“Reinventing” higher education: The troubling standard-brand approach

In an era of rising tuition and a very challenging entry-level job market for graduates, buzzwords such as reinvention and change are all the rage on college and university campuses right now. Job training, “assessments” (often via modes that mimic standardized testing), online learning, and calls for “let’s run it more like a business” are very dominant pieces of this reinvention mantra.

The discussion has crossed into the popular press. For example, recently The Economist weighed in with a cover piece on the need for “creative destruction” in higher education, suggesting that “(a) cost crisis, changing labour markets and new technology will turn an old institution on its head.” Earlier this spring, the Boston Globe, serving a region with one of the nation’s heaviest concentrations of colleges and universities, published a package of opinion articles (“The New U.“) covering similar ground.

To be sure, higher ed has been tempest tossed by the latest effects of the global economic crisis. In 2009, I wrote that the public and non-profit sectors would be next on the post-meltdown “hit list.” Historically, colleges and universities have been among the most resilient of institutions, but now they, too, are caught in the ongoing sweep, and some of the injuries are self-inflicted. As I posited earlier this year:

Suffice it to say that American higher education, as a general proposition, is embracing the values of the New Gilded Age. A growing number of American colleges and universities are degenerating into career training centers, touting unpaid internships while charging sky-high tuition, neglecting the liberal arts, and loading up on well-paid administrators and exploited adjunct faculty while shedding full-time professors.

I’m all for career preparation and assessment of student learning being part of a virtually any program of higher learning. I also recognize the usefulness of online education, especially for those unable to attend a brick-and mortar school. It’s just that this particular push in higher ed is largely about creating worker bees for white collar assembly lines, rather than growing thoughtful, caring, and smart individuals who succeed in their vocations, enjoy fulfilling personal lives, and contribute to their families and communities.

Two-tier model

Especially at the bachelor’s degree level, we’re rapidly moving toward an even more stratified two-tier model of higher education reflecting significant social class divisions.

One approach is the full-time, residential “college experience” for those who have family resources or scholarship funding, or who are willing to take on large amounts of student debt. Dorm living, exposure to the liberal arts, immersion in student activities, and maybe even study abroad are typical parts of this experience.

Not too long ago, this was the upwardly mobile middle-class ideal. The costs of pursuing a college education were much more within the reach of America’s middle class, and even a modest family contribution toward tuition and living expenses could go a long way.

The other approach is a part-time one, with plenty of vocationally oriented classes sandwiched in between jobs that may have little connection to one’s career goals. The classes are provided at a commuter campus or delivered online. Student life is limited; many students live at home, and few have the time or flexibility to engage in the kind of enriching extracurricular activities that are a part of a residential college experience.

Students who complete college in this way deserve all the credit in the world. Their juggling acts are often much more challenging than those of peers at residential colleges. But their experiences are unlikely to be as full and immersed as those who spend four years on a college campus. It also may lead to a degree that is less valued by many employers, however unfairly.

Both routes to a college education are familiar, but now their distinguishing qualities are becoming more hardened. We must continue to offer flexible options for earning degrees, while simultaneously attempting to soften class distinctions that now are being baked into the system. This is a tough balancing act, and I don’t pretend it is easy.

Academic labor

From an academic labor perspective, “reinvention” is about attacking tenure, blaming professors for this crisis, and replacing full-time faculty appointments with low paid part-time positions. Senior full-time professors are being pushed out; new candidates for teaching jobs are competing for handfuls of tenure-track openings. Especially outside of the elite universities, it’s a terrible academic labor market for junior and senior faculty alike.

In the meantime, many universities are adding layers of well compensated administrators, buoyed by pricey consultants who help them figure out how to do their jobs. The massive growth of the administrative class in higher ed has shifted the balance of power in colleges, added multiple levels of micro-management, and generally sucked a lot of life out of the academic enterprise. Much of this is at the behest of board members who want universities to resemble the same authoritarian, top-down structures they direct in their paying jobs.

Change or start anew?

While surely many colleges and universities need fixing, the “solutions” commonly being touted will not inure to the benefit of higher learning or society in general. The question is, can they be fixed in the right ways, or will we have to create new institutions to offer real alternatives? I’ll share more thoughts on this in future posts.


Related posts

As U.S. universities embrace the New Gilded Age, what institutions will help us to grow a better society? (2014)

College daze: Ideals and realities (2013)

Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts (2012)

What is academic tenure? (2011)

2 responses

  1. Very well said, David. I would add, however, that in some cases (particularly for publicly-funded institutions) some additional layers of administration have been required to be added, because of changing demands from government – either in terms of following a more “business”-like model, or because of increased reporting requirements.

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