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The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality and the Risks of the Market

reviewed by David Allyn - 2005

coverTitle: The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality and the Risks of the Market
Author(s): Frank Newman, Lara Couturier, Jamie Scurie
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787969729, Pages: 284, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

Sometimes I fear for higher education in America, private and public. Leaders and faculty members of private colleges often sound woefully out of touch with—and coldly indifferent to—the day-to-day concerns and economic anxieties of parents and students. College students, who, unlike their professors, do not have tenured jobs, spend their undergraduate years hoping and praying that it will all pay off come graduation. Yet many administrators and faculty members at elite liberal arts schools speak as if the only students who truly mattered were the ones who would gladly shell out $100,000 for the pure privilege of learning for learning’s sake (even if that means taking classes with professors who don’t want—or know how—to teach). Students who worry about their grades, who major in subjects that might have practical advantages after college, or who question the value of a liberal arts education in a market-oriented economy are looked upon as interlopers in the academy. They are considered little better than the ultra-rich ones who are content with their Cs and their future careers on Wall Street.

At the other end of the spectrum, public colleges and universities seem like grim institutions in which economic concerns pervade every aspect of life—from how students select their courses, to how architectural decisions are made, to staffing and purchasing. The net result is a morose atmosphere in which short-term pragmatism prevails and the great questions—“What is true?” “What is beautiful?” “What is good?”—have little if any place. For almost 2 years I have lunched regularly in the cafeteria of a public community college in Newark, New Jersey, and never once have I heard someone discuss a book she has just read, a class he has just come from, an idea she is interested in. “College” for these students (and the faculty members who must teach them) is barely anything more than four additional years of high school.

It should hardly come as any surprise that Americans are beginning to doubt the legitimacy of American higher education. Business leaders, for instance, are beginning to question the worth of a college degree. (What does a degree mean, after all, if students are wholly unprepared for the realities of the workplace?) Ivy League and other prestigious schools are producing students saddled with debt—and parents who wonder if it’s really worth the cost. Financially limited students who dream of attending top-tier colleges have almost no way of competing with children whose parents can afford to pay thousands of dollars for SAT prep classes, private admissions coaches, and after-school tutoring—and are losing faith in the fairness of the supposedly meritocratic admissions process. Faculty members themselves have started to notice the vast sums spent not on research or teaching, but on amenities designed to attract students—athletic centers, single-bed dormitory rooms, video game rooms—and have started to grumble about the selling of academe’s soul. Even more significantly, the public has discovered that more and more university researchers are prepared to forgo scientific objectivity for corporate financing of their research.

The Future of Higher Education is a calmly written, cool-headed response to this precarious situation. The book summarizes the findings of The Futures Project, a Brown University–based endeavor to address the problems facing college and university administrators and the governmental policymakers who consider it their job to fund, yet also regulate, higher education. The book has three main aims: to serve as “a wake-up call to the leaders of our colleges and universities” (p. xii) about the dangers of allowing unregulated free-market capitalism to set the agenda for institutions of higher learning; to provide policymakers with research data and viable solutions to the current problems posed by the free market; and to convince those inside and outside the academy that the “public purposes” of higher education should not be overlooked or undervalued.

The authors argue that the marketplace is having, and will continue to have if it isn’t dealt with proactively, a disastrous impact on higher education. They are not for or against marketplace competition as such, they are merely acknowledging its reality. As others have noted, competition for students and for prestige is transforming the way colleges and universities understand themselves. For one thing, many colleges are now claiming to be universities (because the term university sounds more prestigious). This alone shows a minimal respect for accuracy on the part of administrators (and a “university” without a respect for accuracy is hardly a university at all). But this is only the tip of the ivory tower. Schools are also shifting funds from need-based aid to merit-based aid, a move that is designed to attract the best students (and, once again, boost rankings and prestige) but has the unintended and deeply troubling consequence of making college less accessible to low-income students.

If these two developments alone were not disturbing enough, schools are now spending vast sums on amenities appealing to 18-year-olds (fancy athletic centers, dormitories with single rooms) that might go instead to financial aid, faculty salaries, efforts to improve teaching, research, etc.

But the biggest and most alarming fact of all is the growth of corporate-university partnerships, specifically, partnerships that jeopardize the objectivity of researchers and research results. University-conducted studies are increasingly suspect because the contracts that fund them dictate what can and cannot be published. University scientists have become pawns in a corporate war for profits.

Without intervention and appropriate state regulation, the authors assert, institutions of higher education will continue to succumb to the pressures of the market. This seems irrefutable. The rise of for-profit universities, the globalization of higher education, and the explosion of Internet learning are forcing universities to compete in ways they were never designed to do. This competition is throwing academia’s priorities out of whack, undermining the credibility of America’s universities, and endangering the noble spirit of higher education.

So, what to do? First of all, the authors stress that it is foolish for educators at private schools to pretend that the market can be ignored. It is not going away, and its effects are only going to intensify with time. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton may be able to ignore the growth of the market, but few other schools can. And even the most prestigious, most elite schools are succumbing to the competitive ethos. Witness the recent revelations that Princeton admissions officers had broken into Yale’s computer systems to scope out the competition (Jordan and Becker, 2002).

The rise of the market is causing those outside the academy to question the legitimacy of what goes on in its ivied halls. There is simply no denying the fact that the nation’s colleges are decades behind in teaching methods. Professors are still lecturing (often in a monotone), and students are still sitting still, taking notes. For decades researchers have been showing that real learning requires active engagement with the material being studied. The evidence is so overwhelming—and the logic so obvious—that it is now commonsense outside the academy. But professors have refused to change their ways. Collectively, they have said, “We don’t care what students learn. We’re here to do research. We teach because we have to in order to get paid.” Presidents and trustees have been cowardly about touching tenure, mouthing the party line that freedom of inquiry is in constant jeopardy. (This isn’t the place for a full review of the arguments against unregulated tenure. Suffice it to say that the presidents and faculty members of private universities have shown no interest in even engaging in a dialogue about potential alternatives to the current system, a system that actually discourages good teaching.) Until recently, they could get away with this. But now business leaders are realizing that even online schools can be more effective at educating students than traditional colleges and universities. In an online “classroom,” students who would never raise a hand in a lecture hall of 400 students find the courage to ask questions and make comments. Surely it’s only a matter of time before a Yale degree becomes suspect: “And what did you learn sitting in the back row of the lecture hall one hour a week for English 307?”

The truth is that the nation’s flagship universities have invited marketplace competition by being ridiculously slow to respond (in some cases downright hostile) to calls for better teaching, requests for better use of technology, pleas for measurement and evaluation of actual student learning, demands for greater efficiency, and requests for support for elementary and secondary education. This latter is no small matter. Elementary, middle, and secondary schools have been in crisis for over 2 decades now, but academics outside of education schools couldn’t act less concerned—or less interested in trying to help solve the problem. (Professors are, after all, desperate to distinguish themselves from teachers. The mind-body dualism of Judeo-Christianity is alive and well in the academy’s attitude toward teaching. Teaching is messy and hands-on, research is pristine and pure.) But the “don’t tread on us” attitude of America’s most prestigious universities has played into the hands of those who would sell a bachelor’s degree to the highest bidder. For-profit universities are more than willing to market their services to education districts desperate for reform strategies. It won’t be long before such for-profit universities have the kind of loyalty among school district officials that militant Hamas groups—who’ve swept in to provide basic services undelivered by the Palestinian National Authority—now have among young Palestinians.

Newman et al. know that academics are a touchy bunch, and they state many times throughout the book that Americans are proud of their universities and consider them the best in the world. But make no mistake, this pride is waning: “The level of concern that business leaders have been expressing is now close to what they have put forward for some time about elementary and secondary education” (p. 72). That is no small statement. Americans may forgive academics in the humanities their rarified and seemingly ridiculous arguments over how best to approach a text, but they don’t have much patience for wastefulness, inefficiency, and/or laziness. “In general, business leaders . . . feel that universities and colleges, and their faculty, are hiding from any meaningful measures of accountability. They feel that faculty and administrators don’t take responsibility for the efficiency of the institution and refuse to recognize the need to address escalating costs. Nor do they take responsibility for results” (p. 72).

How elite universities will respond to this critique from the business world remains to be seen. Newman et al. offer suggestions—some obvious and some innovative—for reversing the current trend toward irrelevancy. On the more obvious side, they urge universities to create clearly defined outcomes for student learning, to document and systematically assess student learning, and to reward faculty members who take student learning (i.e., teaching) seriously. These changes alone would revolutionize higher education at private colleges and universities. As the authors write: “What is surprising is not that that there are flaws showing up regularly in the quality of student learning. It is amazing that the teaching process works as well as it does, given that almost never are the results measured and given that faculty who take the time and trouble to establish effective modes are not rewarded—and in real terms are often penalized” (p. 140). But an even more provocative suggestion is the creation of a national competitive grants system for teaching. The current system of competitive grants for research did not arise organically over time. It was invented by academics and government agencies working together in the aftermath of World War II. The authors propose that academics and public officials could create a similar, peer-reviewed system of competitive grants for teaching.

The problems facing public institutions are quite different than those facing private ones—even if marketplace competition is still at the root of the issue. (As a side note, the authors do an excellent job of enriching the private versus public distinction, pointing out that few schools are funded exclusively with private funds and just as few receive solely public monies. Still, for the purposes of everyday discussion, the more simplistic distinction is easier to manage.) Administrators at public universities feel bogged down by government regulations and think of themselves as being at the mercy of state legislators. Newman et al. agree that regulations are a problem, but mainly because the wrong matters are being regulated. They propose a rethinking of the regulatory process so that it will serve the public good. At a minimum, they recommend decentralization and increased autonomy for schools themselves. But they propose more structural changes. Offering several examples of successful re-regulation, the authors suggest turning public institutions into public corporations (like the University of Maryland system) or charter colleges (like St. Mary’s College and the Colorado School of Mines). Both of these institutional structures are designed to give schools more say over decision making while at the same time ensuring the fulfillment of obligations to society as a whole. The keys here are “mission agreement” and “performance accountability.” Public institutions and public officials need to agree upon the mission of educational institutions, and there need to be measures of success in accomplishing the agreed-upon mission:

The forms of accountability typically used now do not work well, and a one-size-fits-all solution will never be right for higher education. Instead, individual agreements that describe an institution’s unique contributions, and how that institution will be held accountable in a way that is flexible, customized, and mutually acceptable, is the right choice for the future. (p. 133)

Both private institutions and public ones are failing to serve low-income students. And the authors of The Future of Higher Education see this as one of the gravest problems of all. The good news is that it is probably the easiest problem to fix, given that a sense of social responsibility does still linger in the academy. Some of the authors’ recommendations—“draw more students into the higher education experience through outreach programs” (p. 176), “create a supportive and welcoming campus environment” (p. 176), “improve transfer and articulation policies” (p. 177)—are ready-made for eager and idealistic deans. But the more substantial recommendations—“align the preschool, elementary, secondary and higher education systems through P–16 programs” (p. 177), “ensure and improve the availability of need-based financial aid” (p. 176), “encourage or mandate the assessment and reporting of learner outcomes” (p. 178)—will take a commitment to the public good on the part of higher education’s key constituencies that is currently missing.

All in all, The Future of Higher Education is an important and forward-looking book. It is shot through with optimism and faith in the good will of higher education leaders and public officials. But it clearly makes the case that, absent creative action, the market will continue to take its toll on American higher education, private and public. Once upon a time, American universities were nothing compared to those of England and Germany. If the leaders of America’s institutions of higher learning could think creatively enough and take enough risks to transform that situation, they can certainly consider the recommendations of The Futures Project and transform the current situation at hand.


Jordan, Elise and Arielle Levin Becker (2002). Princeton officials broke into Yale online admissions decisions. Yale Daily News. New Haven, CT: July 25, 2002. Available at: http://www.yaledailynews.com/article.asp?AID=19454.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1488-1494
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11782, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 3:39:10 PM

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About the Author
  • David Allyn
    New Jersey SEEDS
    E-mail Author
    DAVID ALLYN, Ph.D. is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy at Columbia University. He holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History from Harvard University and is currently the Associate Director of Special Projects for New Jersey SEEDS, a nonprofit educational organization serving high-achieving, low-income students.
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