The College Consumer of 2020

Ah – the start of school! Vanderbilt’s campus – lazily rustling with baggie-eyed grad students these last four months – suddenly explodes with fashionable hairstyles and textiles, and textbooks (that heavy undergrad accessory, casually tucked in the nooks of inner elbows). The undergrads apply heavy mascara and hair products in the age-old mating ritual of young people about to be thrust into classrooms full of new possibilities, some less academic than others. (Grad students such as myself are, of course, utterly impervious to all such vanities.)

In the midst of budding academics, I settle lightly on a soft leather library chair to read a report projecting the American college freshman class of 2020.

The main implication of the report is that students will demand more job training, more on-line options, and more flexibility. For-profit schools like The University of Phoenix will gain popularity, while traditional schools will have to transform to maintain funding.

The key word of the report is demand. Both as in “supply and demand” and the demand of someone who wants something, as in, “Drop that pedagogy, and give me a degree! Watch out – I’ve got a loan!” In this projection, students are primarily consumers. And, the report suggests that the university must reshape its product to their desires.

My question is whether 18 year olds know enough about their needs to justify reshaping college requirements and methods.

Like many of its students, American higher education has long struggled with an identity crisis, and the question marks often look a lot like dollar signs. What are colleges and universities for – Providing social mobility? Training future employees? Raising moral individuals? Forging thinkers? Developing dialogue? Preserving culture? Cultivating citizens? Generating research? Creating revenue? Integrating? Separating? Classifying? Deconstructing?

The answer – at various times and various institutions – is yes.

But, with all these questions about what the university is, I wonder how we’ll know if the university ceases to be the university. I have nothing against job training, of course. I want my engineers to know their engineering and I want my accountants to know their finance. I have nothing against using the internet for education. It’s an astounding medium for information and communication. Flexibility is great – I love my evening classes that let me have an un-interrupted workday. These things have their place in the character of higher education.

But, I wonder how much these demands are not really a matter of what students need, but what they want. Are we changing because of pedagogical reasons, or financial reasons? If the university’s decisions come from the accountants rather than the professors, the revenue generators rather than the librarians, I wonder where the academics end up.

The hard truth is, learning is challenging. School is tough. And, sometimes the 50 year old professor knows better than the 18 year old student what she needs to learn and how she needs to learn it. Citizens, senators, mothers, fathers, and future CEOs need to learn some things which are not going to be covered in job training. The university shapes its society. If the university becomes willing to reshape its goals for the sake of money, rather than institutional goals, will it produce citizens who do the same? When is the university bending so far that it breaks?

The job training, the internet, the flexibility, even the student voice aren’t what worry me; there is a place for those in the responsible college or university. What troubles me about a consumer-driven university is both what it will produce in students, and what it will fail to give them: Is the graduating class of 2024 going to be spoiled rotten by being indulged? And, what will they never learn because nobody sat them down and said, “You need to know this”?

American higher education has withstood a lot of identity shifts, but I don’t see how it can withstand the shift of becoming consumer-oriented instead of student-oriented.

At the same time, the need for revenue is hard to overcome. Schools can’t operate without funds, and I have no suggestion for how to raise money such that colleges and universities can keep from compromising to the point of selling out.

Image via Wikipedia.

  • Timothy Lloyd Motte

    Wow. This is powerful. The last paragraph saddens me because it is true.

  • David Nilsen

    I go back and forth on this all the time. On my particularly insufferable snobbish days I want higher education to return to the time when it was all about quality and passing on the shared wisdom of the West, but then I remember that such a model pretty much requires that fewer people go to college. I don’t think any responsible person (especially a Christian) should actively work to keep people away from education.

    As it is, I’m tempted to say that it’s OK if college loses some of that quality and wisdom (since college today is the Victorians’ 8th grade anyway), so long as Graduate schools continue to maintain higher standards (and basically takes the place of what used to be college). But then we’re just pushing the problem back a step, and how long might it be before we have a consumer-driven PhD market?

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