For a generation, higher education has been defined by our national impulse to commercialize everything, and see the measure of success in market terms. This thinking makes it hard to measure value in things that do not fit neatly into this economic box. We need to change how we think about the value of higher education because it will not survive another generation of this approach.
Universities are big, complex institutions that provide a valuable service. They have high price tags, large budgets, employ thousands, and have both regional and national economic impact. And like all institutions, they live and die on their margin and sales numbers (i.e., enrollment). This isn’t a new problem, but it’s one that, like so many others, has been exacerbated and exposed by the coronavirus.
Universities professionalized operations in the last generation, driven by trustees who bear fiduciary responsibility and often come from the corporate world, pushed to find efficiencies and maneuver in a quickly changing market. This has led many faculty members and higher ed reformers to decry these changes as the corporatization of higher education while calling for the ivory tower to return to a pre-diluvian state. But this approach is wrong. The genie has always been out of the bottle, the move to hire presidents with c-suite experience is unrelenting, and “corporatization” is simply the wrong lens.
The term “corporatization” comes from New Left writers such as James Weinstein and Gabriel Kolko, who applied the term to early 20th century liberals and progressives who joined with business leaders to develop economic policies that shaped the newly emerging American state. But equating business functions with corporatization is a stretch. The real issue is the commercialization of higher education.
Just recently, Westminster College, a small Midwestern college, gave its new president the title of "chief transformation officer.” And while there can be benefit with presidents who have business acumen and bring a focus on operations, over time it can also diminish academics and the centrality of learning. At many universities, operations eclipsed learning as the central mission. This shift empowers nonacademic units (important ones such as athletics, as well as student and residence life), silos units, and reduces academics to just one of many competing units. Academics now tend to be outnumbered and their voice diminished when critical decisions are being made.
One driver of this shift is the constriction of the student market. When the approaching decline in high school-aged students was announced in the 1990s, universities began what only can be called an all-out admissions war. One tool in their arsenal was to lean on nonacademic experiences, which often meant using amenities to compete for students, raise national reputations and differentiate themselves from the pack. The thinking was students and their families are paying for experiences, so let’s give it to them. Dorms were built. Food courts developed as well as student centers and fitness facilities. Some universities even went so far as to build rock climbing walls and lazy rivers.
This shift led to higher education’s embrace of a customer-service model. You see this most clearly in university welcome centers, one-stop shopping models, and near concierge-level services at some universities. Parents now ask “What am I paying for” and get frustrated when academic requirements are not flexible. And college maps now resemble maps at zoos and amusement parks, pointing out all the attractions.
In some ways, these efforts were a positive step that smoothed out institutional idiosyncrasies and brought efficiencies to overly burdensome and at times out-of-touch institutional practices that were not student-centered. It forced continuous assessment and the modernized curriculum and put students squarely at the center of learning again. This was good. But, it had a dark side as well.
While higher education might be business-like, it is a unique business-like institution that benefited from some business practices, not all. The pendulum swung too far. In most industries, there is a clear distinction between the customer and the product. There is an easily visible transaction and an often instant value-added. None of those things apply to higher education, where students are both the product and a consumer.
But what do they consume? Is it learning or experience? How is success measured (admissions, enrollment, endowment, starting salaries upon graduation, or learning)? And if it is a combination of these, what is the mix of the measurement? Seeing learning as an experience dates back 100 years to the philosopher John Dewey, who saw experience as a method of learning. But separating experience from learning and selling education as simply an experience is slippery and dangerous, because it decenters learning from the core reason universities exist and it loses sight of the fact that students are not the only beneficiaries of higher education—as society at large is also meant to benefit.
Each state chartered universities with a public mandate to educate the citizenry to ensure that the republic and democracy flourish. Since their inception, universities have been tasked with dual priorities: to improve individual lives and in that process collectively improve the public. At times that means balancing those interests and investing in them. From the Morrill Act, which created land-grant colleges in the 19th century, to the GI Bill to the Cold War science race, there was a significant federal investment in higher education.
But starting with the recessions of the 1970s and escalating with Reaganism in the 1980s and Clintonian-style neoliberalism in the 1990s, public investment was drastically cut, placing an increasingly larger share of the financial burden of college on students. As the equation became unbalanced, pleas to the public good made less and less economic sense, while catering to students as the sole consumers made more and more of it. To sell experiences, institutional payrolls grew in nonacademic areas and fell for faculty.
Over time, our culture has turned higher education into a full-on consumer game, full of lists, reviews, a whole cottage industry complete with magazine issues and books that rank colleges. While educational leaders bemoan those rankings, everyone tries to game them.
You can even see this in the recent lawsuits around pandemic-related remote education. The basis of the recent suit in Connecticut against Quinnipiac University hinges on the lost “college experience” during remote learning. Higher education is now rarely about learning, instruction, or teaching but rather fun experiences. But higher ed, by its very nature, should make students uncomfortable, push them, and hold them to high standards, which may or may not be considered fun. They should be forced to think and ponder big questions, learn new skills, and dig deeply within their own characters.
Higher ed scholar AJ Angelo has written that, “If higher education is just another industry, the argument goes… reduce the support universities receive from government (and) increase the responsibility of the student, the customer, in paying for educational services.” As Angelo points out, “This model might make sense if our goal was to produce cars, clothing, and some other commodity more efficiently. But a university education doesn’t fit into this paradigm. It isn’t just a commodity.”
And here is the issue. Seeing higher education as a consumer good justifies diminished state and public support. It allows market forces to be the sole judge of an institution. It reduces education to vocational training, And it leads to radical shifts in how institutions position themselves, their cost structures, and even which programs they offer—hurting students, especially those from marginalized communities. It limits opportunities and access and cuts off whole paths by narrowing the focus of education to instant value added calculation. This model has plainly failed our students and our democracy.
The first job of a university is to educate. A school can have the greatest amenities imaginable, but if it doesn’t transform students through education then it isn’t a university but an amusement park.