American Exceptionalism?

UV Letter - Volume 1, #9

“No one in the United States tries to figure out what a great university is; they just look at the Ivy League. It’s very important to have great institutions: they define success.”

-   Andreas Schleicher, Head of OECD’s education division
(quoted in The Economist October 8, 2011)

To the old adage “nothing is certain, except death and taxes,” we would suggest adding a third: that journalists who write about the American higher education system invariably characterize it as “the envy of the world” or some variation thereof.

Former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller did not disappoint in this regard in an Op-Ed on online education titled “The University of Wherever,” published in the Times on October 3, 2011. He concluded as follows:

“Who could be against an experiment that promises the treasures of education to a vast, underserved world. But we should be careful, in our idealism, not to diminish something that is already the wonder of the world.”

Aside from explaining much of the Times recent coverage of higher education, this statement is a good example of what the American elite see when they survey the HE landscape. In America, wealthy and powerful people either attended elite universities themselves, or are focused on ensuring that their children don’t miss out. As a result, their vision of higher education is myopic, focused exclusively on the wealthiest, most famous, most successful 100 universities in the country. (The myopia is exacerbated by the fact that many of these universities are also the leaders in college football and basketball, which attract so much media coverage.)

We couldn’t agree more that these universities are the wonder of the world. We attended some of them. But we’ve also been around higher education long enough to recognize that they are no more representative of the other 4,000 universities in this country than the top 1% of earners are of the state of the American economy. If we can make room in our economic worldview for the other 99%, surely we can make room in our higher education worldview for the other 98%.

But why should we expect more of the general public than of our own leaders? Driven by boards of elite trustees and various must-read rankings, university and college presidents have come to agree that success in higher education is defined by the Top 100 and steer their institution accordingly. The result is Isomorphism, the phenomenon by which American universities have acquired similar characteristics, and is well described by R.R. Reno in a piece he wrote for First Things:

“There aren’t enough Nobel Prize winners to go around, so lesser universities chase the also-rans and young phenoms in the hope of gaining ground in the reputation race, offering them lighter teaching loads. To dampen the ill-will that arises when regular faculty began to envy the student-free lives of the academic heroes the wealthier universities have consistently moved toward across-the-board reductions in teaching loads, with not-so-wealthy schools imitating this trend as best they can. This, of course, requires shifting still more teaching to graduate students and other adjunct, non-tenured faculty.”

Nevertheless, several universities are demonstrating an ability to move beyond the isomorphic groupthink. Here are a few notable examples:

  • The University of North Texas – Dallas, an institution founded only 11 years ago and set to become independently accredited next year, has assembled a commission and engaged Bain Consulting to develop an innovative new model for delivering higher education that will likely involve online delivery, elimination of the traditional semester, and perhaps a significant reduction in focus on the traditional campus in order to “bend the cost curve” as the university grows from 2,000 students to projected enrollment of 16,000 by 2030.
  • At the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, an institution established in 2005 after local leaders failed to persuade Pennsylvania’s existing universities to open a campus in the state capital, the mission is quite differentiated: to provide a workforce for local tech companies and to try to attract new ones. Of the 115 graduates since its founding, 106 are employed locally. Other differences at HUST: No academic departments, no tenure, corporate advisory boards vote on curriculum, and no campus – the University operates from a single building downtown.
  • And across the pond in the UK, the University of Coventry announced a no-frills degree (£4,800 p.a. vs. its standard rate of £8,000) for students who work full time. The programs establish defined service levels (e.g., 20 contact hours per week – 18 hours in a group of 25 students and two in a group of five students) and provide no access to IT, the library, athletic facilities, or social activities. Quoth the Vice Chancellor: “It will just be about learning and teaching.”

While these universities won’t appear at the top of the rankings anytime soon, their differentiated focus on teaching is likely to result in improved student outcomes. And if groundbreaking initiatives like this are insufficient to tear down the wall of isomorphism, then public policy should aim to drive the bus of differentiation right through that wall. At worst, the Department of Education and accrediting agencies should not impede differentiation. But as we’ll detail in a later University Ventures Letter, this is exactly what the current system does.

So it’s not exactly true what our friend from the OECD says about no one in the United States trying to look beyond the Ivy League and figure out what a great university is. Because we are. And you can as well by posting a comment on this or other University Ventures Letters (below).

University Ventures Fund invests in universities and service companies in areas where rising demand and shrinking supply create rapidly growing market and student service opportunities.