Monday, March 19, 2018

The Problem with the UMBC "Cinderella Story"

Last week, college basketball fans witnessed a historic event. For the first time ever, a No. 16 seeded team upset a No. 1 seeded team. The University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers not only beat the University of Virginia Cavaliers--they beat them by 20 points. As often happens with upsets, the story of UMBC’s victory went viral on social media, especially during a time when many Americans are desperate for some good news. UMBC was quickly branded this year’s “Cinderella Story.”

Writing about the idea of a “Cinderella Story” for NPR, Linda Holmes notes: “Americans will call almost anything a Cinderella story that involves a good thing happening to someone nice. We slap that title on movies and books, but also on basketball games won by tiny schools full of scrawny nerds.” She goes on to suggest that most variations of the story include “a mistreated young woman, forced to do menial work, either cast out or unloved by her family. She has an opportunity to marry well and escape her situation, but she gets that chance only after being mistaken for a higher-status person.” In many ways, I think this latter description better fits UMBC and many institutions like it.

UMBC is an excellent university with a strong reputation, particularly in the mid-atlantic region. This reputation developed largely separate from athletics. Yet it took playing in the most competitive tournament in college basketball, and pulling off an almost miraculous feat, for people to suddenly wake up and see UMBC. In the words of Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post, “After a 74-54 win over Virginia, UMBC has America’s attention. It is ready to listen to every remarkable thing about the university.” This is wonderful for UMBC’s players, students, faculty, staff, and leadership. However, it reveals a major problem in this country: our long-term, systematic neglect of public regional universities. Although UMBC got its moment in the spotlight, hundreds of institutions will never get a shot at the big dance. And this big-time oversight has big-time consequences.

I have spent the last four years working at a public regional university, and I also happen to research them. Incidentally, my university’s basketball team fell to Virginia in the first round of last year’s tournament. So, I know a few things about public regional universities and being the underdog. Having spent 7 years working in higher education in Maryland, I was certainly familiar with UMBC before their big win. Let me tell you a few reasons why we should not only pay attention to public regional universities, but also better fund and reward them for their unique contributions to U.S. higher education, irrespective of what happens during March Madness.

First, public regional universities educate a significant number of Americans. One estimate shows that public regional universities enroll two-thirds of people attending public, four-year colleges and universities. Some people might understandably ask, “So what?” After all, bigger and more elite institutions also educate many students. The difference is that public regional universities educate a much larger proportion of low-income, racially minoritized, and first-generation students than bigger and more elite institutions. Using the same estimate referenced above, public regional universities educate an astounding 85% of African American students, 74% of Hispanic/Latino students, and 70% of American Indian students attending public, four-year institutions. As one president I interviewed put it, public regional universities are “institutions of opportunity for the underserved.”

Second, public regional universities are affordable and efficient. Many Americans are worried about the price of college and how public institutions are stewarding taxpayer money. Public regional universities have had to figure out how to keep their prices low for a long time because of the types of students they serve. Raising tuition too high at public regional universities can have disastrous consequences for enrollment, retention, and persistence. Even though all public institutions have been affected by reductions in per-pupil state funding, there is reason to believe public regional universities have been disproportionately hurt by state disinvestment. Unlike bigger and more elite institutions, public regional universities can’t frequently rely on alternative revenue sources like major private gifts or overhead from federal grants to offset budget cuts. Instead, they have to figure out how to pursue excellence with insufficient resources. It shouldn’t be too surprising that research shows that many public regional universities are cost efficient.

Third, public regional universities are committed to high-quality teaching and student success. One persistent myth I have encountered in my research is that, based on metrics like retention and graduation rates, public regional universities are lower-quality compared to bigger and more elite institutions. My contention is that we shouldn’t give much weight to comparisons between public regional universities and institutions that enjoy phenomenally more resources and educate very different students. If we instead focus on what is actually happening at public regional universities, several features stand-out. Public regional universities are home to scholar-teachers who devote significant time to teaching and provide an unparalleled level of care to students. This type of personal attention to students, by the way, is particularly important for low-income, racially minoritized, and low-income students. It is worth noting that, as many other institutions figure out how to attract and educate the growing population of “non-traditional” students, public regional universities have been helping these student succeed for decades. We should start seeing public regional universities as thought leaders in serving these students.

Lastly, public regional universities are regionally-oriented, anchor social institutions, many of which serve economically depressed and rural areas. One president I interviewed called his university a “beacon of hope” in the region because it was the only organization hiring people during the Great Recession. If we were to remove public regional universities from the regions they serve, we would effectively eliminate a major employer, a major producer of well-educated employees, a major cultural institution, and a major source of hope in one fell swoop. And we shouldn’t shortchange this last point. As recent reporting has demonstrated, a public regional university is sometimes one of a few sites of opportunity in areas struggling with poverty and unemployment. My hypothetical scenario may sound extreme, but we should keep in mind that several states are experimenting with their systems of public regional universities, and some are considering closings and mergers.

Despite my “Debbie Downer” introduction, we should absolutely celebrate UMBC. Buy UMBC t-shirts. Donate to UMBC. However, if we wait for the next big game to pay attention to public regional universities, we continue a pattern of under-appreciating and under-investing in what I believe are the most important higher education institutions in this country. Aside from cheering on the Retrievers, here are a few things we can do to reverse this pattern.

One simple thing we can do is to scrutinize our language. Many people refer to public regional universities as “non-elite,” “non-selective,” or “non-flagship.” These labels often position public regional universities in negative relation to something we see as more valuable. I actually think we should throw the label “flagship” out the window. It wrongly suggests that there is one important institution in a state and a whole bunch of supporting institutions that don’t merit notice. I use the term public regional university, but others use regional comprehensive university.

If we are in a position to donate money to a college or university, I contend we ought to donate to public regional universities. As an employee of a public regional university, I’m biased, but I think the donation goes farther at our institutions. My undergraduate alma mater is a wealthy private college. I have the fondest memories of my time there, but they are financially in good shape. My donation makes more of a difference at a place like UNCW.

Journalists and researchers need to get over their infatuation with bigger and more elite institutions. Research on public regional universities is not nearly as developed as it should be, given the importance of these institutions. And much of it is quantitative in nature, which can be helpful, but doesn’t always tell the story of these institutions in a nuanced way. Journalists (and researchers) almost always discuss public regional universities from a deficit perspective, recycling a narrative of institutions in crisis, struggling to stay open, on the brink of extinction. Stop that. Take the enthusiasm that emerged from the UMBC victory and apply that appreciative lens to public regional universities broadly.

Finally, we should ask big questions about state funding formulas and other processes by which institutions receive public support. I’ve heard from many people at public regional universities that a disproportionate share of resources flows to bigger, more research-oriented universities. It’s possible that performance-based funding exacerbates these inequities. I struggle to argue for cutting funding to any public institution, but I’m more uncomfortable with the idea that public regional universities are not being funded at levels commensurate with their contributions.

Like Cinderella, many public regional universities are cast out, mistreated, and unloved unless they are given the chance to be viewed as something higher-status. UMBC got that chance, but it is just one institution among many. My hope is that we can view public regional universities as national treasures without having to rely on the magic of a major sports victory.

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