As part of a movement toward more open discussion of the challenges and opportunities for higher education, I’m going to post a few of the reflections I’m writing for class here throughout this semester.
Many believe that the marketplace has overtaken state government as the dominant external force shaping (and reshaping) American higher education, even for public colleges and universities. As noted earlier, government support is not keeping pace with educational expenditures. Thus in many ways, the market is having more bearing on higher education than government. (Eckel & King, 2004, p. 15)
The shift away from state government funding across the country has often necessitated a rise in tuition and fees for students (Eckel & King, 2004). This change in the dynamic of who is funding education has also led to universities pressing for increased independence, so as to make changes to better meet market pressures. Such changes may include adjusting academic programs to accommodate changing employer needs and potential students’ perceived needs; increasing the size of programs in fields like engineering and business; or increasing research in areas of demand. Potential students, tasked with paying for an increasing share of the cost, have also started to view education as a financial investment that should have a commensurate return (Hensley et al., 2013). Concerns about opportunity in an era of increasing income inequality (Gould, 2019) make the stakes of this investment higher. This change also ties into a re-emergence of viewing education as primarily fulfilling vocational and competency-based purposes (behaviorist perspective), rather than one of whole person growth (liberal arts and humanistic perspectives) or social improvement (critical perspective) (Elias & Merriam, 2005).
I find this shift concerning because it pushes universities to prioritize in ways that may short-change education and ultimately not serve students’ and societies’ better interests. Students can see how learning to code would lead to a job but complain about taking humanities courses that do not offer as clear an outcome. Yet experts such as Michelle Baker (2018), the Executive CEO of Mozilla, argued that in the light of how new technologies unmoored by ethical considerations have negatively impacted the world, ethical frameworks should be included as part of a new wholistic STEM education model. In international education, the shift to a market-based perception of education has also led to some students increasingly viewing study abroad as a consumer service that should include all of the amenities of home, and should allow them to avoid the discomforts that may be endemic to a particular location (Ogden, 2008). However, avoiding the discomforts of study abroad also often means avoiding the opportunity to grow, wherein the challenges of embodied immersion into another culture lead to greater understanding of self and others.
The shift toward a consumer mindset, even in states like North Dakota where higher education remains relatively well-funded at the state level, is a challenge. Universities around the country need to recruit students, balance academic freedom against economic demand, and create new systems of cooperation across campuses. As we face these changes, wrestling with the questions of what we think the purpose of education is, how to best reshape systems into serving those goals, and how to communicate the value of such systems to current and potential students is one that I am hoping to discuss more in my class this semester and across campus.
Baker, M. (2018, December 19). The way we teach STEM is out of date. Here’s how we can update it. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/12/hacking-the-stem-syllabus
Eckel, P. D., & King, J. E. (2004). An overview of higher education in the United States: Diversity, access and the role of the marketplace. American Council on Education.
Elias, J. L., & Merriam, S. B. (2005). Philosophical foundations of adult education. Krieger Publishing Co.
Gould, E. (2019, March 27). Decades of rising economic inequality in the U.S. Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/decades-of-rising-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s-testimony-before-the-u-s-house-of-representatives-ways-and-means-committee/
Hensley, B., Galilee-Belfer, M., & Lee, J. J. (2013). What is the greater good? The discourse on public and private roles of higher education in the new economy. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 35(5), 553-567.
Ogden, A. (2008). The view from the veranda: Understanding today’s colonial student. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 15, 35-55.