A Marketplace For Higher Education

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A diversity of approaches is the best solution to universities’ dilemmas.

Do you go to college to learn or to get a job? Some argue that college is about acquiring tangible skills; others that learning how to think is more important. Of course, a binary answer is unlikely to be correct. Today, higher education institutes like Stanford are places of liberal education, technical training, research, innovation, businesses, investors, employers and creditors; producers of professionals; residences; and also community centers. At any given time, administrators must choose how to allocate resources among these competing priorities. In order to make this conversation productive, it is necessaryto determine what exactly universities are bound to provide to students, andto realize this great diversity of options is exactly how the system as a whole can learn and improve. In light of the protests towards creating “safe spaces” that are allegedly more productive for students, it is important to recognize that such a model has the best chance of success in a system where universities serve diverse purposes: that is to say, where safe-space policies and emphasis on freedom of speech is pursued in a variety of ways. It is within this market system that new ideas and approaches to the university can be introduced, tested, refined, and – if successful – disseminated.

Even if the goal of all universities were to focus solely on undergraduates’ experience, it would be challenging to build a model that suits all students, much less one that serves the entire university population, which includes future lawyers, medical doctors, and business professionals; thinkers and doers; and academics, who are searching for answers to complicated questions. Universities may offer different models, or approaches to academics, such as night or online classes or certificate programs, depending on whom they serve – from undergraduates to full-time employees to veterans. The variety of options, from small liberal arts colleges (such as Swarthmore) to online degree programs (like those offered at Arizona State University), strengthens the higher education system across the country. The diversity of each individual institution’s purpose bolsters the overall learning environment, just as the diversity of learning methods at university – from lectures to labs to hands-on training – helps each individual student.  By having institutions with a variety of missions, approaches, and populations, individuals have choices as to which institution is best for them.

The subsequent contract between university – a place of education and academia –  and student should rely on learning outcomes and knowledge gained. If students pay a university for an expected quality of education, the student should demand specific resources that allow them to achieve that goal, such as professors who are able and willing to deliver. Other relevant factors such as faculty to student ratios, whether courses are taught by professors or graduate students; research opportunities, and academic support are available to students even before they step onto the campus. Current students also shed light on the matter through social media, websites such as Rate My Professor, formal course evaluations, and informal conversations.

With a little research, each student can make a reasonable judgment over the environment of inclusion and determine if a university environment aligns with their personal values. To attract and retain students – their investments –  and to maintain their competitive edge, universities will be incented to adopt values that students deem significant to their learning experience. A perfect example is happening right now on Stanford’s campus with the Haas Center. As students are demonstrating more interest in giving back to the community, Stanford is pioneering this pathway, both through its own resources and through its partnerships with peer institutions, to make community service a priority.  

When a student decides to attend a university, the student is then held liable for maintaining academic excellence and holding themselves to certain agreed upon standards (like an honor code). As with any investment, it makes sense for the university to spend time and resources into developing this investment by increasing the chance of retention and graduation among its students. Thus, most residential undergraduate universities have programs to support students identified as at risk academically – such as underrepresented minorities, low-income students, or first generation students. Universities where the majority of the population commutes, where classes are based online, or where all the students are uniquely focused on one area of study (such as a conservatory), may invest more in class registration and scheduling, new virtual learning methods, or attracting the top professors than other potential investments – from community building to sports facilities. However, universities that choose to prioritize items irrelevant to their customers, like their students, will have to change their methods or risk losing business.

Positive change is worth striving for. But it is also important to understand that diversity is the reason our higher education system is strong, evolving, and constantly improving. Striving to reform all universities into a single model gives us no chance to establish what works and what does not for different students. Institutions try out new models and ideas on campuses in order to disseminate what successful measures are worth pursuing and abandoning strategies that are not serving their mission – whether that be for professors, young undergraduates, adult learners, commuters, or anyone else served by the university.

Photo credit: Mark Ramsay

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