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Combating the Commodification of Higher Education | Inside Higher Ed

American higher education has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the United States’ entrepreneurial, market-driven system of health care.

Institutions of higher learning, like health care providers, vie aggressively for resources, prestige and customers (whether patients or students) within highly competitive marketplaces. Extreme stratification, in reputation and resources, characterizes both the health care and higher education sectors.

Institutional competition, in turn, strongly incentivizes 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 one another in terms of facilities, amenities, breadth of programs and even food.

But intense competition also discourages most schools from radically diverging from established norms lest they narrow their appeal by appearing eccentric, odd or struggling. At first glance, American higher education appears to be extraordinarily diverse, consisting of liberal arts colleges, research-oriented institutions, public and private, urban and rural campuses, religious colleges, military academies, seminaries, technology institutes, commuter and residential campuses, and online providers. All true.

Yet most campuses share certain common elements, including credit hours, fixed-length terms, standardized start dates, distribution requirements, department-based majors, letter grades and more.

Conformist pressures, however, create opportunities for alternative providers who target unmet needs and underserved markets. In medicine, these includes urgent care centers, for-profit emergency rooms, boutique and concierge practices, and specialized clinics and treatment facilities. In higher education, alternatives to business as usual include the mega online providers, 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 provided by traditional colleges and universities too costly or time-consuming or insufficiently career-focused.

The top health centers and higher education institutions have acquired richly deserved reputations for excellence and innovation. Yet in both sectors, significant numbers of potential beneficiaries remain poorly served. Indeed, the free-for-all higher education marketplace has transformed the GI Bill, which once offered an international model for the democratization of access to higher education and college’s ability drive upward social mobility, into a funnel that channels all too many veterans into for-profit institutions with exceedingly poor outcomes.

Highly entrepreneurial, marketized systems of higher education and health care are exceedingly vulnerable to scams. In the absence of rigorous oversight and regulation, quacks and charlatans exploit opportunities for profit. Higher education’s counterpart to overtreatment, overprescription and overdiagnosis in the health realm are the many master’s and certificate programs and other certificate offerings with uncertain or even negative payoffs, in clear violation of the gainful-employment rules that are supposed to ensure that graduates attain incomes that allow them to repay their debts.

In a recent article in EdSurge, Jeffrey R. Young reminds us about a prescient 1997 essay by the late David Noble, a noted historian of science and technology, who condemned the rise of “digital diploma mills,” online institutions more interested in enrolling as many students as possible at the lowest possible cost than in providing a quality education or a degree with genuine value in the job market.

These institutions, Noble argued, had abandoned a collegiate ideal that rested upon students’ close interaction with professors in favor of a model that rested on the mastery of a fixed body of knowledge and skills.

But the larger problem that Noble identified—the commodification of higher education—was not confined to online providers with their narrow curricula, cookie-cutter courses and alternate 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, credential providers and commercial enterprises.

Their students are customers and human capital to be developed. Faculty members and departments are incentivized to be as entrepreneurial as possible. Campuses are increasingly valued politically as drivers of local economies and of regional economic development and as incubators of basic and applied research. Learning, far from being developmental or transformational process, is increasingly viewed as transactional and equated with passing the requisite 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 above learning?

After all, isn’t a college education supposed to be the very opposite of a commodity, stressing instead intellectual seriousness, mentoring, community, dialogue, discovery and personal growth?

My own view is that it is indeed possible to provide a transformational, developmental, 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 members, dedicated advising, special seminars, rich research opportunities and a wealth of co-curricular and extracurricular activities, are confined to a small subset of the undergraduate population.

How can we scale such opportunities? Here are a few suggestions.

Karl Marx had a term to describe those 19th-century communitarians, like Charles Fourier, John Humphrey Noyes, Robert Owen and Henri de Saint-Simon, who strove to create cooperative communities inside capitalist societies. He called these visionaries “utopian socialists” and dismissed their dreams as fanciful and unrealistic.

In fact, however, some of their communities lasted for decades and, more than that, 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 rid of status hierarchies and exploitation.

There’s nothing utopian or original about the kinds of community-building initiatives that this post proposes. If we want to combat the commoditization of higher education, just follow these steps, which are eminently doable.

All implementation requires is the will to create campuses where every student has a community to call their own.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

This content was originally published here.

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