by Marian Wang ProPublica, Nov. 11, 2013, 12:53 p.m.

James Garland was president of Miami University — a public university in Ohio — for a decade, retiring in 2006 after spearheading a number of changes aimed at raising the school’s profile and pulling in more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition and are typically wealthier.

Garland oversaw extensive construction plans, facility upgrades, and a major change in the tuition model that raised in-state tuition to match the higher prices paid by out-of-state students. (That plan eventually fell by the wayside, but the same concept is still floated at some public universities — including, most recently, by a planning group at the University of Virginia.)

Recently, Miami University was spotlighted in a Washington Monthly article documenting its heavy use of merit aid to attract out-of-state students. We’ve also reported on how public schools are using merit aid to boost their bottom lines.

We asked Garland about his time as president, his ambivalence about some of the decisions made during his tenure, and where he sees public higher education headed.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You’ve said before that Miami University is “public in name only.” What did you mean by that?

We had somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of the entering class coming from out-of-state. It’s almost unheard of for public universities, but private universities often have that or more.

And then the campus physically sort of resembles a private campus. It just doesn’t have the feel of a public university. You walk around the campus and you would swear that you were at a tony private university. The buildings are all coordinated, red-brick architecture. The students are upper-middle class, well dressed, with high SAT scores.

It’s a school that has really benefited from being able to recruit students from outside Ohio who pay much higher tuition and fees, and is also able to recruit upper-income students just because the physical plant is so beautiful.

Did you feel that way about the mission too 2013 that its mission was more like that of a private university?

I did. The fact that we did have selective admissions with high-ability students meant we were not burdened with the problems of having many poorly prepared students. That steered us more in the direction of the mission of a private university.

We were able to focus more on students who had a fairly narrow range of academic qualifications, and so that meant that we didn’t have to have remedial programs or have a lot of courses at different levels for students with different backgrounds or levels of preparation. That was much more private-like than public-like in terms of mission.

What was driving the decision to upgrade facilities and the campus?

I felt we were handicapped by our state affiliation because the state regulated our tuition charges. So even though we had the market strength and quality of offerings to have higher tuition charges, the state would simply not let us do it. At the same time, the state kept cutting our budget each year. We were hamstrung.

So we ended up trying to recruit more non-residents from outside of Ohio, and package ourselves as a selective, beautiful liberal arts college.

And so to do that, we took advantage of low interest rates for municipal bonds and invested in rehabilitating our residence halls and eating facilities and putting in more recreation — workout rooms and lounges, and the kinds of accouterments that really dressed up a campus and made it a much more comfortable and familiar place for upper-middle class students. So those students started applying to us in droves. Application numbers went up, we became more selective, and the SAT scores of the entering class became higher.

And the university began to solve its financial problems. So in that sense, the decision to sort of market ourselves as a kind of elite public university paid off.

Looking back, are there lessons you draw from that experience?

As I think back, I didn’t realize it at the time, but in hindsight I worry about whether we did the right thing. As president, you to try to make campus attractive. You do things primarily to maintain financial stability.

I just think there’s a movement these days among universities that are able to do this, to turn themselves into country clubs. But inevitably that comes at expense of academic rigor and the quality of the academic program.

In my tenure we certainly contributed to this trend. And there’s a price you pay for that. For every dollar you put into building a student sports facility 2013- workout rooms and exercise rooms and squash courts and things of that sort — every dollar you put into that is a dollar you’re not spending on improving classrooms or paying your professors a high enough wage that you can recruit from higher up in job pool.

So we were very successful at what we did, and we did manage to weather the financial downturn that followed a few years after I left. We weathered it quite well. All I’m saying is there is a downside.

What were other schools doing during this time? Did they see that you were doing this and try to keep up?

We were on the ground floor of this movement to enhance our facilities. But other schools began to do it too. They were not necessarily emulating what we were doing. It was more just that other schools that had selective admission and budget problems began to shop around for other options for raising revenues. And one of options on the table was almost always, “Let’s try to invest in things that will attract more non-resident students, because they meet our financial needs better than residents in the state.”

You don’t have to explore very far to find opulent residence halls and all the various amenities. You’re seeing that at the flagship universities, the big research universities, schools that can afford to do it. Students these days want the kind of amenities that wealthier schools can provide.

The problematic thing is that it loads the universities up with debt and with everyone doing it, the competitive advantage of doing it is quickly lost. If everyone is trying to recruit from the same pool of students, then there are no winners. Everyone just spends a lot of money and gets the same number of students.

If everyone has a climbing wall and a new recreation center and serves sushi, then it doesn’t become a marketing advantage, it just becomes something you do to avoid falling behind everyone else. And I think that’s happening.

When did you begin to question those decisions, then?

After I got away from the university and looked at national trends a bit more and wrote a book on higher education, I began to see there was another side to the picture. I began to worry that academic standards throughout American higher education were slipping, and I began to wonder whether this investment that we had been making in providing a kind of upscale environment was contributing to that decline.

Would you do things differently if you went back?

It’s hard to know. I’ve asked myself that question. I don’t really know if I would have, because at the time we were so worried about our finances and trying to do everything we could to not degrade our academic programs. The state was just relentless in cutting our budget each year. And our costs kept going up.

I wish, though, that I had been more aware of what the long-term impact on academic rigor and academic standards was likely to be from this action. It wasn’t until later that I realized the cost.

How did you feel about the issue of access for low-income students while you were at Miami?

The problem that we had was we had this reputation as a tony, upper-middle class school. Part of the problem we had was the sense that there would be a kind of socio-cultural mismatch — that low-income students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds would come and would feel uncomfortable because it was all upper-middle class kids from the suburbs. We spent a lot of money trying to make ourselves more hospitable for students from minority backgrounds or disadvantaged backgrounds. Our challenge was more of a cultural challenge than an economic challenge.

The other problem we had was that we had selective admissions. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds tended to have low SAT scores and come from second- and third-tier high schools and they lacked the rigorous high-school training. There was a general feeling that the really well qualified minority students or the disadvantaged students who had competitive academic credentials would basically get picked off by private universities that had more money to spend.

Where do you expect to see public higher education move going forward?

I think there’s a crisis in higher education. I think it’s a very severe crisis.

I see a large majority of public universities, the non-flagships, are sort of living hand-to-mouth right now. And they live off their meager state appropriations and their physical plants are getting run down and their faculty are discouraged. I don’t think they’re fulfilling the kind of opportunities that Americans expect from their colleges and universities.

At the other end of public spectrum, the selective publics are just getting more and more and more expensive. And they’re pricing out large segments of the American population.