The naming of a provost as the new president of a university often means more of the same. I admire Christopher Eisengruber, the provost who has just been named the next president of Princeton University [http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S36/65/54C75/index.xml?section=featured ]. I know that many of my sometime colleagues at Princeton share that feeling. He may prove to be a smart innovator. Congratulations and best wishes!
For a while at least Princeton, and some other private institutions, can continue on the same course it has been on for many decades. (See Richard Chaitt and Zachary First “Bullish on Private Colleges” Harvard Magazine http://harvardmagazine.com/2011/11/bullish-on-private-colleges). The demand is there. If tomorrow tuition were increased to $100,000 a year, applications would continue to pour in. Princeton could probably fill its entering class with students who could pay the full freight. Financial aid would be available for those who couldn’t. Admission could be need- blind; student could continue to graduate without student loans. The student body could become ever more diverse, among international students as well as home-grown ones. The faculty-student ratio could continue to stay low. Faculty compensation could stay high. Quality, as commonly understood, would continue to grow.
All this -- the “Princeton model” we may call it -- depends on a combination on high tuition and high student aid, strong endowment growth and generous alumni support. As long as all that continues, yes, the model Princeton has developed over the past fifty years should be sustainable for the foreseeable future.
But here’s what it would take:
A few years ago I realized that it had been a little over a half century since I completed my Ph.D. at Princeton. So, in a fit of nostalgic curiosity, I put some figures together with the help of old pals in Nassau Hall. Over the half century (1960 –2010) tuition increased from $1,450 to over $35,000, i.e., a factor of more than 23. That increase had been accompanied by a large increase in student aid, made possible in turn by generous alumni support and the remarkable growth of the university’s endowment -- from a little over $186 million in 1960 to $14.4 billion in 2010, in other words, by a factor of 76 . (During the same period the CPI increased by a factor of approximately 7.)
Extrapolate this pattern for the next fifty years: By 2060 tuition will be over
$822,000 and the endowment over $1 trillion. (The most recent figures I have found are about $17 billion for the endowment (2012) and for tuition $40,170 (2013/14). So things are more or less on track for the 2060 destination.
Achievable? Sustainable? Desirable? Those are questions for president-elect Chris Eisengruber and the Princeton faculty and trustees. But there’s one question that reaches far beyond those ivy covered walls – Is this model replicable elsewhere?
That’s not a joke. Over the past fifty years “the Princeton model” has been one of the most powerful means of improving quality in American higher education. Princeton has no copyright on it, of course, but Princeton is in many respects the clearest example of it. If my memory is correct the model has worked well for Princeton. And it works. Quality at both the undergraduate and the graduate level has increased significantly. (Particularly, some would say, since I left the faculty. Post hoc ergo propter hoc!) The model has also worked well at a fair number of other colleges and universities, including some public institutions and some private ones noticeably less affluent than Princeton. And it has set a standard in student/faculty ratios, student aid, salaries, etc. that administrators elsewhere have pressed donors, state legislators and others to keep up with it.
So if the model is no longer replicable, where does that leave the search for higher levels of quality in American higher education ? Is there another model that can work as well, without the staggering costs associated with Princeton over the past fifty years?