Evaluating the Economics of Educational Mission

For the past eighteen years I have had the privilege and pleasure of pursuing a career in higher education.  Throughout that time I have remained at one institution, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), a regional public comprehensive university serving northeast Indiana through a uniquely collaborative partnership between the Indiana University and Purdue University systems.  Over the years I have had many wonderful experiences: those magical instances when students grasp conceptual relationships they had not recognized moments before, the thrill of scientific discovery when one small part of nature’s complexity comes into focus in a new way, and the powerful results of collaborations between the university and its partners in the business, governmental, and social services sectors.  I began my academic career with all the brash bravado so typical of newly minted Ph.D.s.  I taught my classes.  I mentored my students.  I conducted my research that that was funded by my grants.  While I certainly do not regret that period of my academic life, I now recognize the egocentricity I displayed was a personal expression of the attentiveness, focus, dedication, and passion that are essential elements of academic success.  Thankfully, not every faculty member gives external expression those internal characteristics in the same ways I did.  My faculty colleagues possess astonishing levels of intrinsic motivation and professional dedication tempered by an Aristotelian balance between self-confidence and humility.  Transitioning from teacher and researcher to academic leader allowed my self-awareness to grow along with an expanded understanding of and appreciation for the work of my colleagues.  As I have come to more fully recognize the variety of activities and range of achievements occurring at IPFW, I have embraced the challenges of guiding and directing, as well as resourcing and rewarding, the full spectrum of faculty work.  In order to do so with fairness and with integrity it is necessary to have a clear understanding of individual and programmatic strengths as well as how those strengths are best aligned with institutional priorities.  IPFW, like so many of its peer institutions, is subject to a variety of forces that combine to shape, limit, and ultimately evolve the institution’s mission.  I propose to consider the mission of higher education within a framework of basic economic theory in order to illustrate how external forces and internal responses are challenging the meaning of teaching and learning in the 21st century.

IPFW is developing a new strategic plan after more than a decade of growth driven by the successful implementation of two previous plans.  The most basic question to be addressed by the current planning process is also the most challenging: what is IPFW’s mission?  I will not attempt to define my university’s formal mission statement in this essay; doing so is an integral part of the work of the committees charged with writing the strategic plan.  The institution’s current mission is to “meet the higher education needs of northeast Indiana.”  Given that this region, like all other regions of the country, has a need for educated citizens it seems obvious IPFW’s mission should begin with meeting that educational need.  The challenge lies, however, in first defining the educational need of the region’s citizens and then establishing how the university is to go about meeting a need so defined.  That is, it is essential to move beyond broad and idealized statements to clearly defined terms.  Only then will IPFW, or any other similar institution of higher learning, be well positioned to fully achieve its mission with an appropriate level of efficiency.

The Significance of Mission to Accreditation

Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, along with hundreds of other institutions, is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools – one of six regional accrediting organizations recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.  The HLC establishes the standards by which institutions in its geographic region are evaluated for reaffirmation of accreditation.  The first of the five HLC accreditation criteria concerns the institution’s mission.  The Commission requires that the institutional mission be stated both clearly and publically and to fully reflect the institution’s commitment to human understanding and cultural diversity.  Demonstrating a commitment to the first three components of the mission criterion is readily achieved by regional public universities such as IPFW.  It is in the fulfillment of the fourth criterion, calling for a demonstration of how the institution meets its commitment to the public good, that allows for the greatest degree of institutionally and regionally specific expression.  It is this expectation of contributing to the public good that I will explore within a context of elementary economic theory.

Establishing an Economic Understanding of the “Public Good”

Component 1.D. of the HLC mission criterion states “The institution’s mission demonstrates commitment to the public good.”  The concept of “public good” is very broad and must be defined as it relates to public higher education before a university can document its commitment to meeting this aspect of its mission.  To do so, it is necessary to evaluate the relationships between the notions of public and private as well as between a specific public good and the broader concept of the public good as they relate to higher education.  While it is common to interpret the phrase “the public good” in terms of political or societal contexts – the AASCU’s American Democracy Project would be an example of a University’s commitment to those types of public good – it is an economic interpretation that I believe has growing significance to and impact on higher education.

During the last half century the American higher education system has experienced a significant shift from public to private financing.  For example, since the late 1970s the total state appropriation to IPFW has increased by a factor of 5 while the proportion of the general fund budget covered by that appropriation has decreased from 70% to less than 40%.  IPFW is now defined as a state supported rather than a state funded university.  Critics of American higher education frequently advance plans to initiate or expand outsourcing of various aspects of institutional operation in order to achieve increased efficiency at reduced cost by allowing private for-profit ventures to competitively bid for contracts to provide service and manage support functions for the university.  Looking forward is it unreasonable to expect increased efforts to privatize not just those auxiliary activities but in time the core functions of public universities?  I see the on-going trend towards privatization as a challenge not only to the mission of regional public institutions but indeed to the foundational purposes for which these universities were established.  Reconsidering criterion 1.D. not within the context of a societal understanding of the public good but rather within an economic understanding of knowledge as an economic public good presents a robust framework for evaluating the criticisms of and potential opportunities for public higher education.

Much of the tension that currently exists within the American higher education system is derived from a conflict between public understandings of the concepts of knowledge and education as economic goods and services.  To begin an analysis of these terms consider the supposition that knowledge is an intangible public good.  That is to say, knowledge has the general characteristics of being both non-rivalrous and non-excludable.  To possess knowledge or to grow in knowledge does not occur at the expense of others.  Knowledge is not a finite resource that can only be gained by making another person less knowledgeable.  Likewise, in the ideal sense, one cannot be excluded from the possession of knowledge.  Yet knowledge is typically not obtained through hermitic contemplation.  Rather, knowledge is gained through processes of learning which are enhanced and accelerated by social interaction.  To become knowledgeable one must interact with others who have knowledge.  It is in this process of interaction that knowledge shifts from being an ideal public good and begins to incorporate characteristics of excludability.  Access to knowledge, to loci of learning, indeed to interaction with other knowledgeable individuals is clearly excludable and it is in the concept of excludable access that the bridge from knowledge to education is established.

Education as a Service not a Good

Higher education has traditionally existed within the service sector of the American economy.  Review of the characteristics that define an economic service can highlight those aspects of education that are currently subject to the greatest political, social, and economic pressure.  When the service provider (the university) enters into an economic exchange with the service consumer (the student) the relationship that is established is direct, participatory, and variable.  In order for education to occur, the student and the university must be directly linked through the processes of enrolling, attending, and delivering educational experiences.  This linked process of education is termed either teaching or learning when viewed from the perspective of either the provider or consumer of the service.  As a service consumer, the student must actively participate in the exchange of the service.  Universities cannot inject learning into the minds of unwilling or unmotivated students.  Students are not passive billets of raw intellect that can be refined and machined to specific dimensions and tolerances of knowledge.  Because learning is a personal process, the education achieved is unique to each individual.  This is true at all scales of teaching and learning, from the experiential aspects of a single assignment to the completion of a curriculum of study, each student’s experiences are both personal and uniquely personalized.  Conversely, instruction that is indirect, non-participatory, and invariable is technical training not teaching and learning, and ultimately results in the achievement of competency rather than knowledge.  Simply stated, the so-called commodification of learning, the application of market concepts to higher education, is shifting the mission of public higher education from the facilitation of learning to the production of training.

Critics of higher education intended to disrupt the traditional structure of university teaching and learning in several ways.  First, the educational process is viewed to possess an undesirable and unacceptable level of variability.  Requirements for the establishment of state-wide learning outcomes that define the minimum expected levels of education for courses, domains of learning, or programs of study are intended to impose a degree of uniformity to education that many faculty believe undervalues and ultimately undermines the significance of individuality in the teaching and learning experience.  Second, in a quest for convenience and efficiency students are expected to partake in the educational process rather than participate in it.  Proponents of a more efficient higher education system expect students to achieve minimum proficiencies through the consumption of discrete lessons; the inefficiencies that are natural and essential aspects of high level cognitive activities such as integration, synthesis, and interpretation are neither acknowledged nor appreciated.  Third, in a further quest for improved efficiency, critics of higher education are narrowing the curricular pathways students can choose to meet degree requirements by imposing greater levels of uniformity, reducing the number of degree options available, and homogenizing to the lowest common denominator regional variations in degree programs, all of which result in reduced opportunities for student involvement in the personalization of education that is characteristic both of robust learning experiences and valid economic exchanges for services.

Returning to the requirements of the Higher Learning Commission, universities must demonstrate both that their “educational responsibilities take primacy over other purposes” and that the response to the needs of external constituencies are addressed as fully as “mission and capacity allow.”  By redirecting political and social efforts to “reform” higher education away from discussions of the efficiency of instruction and back on improving student learning, regional public universities such as IPFW will more fully achieve their central mission of serving the public good.

Sapere Aude ~


2 thoughts on “Evaluating the Economics of Educational Mission

  1. Excellent essay. The distinction that you made between technical training and teaching and learning is important and needs to be stated to some of our administrative leaders, ICHI board members, and Indiana politicians. I think they seem the role of regional campuses more in the role of training and not education. Maybe that’s what the honor’s track is will be the higher education ghetto or gated community at the regional campuses. I think that the general strategy also has much to do with the re-stratification of higher education and what that may mean in terms of the mission of regional campuses.

  2. It was an interesting essay. Accurately gloomy. One thing I think is missing is competency based education. Ultimately saying a test is equivalent to the learning that takes place, or can take place.

    What is worse is, as you say, the removal of opportunity.

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