Dissolving the Iron Triangle: Increasing Access and Quality at Reduced Cost in Public Higher Education




Brown, Guilbert Lee

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Society derives public benefits– public good – from public colleges and universities in the forms of a more highly educated populace, employment and economic growth, cultural and other activities. At the same time individuals and corporations derive benefits from public higher education institutions yielding private gains including higher salaries, improved manufacturing techniques and new commercial products. Funding for the instructional activities of public colleges and universities reflect these dual public-private benefits with funding split between public appropriations and student fees. In recent years the proportional burden of bearing the costs of public higher education has shifted, in some cases dramatically, toward diminished public financing and increased private support. At the same time societal demographic changes in the United States suggest the need for more, not less, access to publicly subsidized higher education institutions as higher proportions of entering classes have diminished ability to pay. In the public policy discourse these factors are encapsulated in the metaphor of an “iron triangle” of access, cost and quality. This thesis considers the extent to which recent changes in the funding sources of public higher education institutions have impacted the ability of institutions to provide citizens with affordable access to high quality educational programs, focusing in particular on the recent experiences of public colleges and universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Discrete analyses of each corner of the so-called “iron triangle” of the public mission to instruction – summarized as affordable access to quality instruction – reveal significant challenges to public colleges and universities based on their historical and aspiring missions. Current data and trends support public policy calls that higher education leaders move beyond the iron triangle paradigm as they seek to simultaneously increase access and quality while reducing costs.



Access, Cost, Affordability, Productivity, Higher education, Quality