Is Higher Education Too Snobbish?

I have had the privilege of earning degrees from private, religiously-affiliated institutions. I would not trade my education for any other experience higher education can offer. The curriculum for each followed about as traditional a sequence of the liberal arts dating back to the latter half of the 19th Century. This is the kind of education I want my kids to have. All things being equal I would hope all people could benefit from such an experience.

But with tradition can come a snobbishness towards innovation.

Innovation means change. Change hurts no matter the outcome. Change in the traditional liberal education can strain the system because it can uproot the core tenets of that education. Uprooting education from that core can disrupt, in Burton Clark’s terms, its organizational saga.

Does it matter where students participate in that tradition?

Yes. If we look at the surge in private higher education in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union dozens of private institutions emerged. However, without any regulation these institutions were literally diploma mills. Student would graduate with diplomas that, unbeknownst to them, were completely useless and without any merit. There is a moral danger in education if an institution sells a degree to a student that will offer no real opportunity for upward mobility in either the job market or in education itself.

However, for-profit education isn’t going anywhere and will continue to produce graduates and will continue to improve its legitimacy in higher education. No matter how much our old brick and mortar institutions resist and fight that intrusion, it is far past the tipping point.

Companies such as Blackboard, Pearson, and Coursera will continue their push in the very systems of traditional education. Sungard has done this to the point of building institutional infrastructure. We cannot leave out the massive influence of the publishing and textbook industry. For-profit threads have been in the very fabric of higher education for quite a while.

These influences are almost like a growing virus. The student may be largely immune to that virus as they have been exposed to it their entire life. The faculty, on the other hand, is not only susceptible to that virus, but also acts like white blood cells seeking to attack it from the inside in order to protect the system.

Higher education needs to continue to study why students, and their parents, are becoming immune to for-profit influence in higher education. While students want to be a part of an organizational saga, the cost of that membership can determine if it is worth it. The patterns of how students choose their post-secondary education are changed. All the while cost for a for-profit education is now going down.

The attitude of “we are better than they just because we are” or relegating students who select a for-profit institution to a second-class tier is the kind of snobbishness that higher education cannot afford.

I said above that change hurts. In fact, that is not completely true. As the Buddha taught so very long ago, change is necessary. What hurts is resistance to it. Finding the balance between the traditions of the past that work and the changes in the present is, as it always has been, the challenge.

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