No Two Alike

Third in a series on why U.S. Universities are great

U.S. universities have traditionally held to the concept of mission differentiation.  Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, cemented this idea into state policy through the 1960 California Master Plan.  Different missions define free choice, roles, and expectations for all:  faculty, students, and families.  Focus creates variety and a range of service to students.  Kerr’s vision helped define the Carnegie Classification System, the gold standard for defining university type and mission.  

The general definitions fall into these categories:

Community colleges offer associates degrees and have value for workforce preparation and low-cost transfer to senior institutions for students so motivated and able.

Colleges, four-year liberal arts or technical in mission, whether public or private, prepare students for extensive general education and continued graduate study, or the workplace respectively.  Typically, they are smaller and residential, but that is changing.

Regional and Comprehensive Universities offer masters degrees but not professional degrees and doctorates.

Research or Doctoral Universities include state flagship universities, land grants, and elite private schools.  Within this group, there are subsets:   very high research, high research, and doctoral.  These distinctions in mission help students and parents select a good fit for study.

These classifications comprise an element (apples to apples analysis) of most ranking systems worldwide, including the popular U.S. News annual review.

Holding onto these legitimate differences is important but challenging, especially when coupled with striving to meet local and regional needs.  Too many institutions suffer from Harvard Envy regardless of classification or mission.  This is the genesis of mission creep, driven by marketing and competition for fewer students prepared for college work to address increasing costs.  “Creep” turns into intentional misrepresentation; my mother would call it lying, when a regional institution compares itself to a state flagship or an elite private.

Overstated institutional offerings create confusing aspirations for parents and students, demean the higher education enterprise, and regrettably lead to real and perceived ineffectiveness.  That is why institutions such as “Trump University” can live, if only for a season, but are effective enough to steal money from unsuspecting people and, equally or more damning, rob confidence from post secondary education generally.  That “university” is not just Trump’s tragedy, but also a national affliction, a canary in the coalmine of higher education’s mission.

Kerr’s conceptualization of the three-tiered “layer cake” of California higher education included three distinctly different institutional types, each with unique purpose to meet different needs.

The 10 University of California campuses are research universities, highly competitive in faculty and student recruitment.

The California State Universities, there are 23, were conceived as Masters institutions intended to provide education up to the Masters degree but specifically excluded by The California Master plan from offering doctoral ( typically the PhD) or professional degrees (such as law, medicine, and some education and other professional practice areas).  Now, Cal State offers 63 doctorates; 31 in education, 10 in health related fields, and 22 PhDs.

The foundation layer on Kerr’s cake was the California Community College System.  There are 113 of them currently.  These are open-access low-cost institutions originally tuition-free by state mandate for any resident of California to begin workforce preparation or baccalaureate studies at the community college level.  They now charge fees.  Additionally, Fifteen California community colleges now offer bachelors degree in a range of fields, usually to prepare workforce-ready technical graduates.

Why and what happens?

The high regard around the world for University of California campuses results from mission specificity.  All institutions suffer when each tries to be everything to everyone as a means of survival, rather than as a focus on academic excellence.  A teaching degree at a community college that is 20 miles from a senior institution diminishes the effectiveness of the community college in attaining its primary mission and undermines the value of the senior institution.

The clarity of mission is the foundation of influence for American higher education.  The traditional grounding in pragmatism and an understanding of purpose seems lost in the current conceptions of agency, representation, envy, and myopia.  Thoughtful appreciation of diverse missions, to avoid creep towards a one-size-fits-all model, is vital.

Meeting the needs of 21st-century students requires the celebration of different missions and purposes.  In addition, as with universities, no two students are alike.

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