Commoditization Lessens the Value of Higher Education to SocietyTom Castle | Dean of Adult Programs, Mount Mercy University
What is the value of a college degree? Politicians and pundits seem very concerned with this question, particularly in light of our current budget challenges and economic performance. While the answer to this question has always been difficult, the reason for asking it seems to be evolving. The privatization of higher education, fueled by tremendous competition from the for-profit world, appears to be pushing the market toward a low-cost, commoditized industry model. The result is a marketplace that values low-cost providers over institutions that are differentiated based on unique missions and academic distinctiveness. Educators should attempt to redirect this conversation from the low-cost, corporate approach toward a focus on exceptional educational quality that has served this country well for many years.
One of the challenges of the low-cost approach to higher education is we push the market toward a consumerist model that focuses solely on individual, private benefits of a college degree. By doing so, we become overly concerned with only the financial return to the individual student. Many lawmakers prefer to steer government towards privatizing higher education, because it would then shift most financial responsibilities onto individual students. This philosophy assumes the benefits of a college degree are only realized by the individual, and this line of thought completely ignores the social benefits of an educated society. Research has clearly demonstrated a college degree increases an individual’s earnings potential, which directly increases tax revenue and economic contributions. Further, a college-educated person is less likely to be incarcerated or require social services such as unemployment benefits. Thus, government investment in higher education has direct and measurable benefits to our society in addition to personal benefits.
Further privatization of higher education would have devastating economic effects because only those who could afford to pay privately would attend college, leaving the less privileged to fend for themselves. This approach would deepen a growing economic divide, while increasing unemployment, crime and public expenditure on welfare. The United States cannot afford to reduce spending on higher education, because the result would spiral our government expenditure out of control. Legislators simply cannot lose sight of the devastating consequences of an undereducated society.
In the past few decades, we have seen a significant shift in government support for higher education away from federal grants and towards more student loans. While the total dollars allocated to higher education has increased, students have been asked to take on much more of the burden (loans) while government has reduced its investment (grants) in students. As we move the burden of paying for higher education onto the individual student (privatization), we risk diminishing the value of education as a public good. This shift results in a corporate approach to higher education, with an emphasis on lower cost (commoditization). Unfortunately, the resulting corporate educational structure seeks to gain efficiencies in course delivery and instruction, often at the expense of faculty, who are generally responsible for maintaining academic quality.
Higher education has traditionally been considered one of the most successful industries in the United States, with scholars from across the world migrating here to earn their college degrees and to engage in cutting-edge research. Led by the highest-quality faculty, U.S. colleges and universities engage students in scholarship, with the goal of developing critical thinking and learning skills that will serve them for a lifetime. Under the commoditized educational approach, colleges and universities train students for jobs. While this might be more efficient in the short run, shouldn’t we expect more from our institutions of higher learning? I urge policymakers to keep investing in higher education not just for the benefit of the students enrolled today, but for the benefit of our society tomorrow.
Author Perspective: Administrator
I agree that we can’t forget the public mission higher education institutions have in addition to what they might provide for the individual student. What I’m afraid is getting lost in this increasingly commoditized industry is the research mission of public institutions. Research gets a bad name because it conjures up the image of a group of elites, sitting in their ivory towers, publishing unintelligible jargon in obscure journals. But research is actually a vital function of the university, as it provides much-needed knowledge and innovation to solve real-world, pressing issues in our nation, such as transportation, healthcare and so on.
While I agree with Castle that a more educated population makes for a better society, I don’t agree with his understanding of what constitutes higher education. Not all education has to take the elitist, liberal-arts view of the world. At the end of the day, it’s not the ability to analyze Socrates that leads to less crime in society; it’s the fact that more people are employed. What’s wrong if a higher education institution just trains people for jobs? That’s what community colleges have done for years, and they’ve produced many well-adjusted, high-functioning members of society. Harvard grads, on the other hand, usually serve me my morning coffee.