Published on 2013/06/07

Strength of Character: The Unique Good of Higher Education

Strength of Character: The Unique Good of Higher Education
Universities’ and colleges’ ability to produce strength of character is what differentiates higher education from any other product in the marketplace.

Recently, the question surfaced: “What makes education, as a ‘good,’ unique compared to other goods or services?” The question also asks, is education a good or a service? In economic terms, a good is a tangible object, a product that can be touched, tasted and taken away from the point of purchase. A service is a process consumed at the point of purchase. Examples of a pure good are an automobile or a book, while a service might be a massage or a concert. These are pole points on a continuum; in the middle, the distinction blurs.

“Unique” adds nuance to the question, for it means literally one of a kind. A thing can’t be “kind of” unique because it is either one of a kind or it isn’t. Thus, is education a good or a service and, in either case, is it unique?

In the emerging age of the digital university, this is not an idle question, for many institutions’ survival depends upon how they identify that which can’t be digitized. Answering that involves two components:

1)      Identifying the benefits derived from higher education

2)      Defining what might be unique about those benefits

Higher education’s benefits can be categorized along a number of continua: public versus private; monetary versus non-monetary; and tangible versus intangible. For this discussion, tangible versus intangible is a proxy for goods versus service. Immediately, it is apparent education is primarily a service, parts of which have some tangibility. What parts are tangible, or, what parts can be taken away and used again and again? As it turns out, perhaps only one part of an education is tangible: the information (content) transfer component, which consists of facts, data and skills. The content transfer component, however, is scarcely unique. It is easily digitized. Numerous web sites and software packages can provide a user with the date of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, an explanation of the argument between Sir Thomas More and Henry VIII, the economic definitions of a good and of a service, and even the definition of the quadratic formula complete with a demonstration of its use.

So, if higher education’s tangible information/content is not a unique benefit, what are its intangible benefits? These might be classified along a continuum of ‘micro,’ ‘macro’ and ‘meta’ — from the very specific to the very intangible; from that which can be partially digitized to that which can only, with difficulty, be digitized to that which can’t be digitized at all. In this context, ‘micro’ does not mean little but, rather, specific. ‘Micro’ skills are abilities one acquires as a result of information transfer; for example, for an accountant, how to balance a spreadsheet. These skills are almost, but not quite, tactile and they are literal and well defined. They represent more than mere information, but, being specific, are not easily generalizable to other activities.

Less specific are higher education’s ‘macro’ intangible benefits, such as the ability to solve problems, to think critically, to communicate both orally and in writing, to work in teams (sometimes more deeply acquired outside of the classroom in team sports, band, student government, campus service organizations, etc.) and to accept personal responsibility for one’s actions.

Lastly, higher education’s ‘meta’ intangible benefits emerge from assuming the aforementioned responsibility for one’s personal outcomes. Once upon a time, it was called character education. For a while, it went out of fashion, but it is the one thing higher education does that cannot be digitized.

Is it unique? No; few things in life are truly unique. Character is formed at home, at work, at play and in the military. One does not need college to be a person of character. But if society wants citizens of character and responsibility, one of — maybe the — most efficient routes to that end is the support of higher education. Study after study of its benefits demonstrate college graduates — in particular, residential college graduates (and even those who only attended but did not graduate) — have greater intellectual, artistic and critical thinking skills, civic mindedness, marital stability, self-esteem, more successful children, greater ethnic and gender tolerance and so on than their non-college counterparts.

So, as colleges and universities seek to find their way in the emerging world of digital universities, they ought to focus their energies on those activities which, while not unique, can’t be digitized and at which they are uniquely good: producing people of character.

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Readers Comments

Eugene Partnoy 2013/06/07 at 1:01 pm

I am not convinced by Roth’s reasoning that the ‘meta’ intangible benefits of higher education cannot be digitized. When we talk about digitized education, we are simply describing a new learning environment. Roth himself argues that character can be developed in different environments, for example, at home or at work, in addition to being developed at school. What’s stopping people from developing strength of character in this online environment, then? For example, MOOCs, which accept enrolments from around the world, give students a chance to develop greater ethnic and gender tolerance when they interact with global classmates.

    Andrew Roth 2013/06/16 at 5:36 pm

    Actually, I agree with you in part, but call me sentimental because I still think there is something of value in tactility — without it, for example, there would be fewer of us: think about it for a moment. So, the benefit of virtually crossing geographic and cultural lines is not to be denied, but unless we envision a world of social isolates nothing has the impact of f2f encounters — it’s “real”, so to speak. See Turkle’s “Alone Together”.

Lucas 2013/06/07 at 3:42 pm

Roth presents good food for thought. I’m inclined to agree with his analysis that there are few remaining benefits higher education institutions offer that can’t be digitized, and that institutions should focus on those in order to retain their place in the higher education marketplace. I would be interested to read more about the studies that draw this link between strength of character and college attendance, particularly, the residential college experience. I found it particularly interesting that even non-completers seemed to take away some of these benefits.

    Andrew Roth 2013/06/16 at 5:28 pm

    See Pascarella & Terenzini’s “How College Impacts Students” and also The Carnegie Commission’s 1973 study “Who Pays, Who Benefits, Who Should Pay”

Madison Riley 2013/06/07 at 4:08 pm

Like the commenter above, I was intrigued to read about the studies Roth describes that show the intangible benefits of higher education. If what they show is true, this means adult students are at a disadvantage, since they are unlikely to be traditional, residential college students. This begs the question: what changes need to be made in order to ensure adult students receive the same intangible benefits as traditional-aged students for attending college?

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