A leading expert challenges the prevailing gloomy outlook on higher education with solid evidence of its successes
Crushing student debt, rapidly eroding state funding, faculty embroiled in speech controversies, a higher-education market disrupted by online competitiontoday’s headlines suggest that universities’ power to advance knowledge and shape American society is rapidly declining. But Steven Brint, a renowned analyst of academic institutions, has tracked numerous trends demonstrating their vitality. After a recent period that witnessed soaring student enrollment and ample research funding, universities, he argues, are in a better position than ever before.
Focusing on the years 1980–2015, Brint details the trajectory of American universities, which was influenced by evolving standards of disciplinary professionalism, market-driven partnerships (especially with scientific and technological innovators outside the academy), and the goal of social inclusion. Conflicts arose: academic entrepreneurs, for example, flouted their campus responsibilities, and departments faced backlash over the hiring of scholars with nontraditional research agendas. Nevertheless, educators’ commitments to technological innovation and social diversity prevailed and created a new dynamism.
Brint documents these successes along with the challenges that result from rapid change. Today, knowledge-driven industries generate almost half of U.S. GDP, but divisions by educational level split the American political order. Students flock increasingly to fields connected to the power centers of American life and steer away from the liberal arts. And opportunities for economic mobility are expanding even as academic expectations decline.
In describing how universities can meet such challenges head on, especially in improving classroom learning, Brint offers not only a clear-eyed perspective on the current state of American higher education but also a pragmatically optimistic vision for the future.
About the Author
Steven Brint is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside, where he directs the Colleges & Universities 2000 Project. His books include Schools and Societies, In an Age of Experts, and The Diverted Dream, and he has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Washington Post.
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The Universities Expansion Made
Even those who are not immersed in the world of higher education are familiar with the litany of challenges facing higher education institutions. We cannot avoid reading about the crushing weight of student loan debt, the dispiriting erosion of state funding for universities, the enrollment declines in the humanities, the seemingly endless expansion of the ranks of adjunct faculty. College graduates in this generation are not always surpassing their parents' standard of living, and so many bright-eyed college entrants leave their intended alma maters disappointed far before they have completed their courses of study. Indeed, passionate critics like sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab point to the food insecurity experienced by community college students and others who are merely trying to take a baby step toward realizing the American Dream. Especially when set against the cool successes of Silicon Valley, how can anyone deny that these have been some of the worst of times for American higher education?
And yet we need to recognize that despite these very real problems, the narrative trajectory of higher education as an institution is utterly different from the one these bleak pictures convey. Beyond the din of the latest protest about sexual violence on campus or the latest controversial speaker whose mere presence on campus provoked an uproar, some remarkably positive trends have left American universities much bigger, stronger, and in a more dominant position — both domestically and internationally — than ever before. I have traced the major contours of American higher education from 1980 through the present, and despite the validity of some of the gloom and doom stories we see every day, a very different picture emerges. I seek to paint this picture, not because I want to sweep the problems of higher education under the rug but to try to set these daily challenges in a broader — and frankly more positive — context.
My focus on the expansion and the growing prominence of universities will come as a surprise — perhaps even as a shock — to many higher education scholars. Higher education scholarship tends toward a deeply pessimistic outlook, and business influence is the primary bête noire of scholars. For many, American universities have come to do the bidding of corporations (Aronowitz 2000; Washburn 2000), transformed themselves into market-oriented, managed enterprises little different from corporations (Engell and Dangerfield 1998, 2005; Gumport 2000; Tuchman 2009), charged exorbitant tuition and fees that put them out of reach of those born in the bottom half of the socioeconomic hierarchy (Haycock and Gerald 2006; Mettler 2014), short-changed matriculated students on quality educational experiences (Arum and Roksa 2011), and created a caste system with low-paid instructors doing most of the teaching and senior professors focusing on their careers, research, conferences, and consultancies (Finkelstein, Conley, and Schuster 2016). Some scholars in this critical stream of thought have argued that the logic of the private sector marketplace is embedded within higher education itself; it is not that universities are directed by business interests but that they have reorganized themselves internally to reflect the market logic of business organizations (Slaughter and Leslie 1997; Slaughter and Rhoades 2004). The view of universities as manifestations of a neoliberalism run amok contains many valuable insights, but it fails to account for the continuing power of relatively autonomous intellectual practices or the dynamic forces that have given universities new prominence for their commitments to economic development and social inclusion.
To an even greater degree, a realistically optimistic appraisal of the future of universities will come as a surprise to journalists and educational technologists who think that higher education as we know it is on the verge of radical reorganization due to the rise of online alternatives (Carey 2012; Kamenetz 2010), the unbundling of practices that have little efficiency value when bundled together (Selingo 2013), and the potential of alternative credentialing systems, such as the modular "badges" promoted by online entrepreneurs (Young 2012). It would be a serious mistake to dismiss these possibilities, but they are less likely to come to fruition than their advocates suggest if higher education can take effective measures to contain the threats they pose. This containment is warranted to prevent these anticipated reorganizations from reducing the possibilities students have for a better life.
Many of the criticisms of higher education have merit. But they miss the big picture: American research universities have grown stronger, both financially and intellectually. They have done so by incorporating multiple growth logics in an interconnected and flexible way. One is the logic of intellectual advance, and it still informs the activities of most scientists and scholars. It determines many of the fundamental structures of the academy such as the centrality of academic departments and the status acquired through journal and book publication. The second is a market logic that leads colleges and universities to work with industry on new technologies, to create new applied degrees, to cultivate patrons, and to manage the enterprises in ways that are familiar to corporations. The third is a logic of social inclusion that leads universities to hold themselves out as the single best option for the members of disadvantaged groups to gain skills that can lead to upward social mobility.
These logics and the practices they animate comingle in the life of universities. The dean of the engineering school finds that she promotes colleagues who make fundamental advances, but also encourages those who work with industry and sponsors programs for minorities and women in engineering. The chair of the sociology department finds that he celebrates scholars who accumulate influence through the citation of their research, while at the same time seeking to diversify his faculty and graduate student body and adding new "self-supporting" (that is to say, moneymaking) master's degree programs in applied social statistics or human resources management. When we step back from the daily struggles that students and faculty experience, we can see that as an institution colleges and universities have found ways to maintain a high degree of autonomy while becoming ever more closely connected both to the most powerful organizations in society and to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who seek a better future. Universities have always been about peeking over the horizon. The contemporary progress-oriented score contains competing, sometimes dissonant, but ultimately compatible themes: the search for as-yet undiscovered knowledge, the pursuit of new market opportunities (most notably through economically relevant innovations and new degree programs), and the movement for expanded social opportunities.
The Argument of the Book
The argument of the book follows from these observations.
The traditional structures and purposes of colleges and universities are intended to produce two outcomes: the expansion of knowledge, principally in the disciplines but also at their interstices, and the development of students' cognitive capacities and subject matter knowledge. Colleges and universities have long embraced a large number of ancillary activities, ranging from hospital enterprises to student clubs and organizations to intercollegiate athletics. But these two objectives have remained, in principle, fundamental. During the period I consider in this book two movements hit colleges and universities with great force: one was the movement to use university research to advance economic development through the invention of new technologies with commercial potential. The other was to use colleges and universities as instruments of social inclusion, providing opportunities to members of previously marginalized groups, including women, racial-ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community. They were driven both by external parties, such as the Business-Higher Education Forum and the great philanthropic foundations, and by campus constituencies who benefited from their advance.
My argument is that these movements created a special kind of dynamism because of the strength of partisan commitments to them, backed up by high levels of patronage. The innovation movement fostered a stronger embrace of entrepreneurship; the rise of engineering and medicine as the two centers of exceptional dynamism in universities; new ideas about economic development related to partnerships between universities, industry, and government; and the creation of new high-tech clusters of firms surrounding universities. It also contributed to the growth of interdisciplinary initiatives on campus, as a result of the underlying assumption that the solution of technological problems required the skills of investigators from many disciplines. The inclusion movement fostered the expansion of the curriculum to include the experiences of marginalized peoples from the United States and those from non-Western cultures; commitments to the diversification of the student body and the faculty; attention to intergroup relations on campus as a measure of the new concept of "campus climate"; and interventions intended to help disadvantaged groups succeed. It too contributed to the growth of interdisciplinary initiatives on campus as means to knit together networks of colleagues with common interests in diversity and social change.
The rise of these two dynamic forces created a contest in which the traditions of academic professionalism both encompassed and resisted pressures to shift attention toward technological innovation and social inclusion. Even as they accommodated the growing interest in use-inspired research, the majority of faculty research continued to focus on the solution of problems identified by colleagues in their disciplinary communities. The proliferation of specialties and subspecialties continued and academic professional culture thrived. Even as they accommodated the push for social inclusion, colleges and universities also found means to preserve their traditional role in the identification of talent, most often found among socially advantaged students, and in the cultivation of students' cognitive capacities and subject matter knowledge. They did so through selective admissions, through the elevation of the more difficult majors, and through the encouragement of motivated students to go on for graduate degrees, as well as through the traditional machinery of course-based assessments. Accommodation was the norm, but occasional tensions also arose, as when faculty entrepreneurs seemed to flout their academic responsibilities in favor of building their enterprises or when the racial or gender backgrounds of candidates seemed to supersede their scholarly achievements as a basis for advancement.
The hierarchical structure of the system reduced the pressures on research universities to manage these tensions. Commitments to new technology development were, not surprisingly, concentrated at research universities. Commitments to social inclusion were also evident at these institutions, but they were constrained by rising prices and higher levels of selectivity. Comprehensive universities — those emphasizing teaching over research — consequently carried the primary responsibility for expanding social inclusion, and this was particularly true of comprehensives dependent on state funding. Even so, inherent tensions existed in the simultaneous pursuit of disciplinary knowledge, technological innovation, and social inclusion. Those engaged at the highest levels in disciplinary knowledge creation or technological innovation often found the university's aspirations to expand access irrelevant to their interests — even as an impediment — while those committed to democratic access just as often viewed the elitism of the leading disciplinary professionals and innovators with skepticism, if not downright antipathy.
The dynamic forces of technological innovation and social inclusion have not been the only fuel for expansion. Universities are voracious; they search for resources wherever they can find them so long as they can justify them on academic grounds. Many of the other sources of the great expansion are well known. In the sphere of research, they included the largesse of the federal government, philanthropic foundations, and individual donors who have spotted in university researchers reliable guides to the as-yet unknown. In the educational arena, they included the value of higher education credentials in the labor market, a value inflated by the near collapse of opportunities for young adults with only high school educations. And of course they also included employers' and students' interest in the contributions to skill development that colleges can deliver.
The often surprising consequences of expansion are not as well known. I argue that as students and patronage poured into colleges and universities, the institutions gained unexpected new powers. The growth of graduate populations funneled tens of thousands of analytically competent personnel into the country's "knowledge intensive" industries. These four dozen or so industries — ranging from aeronautics to wireless communications — did not dominate the economy as theorists of postindustrial society predicted, but they did by the end of the period contribute as much as half of GDP. Those with graduate and professional degrees formed a cognitive resource of more than twenty-five million people, with PhDs alone outnumbering the population of Los Angeles. The expansion of this stratum of highly educated professionals helped create the conditions for looser boundaries between universities and other institutional sectors. University researchers provided testing grounds for new ideas and new technologies developed outside their walls, even as they continued to produce their own at a startling rate. At the same time, the country's divisions by educational level and high-tech industry location created powder-keg conditions; the advance of the educated group, with its commitment to diversity, contributed to the uneasiness and reaction of whites with less education and dimmer prospects.
The boom in undergraduate education created opportunities for mobility for many, a time for maturation for many more, and high-level skills for a motivated minority. It also had a number of less salutary effects. Contained within the burgeoning enrollment statistics were hundreds of thousands of students who lacked either academic or developed professional interests. Colleges and universities accommodated these students mainly by expecting little of them. The keenest observers no longer understood college as principally a place for building academic knowledge and skills but rather as a mechanism for producing adaptable and flexible people, sufficiently conscientious to prove themselves relatively quick studies in a variety of roles. Expansion encouraged the rise of the "practical arts" — applied fields of study connected to the power centers of the American economy: business, technology, health, media, and government. And it led to a romance with basic fields reflecting the culture of upper-middle-class progressives, stimulating enrollments in the arts, the environmental sciences, cognitive and neuroscience, fields embracing an international perspective, and those focusing on social inclusion. The preferences of patrons opened large opportunity gaps between the quantitative and interpretive disciplines, cementing and widening the status division within the faculty ranks.
The growing complexity of the environment surrounding higher education — encircled by regulations, dependent on constituency relations, and buffeted by rising expectations — created the conditions for a tremendous growth of management. The salaries of the administrative staff were offset by the hiring of armies of low-paid part-timers, an academic proletariat that comprised nearly half of the instructional staff by the end of the period. The scope of the vulnerabilities of U.S. colleges and universities extended also to the deep incursions of online and competency-based programs and the escalating costs of attendance. The future of the country's intellectual base turned on how effectively colleges and universities would confront the challenges of instructional quality, cost, and online competition that seemed to be building to a crisis point during the period, at least for the more vulnerable regional colleges and universities.
As this overview of my argument suggests, Two Cheers for Higher Education considers both the institutional strengths that growth has allowed universities to develop under the influence of the "three logics" (chapters 2–7) and the contradictions that have developed between these logics in the context of resource constraints of various types (the last section of chapter 7 and chapters 8 and 9).(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
1 The Universities Expansion Made 1
2 The Academic Profession and American Society 38
3 The Rise of Academic Innovationism 79
4 College for All 116
5 Multiplying Status Locations 158
6 The Priorities of Patrons 203
7 An Accumulation of Administration 249
8 Focus on the Classroom 287
9 Other Challenges: Cost, Online Competition, Contentious Speech 328
10 The Ends of Knowledge 371
What People are Saying About This
“A comprehensive, authoritative, and original analysis of trends in American universities, Two Cheers for Higher Education transcends the polemics that currently dominate discussion of the subject. The data the book presents are enormously informative in establishing the basic realities of the higher education system and clarifying controversial issues.”Roger L. Geiger, author of The History of American Higher Education