Education for Everyone

Nonprofir Higher Education

The new vocabulary of customers and stakeholders, niche marketing and branding and winner-take-all, embodies this change in the higher education “industry.” This is more than a matter of semantics and symbols, because the vocabulary of business reinforces business-like ways of thinking, as saying here It’s each department a “revenue center,” each student a customer, each professor an entrepreneur, each party a “stakeholder,” each institution a seeker after profit, whether in money capital or intellectual capital.

Opting out of the fray by fleeing the market is not a realistic possibility. Any school that adopted the Thoreau-like position that, in education as in the design of a mousetrap, quality is all that matters would be courting self-destruction. Elite schools are ever vigilant, lest a rival steal an edge (or a professor or major donor). Prestige is the coin of the realm among these institutions; and since prestige is a scarce commodity, the losers will always far outnumber the winners. “To an extent rivaled perhaps only by the market for trendy nightclubs,” writes economist Robert Frank, describing what he calls a “winner-take-all” market, “higher education is an industry in which success breeds success and failure breeds failure.”


Even as higher education has become more stratified at the top, it has also become more universally available. Proportionately more high school graduates continue on to college and many more students are returning to school after having been in the workforce; together, these two groups account for much of the continued growth in higher education enrollment. On the lower rungs of the academic ladder, the competition is for dollars and bodies, not prestige. The less selective and non-selective schools attended by more than four American college students in five vie to fill classroom seats, resorting in the extreme to “Priceline. com”-type discounting and hiring firms that make cold calls on prospects. The new generation of for-profit schools on which this conference focuses is oriented to this segment of the market. The best of these schools, such as DeVry, Phoenix and Argosy, bear no resemblance to the old “matchbook” trade schools; and while the for-profits enroll barely two percent of all students, they have been able to cherry-pick the most lucrative fields. No one is warring (at least not yet) over prospective English majors. It’s Phoenix versus University of Texas-EI Paso for business students, DeVry versus University of Northern Illinois for software engineers. Moreover, the for-profits have figured out know how to clone themselves without sacrificing quality, something that traditional universities neither know how nor want to do, and they have also been adept at using the Internet for competitive advantage.


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