Converging Paths: Public and Private Research Universities in the 21st Century

April 2016
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Although the privatization of the public university is a much discussed phenomenon, less appreciated is the opposite but equally significant trend in the United States—the “publicization” of private universities.


Public research universities have become more dependent on revenue sources other than state appropriations—including tuition, philanthropy and grants—and more committed, like their private peers, to strategies focused on those sources. Likewise, in response to a variety of external forces, American private research universities have taken on many new roles and responsibilities long associated with the mission of public research universities: enhanced socioeconomic diversity, local social policy goals, regional industrial policy and, most recently, mass online education. Taken together, the privatization of the public research university and the publicization of its private counterpart suggest a marked convergence of these institutions.

Key Insights
The missions of public and private research universities have converged, without an accompanying convergence in the institutions’ structural attributes, such as ownership, discretion, governance and funding.
The heterogeneity of the U.S. system of higher education has been one of its great and abiding strengths, allowing privates and publics the freedom to compete and influence each other even as they innovated and adapted in differently.
Just as the missions of public and private research universities have converged, there needs to be a convergence in their structures, one that helps public research universities adapt to this newly competitive environment.

The authors based their conclusions on personal observations and a comprehensive review of the literature on the mission- and structural-related attributes of public and private universities.