American higher education has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the entrepreneurial and market-driven health care system of the United States.
Institutions of higher education, like health care providers, compete aggressively for resources, prestige, and customers (whether patients or students) in highly competitive markets. Extreme stratification, in terms of reputation and resources, characterizes both the health and higher education sectors.
Institutional competition, in turn, provides strong incentives for 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 each other in terms of facilities, amenities, programs, and even food.
But intense competition also discourages most schools from drastically deviating from established norms, lest they reduce their appeal by appearing quirky, quirky or struggling. At first glance, American higher education appears to be extraordinarily diverse, made up of liberal arts colleges, research-oriented institutions, public and private, urban and rural campuses, religious colleges, military academies, seminaries, institutes of technology, suburban and residential campuses, and online providers. All true.
Yet most campuses share some common elements, including credit hours, fixed durations, standardized start dates, distribution requirements, majors by department, letter grades, and more.
However, conformist pressures create opportunities for alternative providers who target unmet needs and underserved markets. In medicine, this includes urgent care centers, for-profit emergency rooms, shops and janitorial offices, as well as specialty clinics and treatment facilities. In higher education, alternatives to business as usual include online mega-vendors, 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 offered by traditional colleges. and universities that are too expensive or time-consuming, or insufficiently career-focused.
The best health centers and institutions of higher education have earned a well-deserved reputation for excellence and innovation. Yet, in both sectors, a significant number of potential beneficiaries remain underserved. Indeed, the free-for-all higher education market has transformed the GI Bill, which once offered an international model for democratizing access to higher education and the college’s ability to foster upward social mobility, into a funnel that funnels too many veterans into – for-profit institutions with extremely poor results.
Highly entrepreneurial and commodified higher education and healthcare systems are extremely vulnerable to scams. In the absence of strong oversight and regulation, charlatans and quacks exploit opportunities for profit. The counterpart of higher education to overtreatment, overprescription and overdiagnosis in healthcare are the numerous master’s and certificate programs and other certificate offerings with uncertain or even negative payoffs, in clear violation of paid employment rules that are supposed to ensure that graduates attain incomes that allow them to repay their debts.
In a recent article by Ed SurgeJeffrey R. Young reminds us of a prescient 1997 essay by the late David Noble, a prominent science and technology historian, who condemned the rise of “digital degree factories,” online institutions more interested in enrolling so many students. as possible at the lowest possible cost than providing a quality education or a degree with real value in the labor market.
These institutions, according to Noble, had abandoned a collegial ideal that relied on close interaction of students with faculty in favor of a model that relied on the mastery of a fixed body of knowledge and skills.
But the larger problem identified by Noble — the commodification of higher education — was not limited to online providers with their narrow curricula, cookie-cutter courses, and alternative 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 degree providers and business enterprises.
Their students are customers and human capital to be developed. Faculty members and departments are encouraged to be as entrepreneurial as possible. Campuses are increasingly valued politically as drivers of local economies and regional economic development and as incubators of basic and applied research. Learning, far from being a process of development or transformation, is increasingly seen as transactional and equated with completing the required 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 over learning?
After all, isn’t a college education supposed to be the opposite of a commodity, emphasizing instead intellectual seriousness, mentorship, community, dialogue, discovery, and personal growth?
My own view is that it is indeed possible to provide a transformational, developmental, and 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, dedicated guidance, special seminars, rich research opportunities, and a host of co-curricular and extracurricular activities, are confined to a small subset of the undergraduate population.
How can we scale these opportunities? Here are some suggestions.
1. Empower a number of individual teachers to organize thematic cohorts.
In return for overseeing a community of learners and offering a special credited seminar, offer these faculty members a modest stipend and student engagement funds.
2. Create a wide variety of cohorts to serve students with different interests.
Some cohorts might emphasize research, and not just laboratory research, but qualitative, data-driven, archival research. Other cohorts might focus on community service, civic engagement, or the arts. Still others might be career-focused, emphasizing business, computing, health fields including nursing, law, public policy, and technology. Then there may be cohorts that are “maker” and project oriented. The aim is to integrate as many students as possible into a community of interest.
3. Recognize active participation in a cohort program with special designation on student transcripts.
Students deserve to be rewarded for their participation in a cohort program and their involvement in the activities should be recognized by the institution. A transcript notification acknowledges their programmatic engagement.
4. Develop opportunities for students to interact with faculty.
Students who establish educational relationships with faculty members outside of the classroom do better academically. Additionally, professors who know students personally are able to write stronger letters of recommendation.
Lunches or informal group meetings are great ways for undergraduate students to get to know a faculty member outside of a classroom and learn about graduate study and research opportunities, internships and scholarships. The gain far outweighs the modest cost.
5. Showcase the research and creative accomplishments of undergraduate students.
Celebrate undergraduate research and faculty-supervised art projects with poster sessions, short oral presentations (two or three minutes), and student and faculty panels. A showcase offers students the opportunity to communicate the importance of their research and creativity to a wide audience. It also gives them the opportunity to hone 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 vision, inventiveness, ingenuity and passion of the students.
Karl Marx had a term to describe these 19e communitarians of the century, such as Charles Fourier, John Humphrey Noyes, Robert Owen and Henri de Saint-Simon, who strove to create cooperative communities within capitalist societies. He called these visionaries “utopian socialists” and dismissed their dreams as fanciful and unrealistic.
In fact, however, some of their communities have lasted for decades and, more than that, have 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 free from hierarchies of status and exploitation.
There is nothing utopian or original about the types of community development initiatives this publication offers. If we want to fight against the commodification of higher education, all we have to do is follow these steps, which are entirely achievable.
All that implementation requires is the willingness to create campuses where each student has their own community.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.