When the Higher Education Monopoly Crumbles, How Will Scholarship Survive?

Kevin Carey writes about the potential of massive changes in the university landscape (boldface mine):

Many factors explain the endurance of higher education institutions—the ascent of the knowledge economy, their crucial role in upper-middle class acculturation, our peculiar national enthusiasm for college sports—but the single greatest asset held by traditional colleges and universities is their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.

In the last few months, however, that monopoly has begun to crumble. New organizations are being created to offer new kinds of degrees, in a manner and at a price that could completely disrupt the enduring college business model. The question is: Which colleges and universities will be the G.E. of the twenty-first century, and which will be as forgotten as U.S. Leather?

…College credentials are a fantastic product to be selling in the twenty-first century. They’re pure intellectual property with a very low marginal cost of production and becoming more valuable all the time, as the economy continually reorganizes itself in a way that values the possession of deep knowledge and complex cognitive skills. They are universally recognized and never expire, golden keys to the parts of the labor market most worth entering.

Traditional colleges and universities exploit their monopoly over this market by overcharging students in order to generate revenue to support things that are important to them. Those things include producing academic scholarship, fielding cash-hemorrhaging professional sports teams, engaging in positional status competition with rival colleges, and avoiding the difficult work of overhauling inefficient administrative and organizational structures in which too many people get paid too much money. Online for-profit colleges haven’t disrupted the industry because while their business methods are different, their product—traditional credentials in the form of a degree—is not.

Carey then argues that “outside-the-system credentials” will shake up this system, but we shouldn’t worry:

Unlike Stanford, MIT is putting its brand name behind the new credentials. It can afford to, because the world will still need places where great researchers push the frontiers of human knowledge and the best and the brightest come together to learn. There will always be a market for boutique educational models that only the wealthy can afford.

But I do worry, since scholarship, as opposed to education, is expensive:

Education is not, and should not be, the core mission of the university.

The core mission of the university is scholarship. The university is a place in which the creation, transmission, criticism, and development of knowledge is the paramount good. Part of that mission is the transmission of knowledge. Transmission is done by writing (in all the multitude of forms to which that has been generalized by technology), by speaking, by performing, and by educating. So, yes, education is a (important) part of the mission of scholarship, but it is only a part.

We live in a culture in which “scholarship” gets little respect. “Education” sounds so much more useful, although we have all seen what happens when utility becomes linked to education as the core mission of the university. But scholarship is important.

So, do not EVER let someone tell you that education is the core mission of the university, and all this pesky research and writing and scholarship is just a distraction. The true relation between education and the rest of the core mission of the university is much more complex and subtle than that.

I’m not so worried about scholarship in the ‘hard’ sciences–that is, fields that receive large amounts of research funding. In fact, I’ve argued that federal funding agencies should concentrate more on research centers, and less on the ‘homespun’ PI model, at least in certain areas. But the key point is that the money will be there. That money pays for the cost of research (e.g., supplies and equipment), personnel (graduate students, lab techs, postdocs), as well as providing overheads and indirect costs which are essentially ‘profit’ for the university.

But what happens to the humanities and social sciences? Grants are limited, and the overall support is, compared to the physical sciences, very low. Will we see a massive retrenchment of scholarship and research in these areas? Do we think that’s a good thing? Technology triumphalists never seem to realize that every revolution has unintended casualties, and they might not be worth the price. Because if universities don’t subsidize these activities–and that is what they do–then we all become just a little more stupid and ignorant.

And there’s enough of that to go around already.

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