Search This Blog

Monday, October 01, 2007

Higher Education

I am working on an advance degree right now. The experience has led me to think quite a bit about the whole notion of higher education. For centuries, institutions of higher education (colleges and universities) have been some of the most revered in our society. They've been the centers of thinking. Often the core of thought leadership comes from them. Some of the more prominent, such as Stanford or Harvard, are known for the number of entrepreneurs, or politicians that they turn out.

The world has flocked to the west's institutions of higher education. Notre Dame, Cambridge, and other non-U.S. institutions are equally prestigious. Have you ever visited these campuses? I spent some time studying at Wharton in Philadelphia. The campus is old, and traditional. I also spent some time studying at Cambridge. That was such fun. Buildings hundreds of years old. People commuting on bicycles (even in the rain). Steeped in tradition. One just has the sense that you're doing something great when you're on these campuses. Even ultra-modern Stanford has a campus that is beginning to exhibit that special quality of tradition and history. You just know you're studying among the greatest people on earth.

Okay, so here's the rub. I'm starting to notice something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I'm not sure who the culprits are or how you would weed them out. But if you venture into the higher education world today, you find some things that don't seem so special. They don't seem like anything associated with greatness. They seem to have lost their way. I'm talking about how these institutions of higher learning are being commercialized. (There's that nasty word!)

It's long been known that colleges and universities capture some of the biggest dollars in philanthropy. Wealthy millionaires (even billionaires) will leave mass fortunes to their good ole alma mater. These endowments go on into perpetuity, with the interest and investment income they generate funding key positions in the schools. Meanwhile, the net wealth of the schools themselves grows to unfathomable proportions. Do you know the wealth of Harvard? Stanford? Yale? It's substantial ... and growing. The thing is that these institutions of higher learning have become more adept at capturing philanthropic dollars than any other organizations on earth. No social service organizations, medical organizations or even governments can compete. So the money continues to flow into them.

In addition to philanthropic dollars, the schools have naming rights. Branding is fast becoming big business for them. We see their "brand" all over the place. And recent news articles have talked about the phenomenon of schools branding their own credit and debit cards. Some even force the students to do business with these cards --- and then take a fee out of each transaction. So the schools are learning quite a bit it seems about selling and mining dollars off of the fact that they just exist. They're asking commercial questions, business questions, such as, "How can we further exploit and leverage our position?" Most wouldn't take exception to this in any other venue. But in institutions of higher learning, it somehow seems different, maybe less appropriate.

Probably the most obvious financial concern in institutions of higher learning are the simple costs that they just blatantly charge their students. ID cards, books, parking fees, dorm fees, tuition, registration, application fees, lab fees, participation fees, and other fees are spiraling out of control --- at least according to some parents you read about. If they need money, it would seem that the schools are having no problem just demanding it from those that they serve. By the way, just who is it that they serve?

Today's biggest phenomenon may be the advent of on-line or distance learning. Want to really get confused? Look at studying on-line. The plethora of offerings there is mind-numbing. It's even hard to tell which ones are real, which ones are credible, which ones offer the best education, etc. How to evaluate an education and choose your education provider becomes a pretty tall proposition. In my own research, it turns out that there are quite a number (i.e., dozens) of "diploma mills" which crank out degrees, some without even any study or life experience. Many of these look credible, so it takes some research to figure out which ones to stay away from.

Some (usually academics from older institutions) would tell you not to shortcut tradition. They'll tell you to stick with the brands. Unfortunately the brands tend to be the most expensive and the least flexible. In our new world order, is that a reasonable request to make of prospective students? What should students rightfully expect from the places where they choose to pursue their degrees? What are they trying to accomplish? Is learning the same as getting a degree? What is, by the way, the definition of learning anyway? Does learning have differing qualities?

I'm not sure of the point here yet. In other words, I don't yet know what I think. But I am thinking. My thinking is yet incomplete, but it has started. Something is changing about our institutions of higher education. I'm not sure it's all for the good either. It seems to me that this deserves a closer look. I wonder who will take a closer look and what it will reveal. Perhaps it will be me.

No comments:

Post a Comment