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Saving Alma Mater: A Rescue Plan for America's Public Universities

reviewed by Edward St. John - March 03, 2010

coverTitle: Saving Alma Mater: A Rescue Plan for America's Public Universities
Author(s): James C. Garland
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226283860, Pages: 296, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Saving Alma Mater: A Rescue Plan for America’s Public Universities, James C. Garland makes a radical proposal: transform state funding for public colleges to a voucher-like strategy. Yet the essence of his proposal is to accelerate increases in college prices and dole out aid to highly-able students. Many former university leaders defend decisions to increase prices (Bok, 2002; Ehrenberg, 2002). Some recommend more federal spending on student aid and other forms of government support of colleges (e.g., Bowen & Bok, 1998; Bowen, Chingos, & McPherson, 2009). A close reading of Garland’s new book reveals some of the ways his strategy is similar to and differs from other strategies for increasing college prices and gaining discretion of government student aid.

At Miami University of Ohio, James Garland convinced the state government to “privatize” in a unique way: to convert the state’s subsidy to the university into a monetary resource that could be used to provide student aid for high-ability state residents. This form of privatization differs somewhat from the national and global patterns of reducing funding for colleges, increasing costs, and letting tuition rise without making a sufficient investment in need-based student financial aid to equalize opportunity regardless of income for equally-prepared students (Priest & St. John, 2004). Nationally and internationally, need-based student aid has not increased sufficiently to maintain access to public four-year colleges for low-income and minority students. Garland argues that: “The proposals in this book are a variation on the privatization concept. They would free public universities from state control of their tuition policies and wean them from state subsidies” (p. 258). Using Garland’s model, a university could use its state support to fund students with financial need and set tuition charges independent of state subsidies. In other words, in his model, public universities have the freedom to charge private college prices.

Saving Alma Mater structures the argument for the new model of privatization in three parts. Part I provides a “primer on higher education economics.” As a Physics Professor, Garland takes some unusual positions on public finance largely unbounded by the history of economic theory and public finance. The chapters describe state funding for public colleges, discuss market forces, provide opinions on costs control, and offer his “prime directive.” What is Garland’s prime directive? “Thou shalt always seek better students. To some degree this has always been the guiding credo for institutions of higher learning” (p. 51). Herein lies the essence of Garland’s argument. He reduces the prestige-seeking behavior and drive for revenue to “seeking good students,” a perspective that differs from more conventional views of revenue maximization that consider the dominant role of research in funding many of the nation’s and world’s best universities (e.g., Bowen, 1980; Slaughter & Leslie, 1997). Before the great change ushered in by Garland at Miami of Ohio, the university had already reached a distinctive position as a strong liberal arts college capable of attracting many of the state’s highest-achieving students in spite of the fact that it was not a major research university.  

Garland goes further into his unusual framing of higher education’s problems in Part II, “The Academic Culture of Freedom and Waste.” These chapters are largely a critique of the historical patterns of faculty governance. Seemingly based on his prior experience at Ohio State University, he claims the bureaucracy of public universities is the result of state influence. Ironically, while his privatized model of public colleges mirrors private universities, Garland does not dwell on the fact that the great private, non-profit universities also have a strong history of faculty governance (e.g., Bok, 2003; Ehrenberg, 2002; Rosovosky, 1990). Finally in Part III, “Renegotiating the Public Compact,” we move from critique to the story of James Garland’s own journey as an academic leader. He negotiated the quasi-private status of the University of Miami Ohio, a public university that is free from most state regulations and uses its state subsidies to support students.

Some readers may ask: Isn’t this a good model for public universities? The most positive appraisal I can offer is that this model can work in high-prestige public universities that seek to attract students with high test scores. Recall Garland’s prime directive was to attract the best students. The problem with this approach can be inequity, especially when financial aid is not targeted on financial need. He does not discuss the financial need of students in his book, nor does he ponder the great inequalities in opportunity for prepared students across racial groups. The closest he comes to addressing this problem is in the following passage:

Thus my new business plan for public universities is at heart a concession to practical realities. Although in an ideal world none should be barred from receiving an education because of financial circumstances, in the real world the next best thing is to minimize the burden. And minimizing the burden means using taxpayer dollars to help those who really need the help. (p. 215)

A close reading of the book suggests that Garland’s concept of which students “really” need help seems to be tightly linked to his “prime directive.” Attract the “best students” reads as code words that ignore the racial inequality and wealth disparities that are pervasive in Ohio, as they are in most of the U.S. There is a growing inequality in educational opportunities between high- and low-income students in the U.S., especially with respect to being able to complete college degrees (Bowen, Chingos, & McPherson, 2009; Carey 2008). While attracting high achieving students should, in fact, be a goal of high quality universities, maintaining diversity is crucial for high-quality education for all students (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Gurin, 2002). The failure to contend directly with inequalities so evident in higher education is a serious oversight of the incremental privatization of public colleges (Priest & St. John, 2006; St. John, 2006). It is indeed unfortunate that in his proposal and in implementing a new model for privatization, Garland overlooks one of the most problematic aspects of higher education in the twenty-first century.


Bok, D. (2003). Universities in the marketplace: The commercialization of higher education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bowen, H. R. (1980). The costs of higher education: How much do colleges and universities spend per student and how much should they spend? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. (1998). The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bowen, W. G., Chingos, M. M., & McPherson, M. S. (2009). Crossing the finish line: Completing college at America’s public universities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Carey, K. (2008, April). Graduation rate watch: Making minority success a priority. Education Sector Reports. Washington, DC: Education Sector.

Ehrenberg, R. G. (2002). Tuition rising: Why college costs so much. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gurin, P., Dey, E. L., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review. 72(3), 330-366.

Priest, D., & St. John, E. P. (Eds.). (2006). Privatization and public universities. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Rosovsky, H. (1990). The university: An owner’s manual. New York: Norton.

Slaughter, S. E., & Leslie, L. L. (1997). Academic capitalism: Politics, policies, and the entrepreneurial university. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 03, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15926, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:08:49 AM

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About the Author
  • Edward St. John
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    EDWARD P. ST. JOHN is a professor of higher education at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the impact of public finance and educational policies on education opportunity in both K-12 and higher education.
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