John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Meaning of the Market Mantra and the Road Less Traveled, Part 2

Drew Koch
Vice President for New Strategy, Development, and Policy Initiatives

Thorstein Veblen pointed to a market-based orientation in American higher education shortly after the turn of the last century – and by this, I mean the nineteenth-to-twentieth century – in his 1918 classic The Higher Learning in America: a Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men. He went so far as to claim that American postsecondary institutions were not institutions of higher learning in the European sense; they were institutions of higher professional training. 

This business connection existed well before Veblen wrote his work. In fact, it dates back to the very founding of Harvard, when the decision was made by that institution’s founders to create a corporate board – a structure very different from the boards that governed the then fledgling College’s European counterparts.   

But despite this long history of corporate connection and ethos in higher education in the United States, it strikes me that there is a difference between what occurred in the near 350 years since the founding of Harvard to the late 1970s, and what has occurred in the last three decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first.  Governing boards and institutional policy makers once combined the requirements of “piety” (or mission) with corporate interest/concerns. It strikes me that now, in the current era, corporate concerns have been too heavily substituted for mission. Profit and prestige are piety. There is no longer an effort to achieve balance. 

Balance is the key word here.  If what I am asserting is correct – and if what Schultz and Lucido have found in their report is accurate – then in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, public policy efforts associated with higher education (and the institutional initiatives that have risen as a result) are largely out of balance.  They assume that the market is perfect – that meeting the needs of the market is a maxim.  It is my belief that efforts to make higher education an individual as opposed to a public benefit – a legacy of the Reagan era – miss a key point. Individual skills are used and rewards garnered in a public sphere. And it is this public mission that is being ignored or relegated to the side.

Replicating what Schultz and Lucido did at the end of their report for the enrollment management profession, I am using the last elements of this post to list some questions for readers to consider if they have comparable thoughts and views about the direction of higher education’s mission in the contemporary United States.  To this end, I encourage readers to consider the following.

When are market needs and institutional mission one-in the same, and when are they at odds with each other?

Does it matter if institutional missions and values (on one hand) and market needs (on the other) are out of balance?

What does it mean to balance market and mission needs at your institution at this time in your institutional and our national history?

If better balance is needed, how is it achieved?  What is the plan?  Who needs to be involved at your institution and beyond? 

In my view, it is a productive use of time for members of the higher education communities and the broader constituencies they serve – including, but not limited to, the business community – to ask themselves and find answers to these and comparable questions.  In today’s climate, it may seem like a road less traveled. But it could very well make all the difference . . . .

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