Our University – Privatization

University leaders decry the idea that universities are becoming more like private enterprises, seeking increased fees, grant support, philanthropic dollars, and auxiliary incomes to make up for the relentless loss of state funding over the past few decades. 

Even more perplexing and frightening to some leaders is the recent report from the U.S. Department of Education that just six years ago 33% of students enrolled in private colleges were enrolled in for-profit universities as opposed to traditional private universities. Today, 50% of the students in private universities are enrolled in private for-profit institutions. 

Fortune 500 companies pay for employees to get degrees.  Increasingly, they are doing that at for-profit online universities…no football, no marching bands, no scientific equipment, few Pulitzer Prize winners or members of the national academies, not a chess club or a debate team.  With that sacrifice of university tradition, corporations gain employees who have specific skill sets of value to the enterprise.

Why is this trend startling, and why is it occurring?

Higher education has openly commoditized the degree and its attainment.  Now, the profit motive has moved on campus where only public support, tuition and fees, research, philanthropy, and ever-expanding auxiliaries existed before.  Public universities that try to be all things to all people will fail as quality and mission are sacrificed for broad market appeal.  

Leadership is shocked.

They thought the state would always support them; after all, they are an arm of the state.  In reality, state government can only protect the very best, the big flagships, and the very cost effective; the community colleges or the mission specific and relentlessly focused mid-major institutions. 

Swimming in cold water with sinking state support is startling.

If a university wants to serve the underserved and in order to do so must keep state support high, and tuition, fees and other costs low, things must change.

New wine won’t work in old wineskins; economic Darwinism prevails. 

What has made the private-for-profits so successful is that they have left the beanies, the goldfish swallowing, the football homecomings and the raccoon coats behind in favor of a slate of courses compiled into a degree.

The accreditors and the state houses have bought it, and so is the buying public in ever increasing numbers. 

The trend will continue.

In the for-profits there will be no philanthropy; it is unnecessary with a focused business plan.  Scholarship will dissipate, new knowledge abounds but it must be effectively transferred.  Research universities on the state trough, with the high costs associated with them, will subsidize the new knowledge required for the for-profit institutions to teach, at lower cost and asynchronous availability.

Auxiliary services like housing and food, bookstores, and janitors or grounds keepers will be shed like old socks. Remember: students take their courses at the dining room table or in their bedrooms, order pizza for home delivery, and mow their own grass.

The University of Phoenix bought the naming rights for a football stadium and left the team, coaches, students and alumni behind.  Next, this campusless university will underwrite a symphony.  They don’t need a team or an orchestra.  And they are not mindlessly trying to be all things to all people.  Businesses focus, or go broke.

John Heywood said in 1546, “wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?”, or, as we say in 2010, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”.

If the high-contact, high-interaction, high-deliberation, high-reflection high-challenge environment of the university are deemed important, a powerful electron microscope, scholars who are household names, a good football or basketball team and the facilities to support them and rigorous, merit-based admission and hiring standards without equivocation or apology are foundational. 

These aspects of university life are not bought or bargained for, but built and bred.

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