University: If it is broke what does that mean?

The public university systems are under a significant stress from various directions. The complaints about tuition, educational strategies, structure of the university, and curriculum controls are directed from various constituencies. The university system has over a thousand years of history, and the United States public land grant university system created by the Morrill Land Grant Acts is nearly 150 years old. Yet the pace of change for good or ill has been significant over the last 40 years. Examining the various pressures is a valuable process.

We live in a culture of credentialism. It isn’t fair. It isn’t good for society. It doesn’t even meet the basic requirements behind the principle itself. Credentialism is a form of intellectual laziness that infests human resource bureaucracies and infests the intellectual processes of people in leadership positions. Credentialism is a form of leadership risk management by outsourcing the intellectual appraisal process to a third party. The evidence acquisition process of credentialism has been passed down from higher education to the k-12 system, and then back up the education food chain. All of this has been done on the back of high stakes summative assessments (tests) that can be as much about what the examinee had for breakfast as they learned over the last 16 weeks (or 5 years). Further the credential acquisition mechanism is moving from a shared burden for the good of society to a privatized individual burden. Credentials are one area that education in America is broken. How did we seem to get here and what does it mean?

There is a couple of interesting touch points in the time line of this form of credentialism. In 1952 the higher education industry began a process to accredit universities so that they could be awarded funding for educating soldiers and sailor returning from war. There had already been systems like ABET accrediting internal university programs since the 1930s for the purposes of quality assurance and standardization. There are other points we could choose, but I’ll cherry pick a couple to walk us to the here and now. In the 1960 era university systems desired a process that was fair and equitable and credential processes at the university began instantiating evidence of student success as a requirement for university and program level accreditation.

At the same time a new loan based system for payment was put in place putting part of the cost onto the student. This represented a significant shift in the monetization model for the public higher education system. Though the private university system had always used cost as a selective barrier to entry.

As we get into the mid 1980s post Bayh-Dole the higher education establishments had a formalized process of accreditation in place and the monetization or industrialization of the education system was moving forward quickly. Bayh-Dole gave the universities the incentives to profit off their research and acquire secondary funding sources. Since the 1960s the state support of universities has rapidly eroded at significant cost to the student. Innovations like Bayh-Dole allowed universities to keep tuitions low by profiting off research, but at the resource restrictions towards the teaching mission as professors time moved towards research.

Alongside this process two separate threads began to evolve. Nearly at the same time as Bayh-Dole giving universities a revenue stream state legislators started cutting state subsidies. The personnel resource constraints were not taken into account as fiduciary structures changed. Some university systems are currently sitting at less than 20% subsidy levels. Imagine if your paycheck was cut to 1/5th the normal amount for the same amount of work, and the answer was to take on entirely new tasks to make up the difference. The impact to the university system was staggering. A secondary effect was the increased role of student loans as increased share of costs were passed on to the undergraduate classes at increasing rates. This created a boom in the education loan market and an associated boom in the private university systems. As the loan amounts allowed by the Department of Education were increased to meet the public university changing fiscal landscape the ability to make a profit off the students by for profit educational institutions also increased. Thus the rising loan valuations allowed was subsequently mirrored by a rising creation of for-profit education institutions.

In the mid 1990s as the baby busters (gen X) evaporated from the university many small universities began to close. The generational impacts and political imperatives inherent in the changes of university systems can’t be under stated. The industrial processes of automation, supply chain, and so much more were starting to be applied to the education system and at the cost of quality profit became a central motive.  The generational aspects of the academic model have created a significant set of internal pressures. Some refer to this as consumerization of higher education. Industrial education processes spawned a growing set of highly customized degree plans and growth in the larger university systems for “just the right plan of study”.  Larger centralized University systems flourished in the wake of smaller University systems closures.

As the job market evolved the requirements for science, technology, engineering and math degrees grew. Yet many of these degree plans found themselves entering the dot bomb era with fewer and fewer applicants. The dot bomb spurred a slight upsurge in applicants in computer science, but the “start up fever” tended to erode those students from the programs too.

With the increasing cost of university students felt the right to determine the course of their studies. Even though most students into the early 2000s were still only paying around a third of the actual cost of their education. Cost sharing between the student, state, federal and university still existed but was invisible as a cost mechanism to students. The rising for profit institutions, the abandonment of the apprenticeship model by big business, the increasing forces of credentialism, an academic form of gerrymandering, and socio-political forces all led to decreasing educational controls by faculty and the university administrations.

A set of accreditation innovations such as industry boards and visitor boards increased the near term applied nature of education.  On a continuum with training on one end and education on the other as you approach training the near term worth of the university intellectual pursuit increases at the cost of long term utility. Training is a short-term investment for instant industrialization at the cost of long-term principled understanding. In abandoning internal self-directed education and training programs corporations outsourced that task to the university at the students own cost. Corporations being the one entity who did not have a direct monetary investment in the education process expanded control through the misdirection of, “Who do you think is going to hire your graduates?” The fallaciousness of this reasoning is becoming more apparent as large corporations continue to reduce their employment roles.

The expectations of corporations are for utility within a specific set of experiential guidelines as described by the credentialism process. Since credentialism is highly balanced towards skills and abilities the aspects of innovations, critical thinking, and independence of thought are rarely part of that summative assessment processes in an undergraduate degree credential. This has had direct impact on various programs of study and can be seen in the current innovation and creation cycle of the university. The criticism of those outside the education system that they couldn’t innovate or invent within the education system is at least anecdotal evidence that the criticism should be taken seriously.

The public university system though is pulled in two directions. It must in this era be open to the choice of students as a consumer in their plan of study, and it must be relevant to the current needs of society. This has created examples of attainment of advanced degrees with limited traditional opportunity. There were nearly twice as many PhDs in history as there were positions in academia to fill. What is interesting is that it was much the same in 1972. As a planning mechanism we can let people choose and compete (naked capitalism) or we can coordinate and set entrance standards based on merit (central planning). People knowing that this vast gap and incredible pent up pressure exist will still choose the history degree over the opportunity of a science, technology, engineering or math degree (current reported shortages). Realizing that interest, affinity, and freedom most certainly apply to their decision it is bewildering when the newly minted historian complains that a history PhD doesn’t bequeath a job in academia.

Into this discussion of student consumerization we can add the discussion of learning models and student desires to add technology. Though also outside the scope of this discussion this is greatly a red herring.  The student-learning model has not significantly changed regardless of media attention. Though technology has adapted and moved forward there has simply not been a human leap in cognitive capacity or ability of the same magnitude. The human in the classroom is much the same as the one a 150 years ago. Technocracies have a tendency to focus on bending the human to the technology rather than the technology to the human. Much of the current focus on multi-tasking, tech-adaption, and tool use follows the former rather than the latter.

This then leaves the question is the university academic system broke and if so who broke it? Whether simply credentialism, socio-political, economic, or other symptoms are used the University sits at a crossroads. There are a variety of internal pressures that aren’t even considered at this point, and external pressures having more to do with societal/generational patterns equally not considered. The snide political motivated simplistic answers currently being discussed simply do not answer the actual question of what exactly is broke. There are lots of discussions about what is perceived to be wrong, but the evidence is socio-political commentary more than actually proving things are wrong.

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