Combating the Commodification of Higher Education

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American higher education has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the United States’s entrepreneurial, market-driven system of health care.

Institutions of higher learning, like health care providers, vie aggressively for resources, prestige, and customers (whether patients or students) within highly competitive marketplaces. Extreme stratification, in reputation and resources, characterizes both the health care and higher education sectors.

Institutional competition, in turn, strongly incentivizes colleges and universities to take steps to stand out in highly visible ways that enhance their standing and status.  It’s no surprise that campuses compete with one another in terms of facilities, amenities, breadth of programs, and even food.

But intense competition also discourages most schools from radically diverging from established norms lest they narrow their appeal by appearing eccentric, odd, or struggling.  At first glance, American higher education appears to be extraordinarily diverse, consisting of liberal arts colleges, research-oriented institutions, public and private, urban and rural campuses, religious colleges, military academies, seminaries, technology institutes, commuter and residential campuses, and online providers. All true.

Yet most campuses share certain common elements, including credit hours, fixed-length terms, standardized start dates, distribution requirements, department-based majors, letter grades, and more. 

Conformist pressures, however, create opportunities for alternative providers who target unmet needs and underserved markets.  In medicine, these includes urgent care centers, for-profit emergency rooms, boutique and concierge practices, and specialized clinics and treatment facilities.  In higher education, alternatives to business as usual include the mega online providers, such as Western Governors, Southern New Hampshire, and Coursera, various boot camps and skills academies, and industry certifications that aim to serve those who find the opportunities provided by traditional colleges and universities too costly or time-consuming, or insufficiently career-focused. 

The top health centers and higher education institutions have acquired richly deserved reputations for excellence and innovation.  Yet in both sectors, significant numbers of potential beneficiaries remain poorly served.  Indeed, the free-for-all higher education marketplace has transformed the GI Bill, which once offered an international model for the democratization of access to higher education and college’s ability drive upward social mobility, into a funnel that channels all too many veterans into for-profit institutions with exceedingly poor outcomes.

Highly entrepreneurial, marketized systems of higher education and healthcare are exceedingly vulnerable to scams.  In the absence of rigorous oversight and regulation, quacks and charlatans exploit opportunities for profit.  Higher education’s counterpart to overtreatment, over prescription, and over diagnosis in the health realm are the many master’s and certificate programs and other certificate offerings with uncertain or even negative payoffs, in clear violation of the gainful employment rules that are supposed to ensure that graduates attain incomes that allow them to repay their debts.

In a recent article in EdSurge, Jeffrey R. Young reminds us about a prescient 1997 essay by the late David Noble, a noted historian of science and technology, who condemned the rise of “digital diploma mills,” online institutions more interested in enrolling as many students as possible at the lowest possible cost than in providing a quality education or a degree with genuine value in the job market.  

These institutions, Noble argued, had abandoned a collegiate ideal that rested upon students’ close interaction with professors in favor of a model that rested on the mastery of a fixed body knowledge and skills

But the larger problem that Noble identified – the commodification of higher education – was not confined to online providers with their narrow curricula, cookie cutter courses, and alternate staffing models.  In the brave new world of higher education that has emerged over the past quarter century, colleges and universities are, first and foremost, credential providers and commercial enterprises. 

Their students are customers and human capital to be developed. Faculty members and departments are incentivized to be as entrepreneurial as possible.  Campuses are increasingly valued politically as drivers of local economies and of regional economic development and as incubators of basic and applied research.  Learning, far from being developmental or transformational process, is increasingly viewed as transactional and equated with passing the requisite number of courses.

Is it possible to break free from the commodification of higher education, or is American higher education trapped in a Weberian iron cage, in which campuses are prisoners of a system that values throughput, efficiency, rational calculation, and bureaucratic control above learning?

After all, isn’t a college education supposed to be the very opposite of a commodity, stressing instead intellectual seriousness, mentoring, community, dialogue, discovery, and personal growth?

My own view is that it is indeed possible to provide a transformational, developmental, relationship-rich education within the matrix of today’s highly bureaucratized institutions. Many institutions already do this for honors students.  But unfortunately, these programs, which feature designated faculty members, dedicated advising, special seminars, rich research opportunities, and a wealth of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, are confined to a small subset of the undergraduate population.

How can we scale such opportunities?  Here are a few suggestions.

1. Empower a number of individual faculty members to organize cohorts with a thematic focus.
In exchange for overseeing a community of learners and offering a special credit-bearing seminar, provide those faculty members with a modest stipend and student engagement funds.

2. Create a wide variety of cohorts to serve students with differing interests.
Some cohorts might emphasis research, and not just laboratory research, but qualitative and data driven and archival research.  Other cohorts might focus on community service, civic engagement, or the arts.  Still others might be career-focused, emphasizing business, computer science, healthcare fields, including nursing, law, public policy, and technology.  Then there might be cohorts that are “maker” and project oriented.  The goal is to embed as many undergraduates as possible in a community of interest.

3. Recognize active participation in a cohort program with a special designation on the students’ transcript.
Students deserve to be rewarded for taking part in a cohort program and their involvement in the activities needs to be institutionally acknowledged. A transcript notification recognizes their programmatic engagement.

4. Expand opportunities for students to interact with faculty.
Students who build educational relationships with faculty members outside the classroom are more successful academically. Plus professors who know students personally are able to write stronger letters of recommendation.  

Lunches or informal group meetings are great ways for undergraduates to get to know a faculty member outside a classroom setting and learn about graduate school and opportunities for research, internships, and scholarships.  The payoff far exceeds the modest cost.

5. Showcase undergraduates’ research and creative achievements.
Celebrate faculty-supervised undergraduate research and arts projects with poster sessions, brief (two- or three-minute) oral presentations, and student and faculty panels.  A showcase offers students a chance to communicate the importance of their research and creativity to a broad audience.  It also gives them an opportunity to polish their presentation skills and bolster their resumes as they prepare to apply for jobs or graduate school.  Above all, this event introduces the entire campus community to the students’ vision, inventiveness, ingenuity, and passion.

Karl Marx had a term to describe those 19th century communitarians, like Charles Fourier, John Humphrey Noyes, Robert Owen, and Henri de Saint-Simon, who strove to create cooperative communities inside capitalist societies.  He called these visionaries “utopian socialists” and dismissed their dreams as fanciful and unrealistic.   

In fact, however, some of their communities lasted for decades and, more than that, inspired many women’s rights advocates, sex radicals, labor organizers, diet and dress reformers, abolitionists, and advocates of world peace with dazzling visions of a world rid of status hierarchies and exploitation.

There’s nothing utopian or original about the kinds of community building initiatives that this posting proposes.  If we want to combat the commoditization of higher education, just follow these steps, which are eminently doable.  

All implementation requires is the will to create campuses where every student has a community to call their own. 

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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