- Embracing the concept of "enrollment management," which limits financial assistance, or institutional "price discounts," to those students whom the institution most wants and who also require the least discounts to matriculate.

- Adopting a culture of service to the student as a client.

- Fund raising (to lower dependence on state taxpayers).

- Contracting out auxiliary enterprises (e.g. bookstore and food services) as well as certain administrative functions such as printing and maintenance—or at least putting such services "on their own fiscal bottoms" and making them compete with private providers.

- Trimming departments and other units that seem not to be attracting students or research dollars, or otherwise justifying them being "carried" by the units that do.

Privatization may best be viewed as a direction along the continua of several related yet distinct dimensions, shown in Table 1, below.

Table 1
Privatization in Higher Education as
Direction or Tendency on Multiple Dimensions

Dimensions High "Publicness" High "Privateness"
Continua of Privatization [Greater Privatization -->]
1. Mission or Purpose Serves a clear "public" mission as determined by the faculty or the state.
Mission is avowedly both pubic and private, but as defined by faculty.
Mission is mainly to respond to student’s private interests, mainly vocational.
Mission serves private interests of students, clients, and owners.
2. Ownership Publicly owned: can be altered or even closed by state.
Public corporation or constitutional entity.
Private non-profit: clear public accountability
Private for-profit
3. Source of Revenue
All taxpayer, or public, revenue.
Mainly public, but some tuition, or "cost sharing." Mainly private, but public assistance to needy students.
All private revenue: mainly tuition-dependent.
4. Control by Government
High state control, as in agency or ministry.
Subject to controls, but less than other state agencies.
High degree of autonomy; control limited to oversight.
Controls limited to those over any other businesses.
5. Norms of Management
Academic norms; shared governance, antiauthoritarianism.
Academic norms, but acceptance of need for effective management.
Limited homage to academic norms; high management control.
Operated like a business; norms from management.

Opponents of privatization claim that it distorts and subverts the core mission of a college or university, which is to seek truth and generate new knowledge, unfettered by the need for commercial application or external justification, and to preserve and transmit both these truths and society’s underlying cultural heritage. In a different but related vein, they claim that the norms of private business practices are contrary to the established traditions of "shared governance" and to the norms of the academic profession, which require substantial professional autonomy, peer rather than hierarchical authority, and a less materialistic culture.

Few observers would deny outright the importance of responding appropriately to the needs of students or employers, or the need for good fiscal stewardship and efficient management. However, the critics of privatization claim that these have generally existed in appropriate measure. The new emphasis on enhanced privatization, they claim, especially coming from conservative state governments and directed at their public higher education sectors, is more an expression of impatience with the faculty and with shared governance--hence, the calls for greater managerial authority and for the abolition of tenure. It is also, to its critics, an elevation of the goals of organizational efficiency and vocational relevance over the goals of academic quality and learning for its own sake.

The politically or ideologically contested press for greater privatization is mainly a public sector issue. In the private sector, the very wealthy colleges and universities with deep and affluent applicant pools (e.g. Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Williams, Amherst, and Grinnell) can afford to offer an education based on the academic principles of their faculties, and can also afford to observe the academic norms (even the occasional preciousness) of the faculty. The colleges with little or no endowment, which are thus almost entirely tuition dependent and which also tend to have relatively thin and tuition-sensitive applicant pools, have already become largely privatized, much as described above (or else many of them would almost certainly no longer be in business).

The most contested terrain, where there is both great press for, and also much resistance against, greater privatization, is in the public research universities and the pubic comprehensive colleges and universities. In these institutions, the push for greater privatization generally reflects a demand from state governors and legislators for greater "accountability," higher academic standards, sharpened academic focus (read, "fewer small courses and programs"), a faculty more responsive to the undergraduate and less to his or her own research (unless it is bringing in large research grants), and more decisive decision making and less of what is perceived as "indulgence" of the faculty.

For Further Reading
[Many references deal with higher educational privatization
in an international comparative perspective.]

Altbach, Philip G. 1999. Private Prometheus: Private Higher Education and Development in the 21st Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.
Donahue, John D. 1989. The Privatization Decision: Public Ends, Private Means. New York: Basic Books.
Geiger, Roger. 1986. Private Sectors in Higher Education: Structure, Function, and Change in Eight Countries. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Goldstein, Philip J. and others. 1993. Contract Management or Self Operation: A Decision-Making Guide for Higher Education. Washington, DC: Coopers and Lybrand.
Levy, Daniel C. 1986. "‘Private’ and ‘Public’ Analysis amid Ambiguity in Higher Education." in Private Education: Studies in Choice and Public Policy. Edited by Daniel C. Levy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Levy, Daniel C. 1992 "Private Institutions in Higher Education." Pp. 1183-1194 in Encyclopedia of Higher Education Vol. I. Edited by Burton Clark and Guy Neave. London: Pergamon Press.
Whitehead, John S. and Jurgen Herbst. 1986 "How to Think about the Dartmouth College Case." History of Education Quarterly. 26, No. 3: XX.
Williams, Gareth. 1996. The Many Faces of Privatization." Higher Education Management 8, no. 3: 39-57.