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American higher education is in the news a lot these days—and not always in positive ways. College cost tops the list. Tuition has skyrocketed 1120% over the past 30 years and the aggregate national student debt has surpassed $1 trillion dollars. Many graduates can’t find jobs in their majors, even those who studied in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Other vexing issues in the public domain include campus sexual violence and the professionalization of collegiate athletics—matters for government intervention and social activism.

What a metamorphosis! Higher education was on a roll in post-World War II America: enrollments boomed, campuses grew, many schools transitioned from college to university status, and junior colleges became community colleges. It was The Golden Era—“the go-go” years.

That Golden Era has now turned into the Turbulent Era. Tumult might well have happened earlier if it were not for the public’s emotive connection to Alma Mater. Students, alumni, fans, and benefactors (faculty to a lesser extent) identify strongly with “their schools.” Affiliates are more likely to attribute virtue than find fault. To hint otherwise would be disloyal.

There are times, though, when the weight of evidence points undeniably in a undesirable direction. Public distress reaches a tipping point and reform winds blow. Consider what happened to The Veteran’s Administration: the public got fed up and demanded change. Higher education seems to be on the same path. The sector is in trouble.

What happened to higher education? To answer that question let’s consider what higher education is and what it has become.

At its core higher education is a social institution. Social institutions serve the public good by performing one or more vital social functions—activities deemed essential for ensuring society’s welfare. One way higher education acts as a social institution is by admitting and graduating lower-income students. Because a college degree is tied so tightly to economic and social mobility it’s not in society’s best interests for college to be a private good, available only to those who can afford it.

But higher education is more than a social institution, especially in today’s world. It’s an industry, too. Schools manage costs; offer new programs and services; and optimize business outcomes in a highly competitive environment. Words like “branding” and “comparative advantage”—business terms—apply well in contemporary higher education.

Higher education is a hybrid— social institution and business both—a duality that well fits the times. The challenge is balancing the two. But that’s not happening. The sector is out-of-balance: business trumps social institution. That outcome explains (at least in part) why the sector is in trouble.

There’s a lot of pressure for higher education “to deliver” on the business side. The evaluative metrics point that way, to things like “SAT scores, graduation rates, student/faculty ratios, and admission yields” (The New York Times 7/24/14). Peer comparisons—the coin of the realm—are associated with college rankings; and positive outcomes push schools up the food chain. Insiders know that: they advance careers by delivering on expectations.

The information the public gets about higher education—the evaluations, comparisons, and rankings—are also about those things. The annual “best college” rankings published by The U.S. News and World Report(and other similar sources) give significant weight to academic reputation and student selectivity. “The College Scorecard,” published by the U.S. Department of Education, presents data on annual college costs, median monthly loan costs, and what graduates do after graduating. The PayScale system measures and compares school performance based on Return-on-Investment (ROI)—the cost of tuition compared to graduates’ median lifetime earnings. And Money magazine offers one of the newest systems: it rates and ranks colleges on academic quality, affordability, and economic outcome for graduates.

It’s not as though any of this is wrong. America needs higher education to pay attention to time-to-degree, graduation rates, and financial returns from earning a college degree. The problem is that this type of attention crowds out just about everything else.

Consider the messages we get from campus leaders. They talk about new buildings and programs, the profile of the incoming freshman class, and other items associated with organizational innovation, quality, and growth. They especially like to highlight what their schools are doing that others aren’t doing as well or at all. It’s good public relations because we, the public, look at this information as indicants of leadership, quality, and impact.

What’s missing?

Generally vacant is an emphasis on how colleges and universities are making the world a better place, doing things like helping to reduce poverty, enhance environmental quality, and improve human health.

Generally vacant is an emphasis on how colleges and universities are making the world a better place, doing things like helping to reduce poverty, enhance environmental quality, and improve human health. Also underemphasized is how higher education functions as a model social institution. That includes matters like compensating women and men equally for performing the same job, increasing faculty diversity, being an environmentally sustainable campus, and encouraging open discussion—even debate—about institutional priorities and directions.

It’s not as though none of that happens on America’s campuses today. It does. It’s just that it doesn’t happen as frequently or as extensively as it should. Why? That’s simply not the way most colleges self-evaluate; how colleges are compared; and how we—the public—evaluate collegiate excellence.

Most of us never stop to consider how “good, better, and best” is evaluated in higher education. We accept standard indicants mindlessly—student/faculty ratio and the percentage of the faculty who hold doctorates, and the like—because we’ve been told that’s how you measure excellence. And while college mission statements ALWAYS include references about students-becoming-good-citizens—as well as many other ways that schools contribute to the public good—campus leaders aren’t generally evaluated on such things as increasing the number of undergraduates who engage in community service. Instead, they’re judged by such things as increasing the level of alumni philanthropy.

We need more than “just talk” in this country about higher education functioning as a responsible and responsive social institution. We need to make it a priority—tracking and reporting results regularly—just as we measure and report on things like “the average GPA of the incoming freshman class.”

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Why does higher education privilege certain things and not others? One answer is self-focus: schools take an organization-first approach. What ensues is “Advance and Protect the Brand,” “Beat the Competition,” and “Be #1.” Battles between schools that used to be waged on athletic fields only are now fought ubiquitously—for students, faculty, grant dollars, and donor dollars. Positioning dominates.

At the core is an insidious urge: for all schools to mimic “the university.” That’s the gold standard because it’s where status and prestige reside. It’s even happening at community colleges, of all places. A national trend includes dropping “community” from the name, asking faculty to conduct research, and offering 4-year degrees.

Elitist generally bests Populist in today’s higher education, even at many public schools. The public good isn’t tossed aside entirely, but its heartbeat wavers—sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker—as higher education tends to its own needs first.

The predominance of self-interest used to be higher education’s inside secret. No more. Today there are lawsuits, activism, media attention, and—with all of that—growing public awareness. Here are three examples.

Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill students, initiated an effort to address the matter of campus sexual assaults on the UNC campus. After experiencing insensitivity and inaction at their school they launched a national movement. One result: the U.S. Department of Education is now involved more extensively in campus oversight, including releasing the identities of 55 schools that are under Federal investigation.

A student group at Stanford University, Fossil Free Stanford, led an effort that culminated in a decision by the university’s board of trustees to divest coal companies from the school’s endowment portfolio. Stanford’s investment portfolio is one of the largest in the country, estimated at nearly $19 billion dollars.

A number of initiatives have been launched to change how the NCAA—the governing body of college sports—does business. In one case Northwestern U. football players filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to classify big-time college football players as employees. Among other things the athletes seek a voice in athletic governance, want stipends to cover the full cost of college attendance, and want lifetime health and medical insurance to cover football-related injuries. The petition was affirmed in an initial ruling by the NRLB regional director. NU appealed and the matter is now under review at the national level.

Activists are pushing higher education to act like a social institution—to do what’s right for people. Shouldn’t that be expected rather than demanded?

The examples share a common theme: activists are pushing higher education to act like a social institution—to do what’s right for people. Shouldn’t that be expected rather than demanded? Of course, but it’s not happening enough and as extensively as it should. Instead, higher education seems lost in narcissistic urges—self-absorbed—focusing intensely on the administration of itself. Consider what Lawrence Wittner reported recently in The LA Progressiveover a 15-year span American higher education added 10 times more administrators than faculty members.

A number of analysts attribute the problem to neoliberalism—a philosophy and practice that has Western society in its grip. Neoliberalism subverts the expression of a caring ethic by interpreting actions—individual and organizational—as cost-benefit transactions. Rational judgment drives choices—to prefer this over that—based on an assessment of relative returns associated with taking various actions. In neoliberalism just about everything can be monetized—and often is.

Neoliberalism explains why “academic managerialism”—that is, taking a corporate approach—is so dominant on American campuses. Being an esteemed academic used to be the pathway to executive academic roles. That’s not always so on American campuses today—places where political ties, fundraising acumen, and Washington- and NYC-based experiences count a lot. It also explains why faculty promotion reviews tend to evaluate colleagues on such matters as grant money received and publications produced. And it explains why students are now viewed generally as “consumers.” Colleges compete to attract students (especially out-of-state students who pay higher tuition) by offering upscale dorm accommodations, 4-star food services, and the like.

You can argue that none of this “is all bad.” That’s true. And you can make the case that legislative indifference has played a big role—by restricting financial support for public higher education. That’s true, too. But let’s face it: higher education has settled where it is largely by choice, not by neglect. To lay blame externally would be misplaced concreteness.

At issue is whether that settling place serves society well—in ways that society not only deserves, but so desperately needs. I, for one, think not.

Where does that leave us then? It’s back to balance.

A well-known assertion is “We need to run this place like a business!” That assertion meshes well with understanding higher education as a business. “What business are we in?” vThat question gets at higher education as a social institution.

Balance between higher education as business and higher education as social institution is achieved when the assertion (from an industry frame) and the question (from a social institution frame) are considered equally and acted on simultaneously. Approaching things that way represents a “both-and” outcome: it befits higher education’s historic underpinnings as social institution and enhances its viability in today’s competitive world (as industry).

Approaching higher education that way also makes it possible to consider loftier questions—and in a manner they rightly deserve: What’s the purpose of higher education? What’s a college education for? 

Achieving balance as described here won’t be easy because we (individually and as a society) seem hardwired on the industry side. However, gaining a better estimate of higher education’s worth to America depends on taking a much more balanced approach than we do today.

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It would also help rebuild the public’s trust in a hallowed, but tarnished, institution.

Frank A. Fear