Isomorphism in Higher Education
| Peter Klein |
Amitai Etzioni is upset that new firms are entering the higher-education market and offering — gasp! — a differentiated product. Worst of all, they operate on a for-profit basis! (“For-profit,” as all liberal intellectuals know, is synonymous for “evil.”) Consider:
The education students receive at for-profit colleges bears little resemblance to the kind they would get at a true liberal arts college. Neither does it resemble the collegial image the for-profit colleges love to project. Professors at these schools often work on short contracts. There is no tenure. The executives make staggering salaries. Most students are taught online, often by poorly qualified professors who have very limited contact with the students. . . .
The schools’ stripped-down curricula and poor instruction often make for nearly worthless degrees. When students graduate from these colleges, many cannot find jobs — or at least not the kinds they were promised — and eventually, many of them default on their loans.
Of course, this in no way resembles the situation at traditional colleges and universities, at which all instructors are highly qualified, administrators make minimum wage, instructors spend lots of time with their students, and all students get exactly the jobs they were promised and pay their loans back immediately.
Etzioni cites approvingly the 2007 New York Times piece on the University of Phoenix that we deconstructed earlier. As we pointed out then, higher education is perhaps the most conservative, least innovative industry in any modern economy. (Even organized religion looks cutting-edge by comparison.) I hesitate to use the term “institutional isomorphism” in a O&M post, but if the shoe fits. . . .
Put it this way: “Diversity” is the primary mantra of higher-education institutions. So why not have some diversity in organizational forms? “Education,” after all, is not a homogenous good. As with healthcare, one size doesn’t fit all. Shouldn’t we encourage entry, and applaud entrants who experiment with alternative curricula, teaching methods, incentive structures, sizes, and shapes? Let a thousand pedagogic flowers bloom, I say!
(NB: I’ve heard people make a market-for-lemons argument against alternative educational institutions, that potential students won’t be able to distinguish one type of school from another and that the industry as a whole will thus be harmed. This strikes me as entirely bogus. Branding, after all, is a major aspect of the higher-ed racket today. Stanford doesn’t seem too worried about differentiating its product from that of San Jose State or Cal State Hayward, so I doubt adding Phoenix to the mix makes much of a difference.)