'Master Plan' Envisions Cost-Saving Collaboration Among Colleges Across the Midwest

March 31, 2011

A new report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs calls for greater collaboration among colleges and universities across the region, which could decrease their reliance on state financial support.

States no longer have the resources to support the kind of growth needed in higher education, says James J. Duderstadt, author of the report, "A Master Plan for Higher Education in the Midwest: A Roadmap to the Future of the Nation's Heartland."

Mr. Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a professor of science and engineering there, says institutions, both public and private, should look to each other for cost-effective ways to expand programs—for example, by sharing certain facilities and programs.

"The states really don't have the resources to do very much right now," Mr. Duderstadt said in an interview on Wednesday. "They're in a very reactive mode right now."

One major proposal in the report calls for colleges across the region to standardize their requirements for academic credits and majors, so students could transfer between institutions freely. The report cites the Bologna Process, which aligned degree standards in countries across Europe, as an example of how that type of cooperation might work.

Mr. Duderstadt said colleges and universities would be in the best position to accomplish that if they formed regional alliances that would encourage more cooperation across state lines while providing services tailored to students in their part of the country.

Mr. Duderstadt also suggested that large research universities shift their focus more toward research and postgraduate training. They should continue offering undergraduate courses, he said, but put less emphasis than they do now on increasing enrollment and keeping tuition costs down. He believes those tasks should be left to the smaller regional colleges. "What we're saying to the states is to recognize that, and don't overwhelm the very important research, economic-development, and advanced-education role of those institutions by asking them to pump up their enrollment," he said.

Collaboration is a major theme of the report, but it has an even broader focus—it looks at ways the higher-education sector can help spur economic growth in the Midwest. Among Mr. Duderstadt's suggestions, aimed at both educators and policy makers, are that states should open college-savings accounts for all students entering their public-school systems and that colleges should offer greater support to elementary and secondary schools.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a nonpartisan think tank, will hold a Web conference on the report tonight.