Who should own our universities?

Richard Vedder is right in “Who Should Own the University of North Carolina” to suggest that states like North Carolina ought to subsidize students instead of state-owned universities. The model has worked for K-12 charter schooling and could work at the postsecondary level, too.  He does not, however, adequately address the question raised by the article’s title, namely, who should OWN our universities? There are four main possibilities, each with downsides: 1) governments that may make politicized decisions; 2) for-profits that may serve the interests of stockholders or other owners instead of students; 3) nonprofits that may serve nobody’s interest, or only the interests of strong boards or strong administrators; 4) professors in professional partnership.  The first three are common in the modern U.S. but the fourth is basically unheard of although there are compelling theoretical reasons to suspect their general superiority and successful parallel examples from law firms and business consultancies.  If state subsidies went to students instead of schools and barriers to entry were reduced, all four models could compete fairly and in a decade or two we would have an empirical answer to Vedder’s key question.

Richard E. Wright