Higher Institution of Learning

What ivory tower? A consumer mentality is boldly reshaping the college

Walk onto a college campus today, and the scene is frequently one of sunny prosperity. Enrollments are up. So are endowments, courtesy of a skyrocketing stock market. Recent building sprees have peppered traditional ivied quadrangles with luxurious new dorms, trendy cafes, and workout facilities.

It's a long way from most people's notion of the ivory tower, that quiet, ascetic place for learning apart from worldly cares - where drab dorms and all-nighters reading Nietzsche are part of the experience.

But steadily, in places where tweed and timeless discourse once set the tone, a new model is taking root: the business world.

Efficiency is a mantra. Less-popular courses get the ax while administrators lavish attention on flashy facilities that will attract students. Recruiters fund chairs ("The K-Mart Professor of Marketing"), or employ students as researchers.

Students, meanwhile, formally rate the abilities of their professors, scrutinize cutting-edge athletic facilities, and calculate whether tuition outlays will redound to them in the form of future earnings.

It's the "gold-plating" of the ivory tower. And to many observers, it represents a profound - and disturbing - shift. College, they argue, is becoming less about learning and far more about money.

"What has been called the 'consumer mentality' in higher education has become more important over the last decade," says James Engell, a professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and the co-author of a forthcoming book about the life of the mind in an age of money.

What's in it for me?

A key factor fueling this emphasis on student satisfaction is astronomically high tuitions at most four-year colleges. "As the price [goes] up, people say, 'I've got to get my money's worth, and the way I get my money's worth is a capacity to do work - the return really has to be in terms of gainful employment," says Robert Zemsky, a professor and director of the Institute for Research in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

High prices have also prompted a sense of entitlement. "When you pay $33,000 for a very sketchy education (because you don't spend much time in class anymore), you have a different attitude toward the people who run the university," says Alvin Kernan, senior adviser in the humanities at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in Princeton, N.J., and the recent author of "In Plato's Cave," a memoir of his 50 years in academia.

Professor Kernan was a student at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., during the late 1940s, where he paid a yearly tuition of $450. He says his education was a "gift - from those who controlled it unto those who did not yet have it." Nowadays, he complains, "it's just another consumable that you bought and paid for."

The new sense of education as an economic transaction has created a new power dynamic between faculty and students - and students are more frequently in the driver's seat. Numerous Web sites, for example, now allow students to rate their teachers, often uncensored. This "puts pressure on untenured faculty, whose future can be affected by such evaluations, to provide something that large numbers of students find entertaining," says Andrew Delbanco, Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in New York. "It's as if students have bought a ticket to a show and want to be sure that they get their money's worth."

The outcome, critics say, is a system that discourages tough grading and makes letters of recommendation meaningless, since they're geared to pleasing a student - and avoiding a complaint. And it's shaping institutions of higher learning that are more focused than ever on keeping the customer satisfied.

A technology transformation

Change, of course, is a given in any dynamic institution. Many schools have reinvented themselves to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body and a world that technology is rapidly reshaping. Universities should not be static, observers say, nor is efficient management a small issue in the face of high tuitions.

Colleges "are now all enterprises in a highly competitive market," Professor Zemsky says. "We now live in a world where we no longer get to define quality or the nature of education. There's been a dispersion of power away from the faculty towards the consumer."

The revolution in technology - allowing students to study via computer from any location - is also driving the shift. Residential colleges probably won't disappear ("Camps for advanced adolescents are always going to have a market," Zemsky says) but a lot of learning will be done over the Internet.

That, in turn, will further alter the profile of a typical college student. Already, the majority of those attending college today are no longer between the ages of 18 and 22. Older students often have more- pressing needs for immediate financial return when they graduate. As a result, they draw up a specific agenda - which rarely prioritizes pondering Plato.

Trouble bubbles up, though, if schools are tempted to lessen or abandon their role in helping students shape an education that will serve them well in the long run. "When whatever it is that students want becomes the whole of what the institution wants, or consistently overrides other concerns, then the institution has abdicated its educational leadership," Professor Engell says. As a result, universities become a mere "service industry."

No more humanities?

Already there has been a winnowing down of liberal-arts courses and majors. Between 1970 and 1994, according to Engell, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded rose by 39 percent. During the same period, three majors jumped in popularity by up to tenfold: computer science, protective services, and transportation and materials moving (geared toward jobs in shipping, for instance). Majors in health and public administration tripled, and business management doubled.

At the same time, the number of majors in English, history, foreign languages, philosophy, and religion has declined.

Similarly, on a recent PSAT, when high school students were asked to name potential majors, only 9 percent indicated an interest in the humanities.

"One of the most discouraging things is that, without exception, those areas of higher education which have succeeded the most in the past 30 years follow at least one of three criteria: Either the area promises - sometimes falsely - higher than average lifetime earnings; or the area itself studies money; or, it receives money from outside grants," Engell says. "If a field has satisfied one of those three criteria, it has grown and flourished. If it has not ... it has suffered."

Just why today's students are so interested in money-making majors and jobs is a question that baffles many educators, especially given flush economic times.

"25 years ago, one didn't really worry about what one was going to do after college until senior year," says John Boyer, dean of the undergraduate college at the University of Chicago. Today, "students are becoming more goal-oriented...."

At Chicago, there's been a "general movement away from the university as a cloister," with students taking on internships and getting involved in programs outside the school, Dean Boyer says. And while there have been positive repercussions - such as more students getting involved in community service - Boyer also warns that colleges devoted to the liberal arts need to keep a close eye on this trend.

"We believe that the best preparation for life is a broad liberal-arts education.... To the extent that we value these ideals, we don't want to educate people for the first 30 days after college," he says.

Last stand of the 'dead white males'

Still, leaders at the prestigious liberal-arts schools may face a growing need to balance the practical knowledge students demand with the analytical skills they believe students need.

Indeed, the University of Chicago witnessed a number of recent skirmishes over just this issue. In June, their president, Hugo Sonnenschein, announced his resignation after a controversial tenure in which he trimmed the core-curriculum requirements and made room for the development of less-traditional courses. He also devoted funds to a new sports complex and a renovated student center.

Yet such changes barely scratch the surface of what universities may have to do to survive in the 21st century. "If you're really an enterprise in a market, you've got to think about product development," Zemsky says. "The real winners will be those institutions that essentially say, 'Twenty percent of our revenue will go into new product development.' "

Still, that shouldn't come at the cost of the university's traditional educational purpose - which is not only academic, but social. If universities are "geared to a sense of personal material fulfillment first," Engell says, "we will lose some of the important aspects of college education which have bound us together as a society."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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