This post features a case study, to read the full article, download the report here.

In 2006, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings made the following statement in her report on the future of higher education:

"What we have learned over the last year makes clear that American higher education has become what in the business world would be called a mature enterprise: increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive. It is an enterprise that has yet to address the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy. It has yet to successfully confront the impact of globalization, rapidly evolving technologies, an increasingly diverse and aging population, and an evolving marketplace characterized by new needs and paradigms.

History is littered with examples of industries that, at their peril, failed to respond –or even to notice- changes in the world around them, from railroads to steel manufacturers. Without serious self-examination and reform, institutions of higher education risk falling into the same trap, seeing their market share substantially reduced, and their services increasingly characterized by obsolesce."

The Spellings Commission was severely criticized for being ‘hostile’, ‘harsh’, politically motivated, and as an ‘attack’ towards the noble institution of higher education. Some critics argued that the Spellings Commission was simply misguided: Higher Education was not a business and did not operate as such, and is thus exempt from the patterns associated with a traditional business. Treating it as a business with market shares and consumers was devaluing its major role which is largely uneconomic. A university is not comparable to a steel manufacturer; it is its own categorical entity.

We can spend much time and detail assessing the validity and potency of the Spellings Commission; however, I would like to draw attention to the nature of the dispute. The Spellings Commission’s big concern around institutes of higher education was that they were not living up to the expectations surrounding such organizations.

The Spellings Commission expected that the university was an institution similar to a business where it offered certain goods and services to a sector of the populace, and as such, had a responsibility to continually innovate upon the access, quality, and purpose of its services based upon external need and demand. Its critics thought that was unreasonable, because their expectation of what higher education was, was more an independent and sovereign microcosm of networks and ideas, cultivating time-tested traditions regarding the advancement and enculturation of an internally controlled knowledge base.

The Spellings Commission stated that higher education was ripe for change and disruption, because it currently was not fulfilling its purpose. Many of its critics believed that the university was very much aligned with its purpose and had a unique model that couldn’t be compared to other organizations.

The Spellings Commission was not the only circumstance that invited this heated debate and controversy surrounding the issue of education. There is currently taking place a global awakening on the issue of higher education, especially its access, affordability and value. Academic journals, investigative journals, blogs, conferences, and especially the popular press have been adamant about exploring whether the higher education industry is in crisis.

“Colleges and Universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for students than they should. Many students graduate college today without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers…reason clearly, or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems”ii

Derek Bok, former President, Harvard University

“For most of the twentieth century our educational system has been built on the assumption that teaching is necessary for learning to occur. Accordingly education has been seen as a process of transferring information from a higher authority (the teacher) to the student. This model, however, just can’t keep up with the rapid rate of change in the twenty-first century. It’s time to shift our thinking from the old model of teaching to the new model of learning.”

Douglas Thomas, Associate Professor, University of Southern California

“Close to 60 percent of Americans believe that the country’s colleges and universities are failing to provide students with “good value for the money they and their families spend,” according to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center”

Nicholas Carr, MIT Technology Review

Each of these illustrates a different complaint of the higher education system, and a different dimension upon which higher education seems to fail. Institutes of Higher Education also have the capacity to argue back; they claim that they do provide learning, competency, industrial relevance, and accessibility, but disagree on whether it is their responsibility to ensure that all students enrolling in their institutions take advantage of the opportunity structure.

This debate has spilled over to constituents and stakeholders outside of the education industry. Policymakers, politicians, corporations, parents, all have some stake and power to exercise upon the issue.

In April 2013, Oklahoma State Representative Mike Reynolds made headlines when he sent the following email to fellow lawmakers:

“It is not our job to see that anyone gets an education. It is not the responsibility of me, you, or any constituent in my district to pay for his or any other person’s education. Their GPA, ACT, AS[V]AB, determination have nothing to do with who is responsible. Their potential to benefit society is irrelevant.”

So just what is the job that must be done and which institution is responsible for doing it?

Let us attempt to extract these responsibilities from the opinions highlighted above: Margaret Spellings implies that it is the responsibility of the university to be innovative, accessible, and relevant. Derek Bok claims that the university is responsible for providing writing, non-technical, and analytical competency. Douglas Thomas thinks that universities should be imaginative and bounded environments that promote new learning. Nicholas Carr implies that universities must provide a good return on investment to the parents and students footing the bill for higher education.

Is a University responsible for all of the above? None of them? Some and to some extent? What extent? Who decides the extent?

I propose that at the heart of the conflict surrounding higher education is a misalignment of expectations and priorities. There is a lack of consensus on just what a University is, and what higher education stands for. Each stakeholder has their own perception about what higher education is and what responsibilities lay upon their member institutions. The crisis occurs when multiple stakeholders determine that the university is failing to accomplish the purpose they expect from it.

In this paper, I assess and analyze how different stakeholders define and describe a university, and what their priorities and motivations are. I use financial and resource-based discriminators to characterize different types of institutions in order to make a more objective claim regarding their heterogeneity, and make inferences about how that changes our definition of a university. By the end of this paper, we should have a comprehensive understanding of the nuances of defining an institution, as well as an appreciation for the gravity of the task. We should have formed opinions about some ways to define a university and why it is important to do so as soon as possible.

This post features a case study, to read the full article, download the report here