Is Higher Ed a Business?

Today, we visited Kent University's Brussels School of International Studies. In many ways, the University of Kent is forced to straddle the line between the British and Belgian systems. This is an administrative challenge that brings front and center the realities of comparative higher education.

For the bulk of the week, we have talked with Dutch and Flemish higher education administrators who struggle to understand the US system of higher education and its reliance on staggering amounts of student loan debt. However, the British system looks a good bit like ours in that it is centered around student loans.

The way our hosts explained the system to us, it is more of a tax than a loan. After graduating from a college or university, British graduates pay a percentage of their income above £24,000 for a total of 30 years. At that time, the rest of their student loans are forgiven. The best part: these student loans are not counted against the debtors when they seek other lines of credit like mortgages. The US seems to be moving toward this sort of system with plans for loan forgiveness after a number of years floating around among the political class.

While the British system is certainly a step ahead of the US system, I am still quite concerned about the increasing tendency to shift the burden of higher education to students. Universities developed in Europe, and came much later to the US comparatively, but the entrepreneurial system took root in the US from the earliest days of our higher education institutions. When there were only a few universities in the UK in the mid-1800s, there were already thousands in the United States, all competing for the same students, faculty, and funding. With our current landscape of public, private, and for-profit institutions, our higher ed landscape is more brutally competitive than ever. Institutions are forced to find ways to increase revenue, and this is often driven through the attraction of more students and more research dollars.

However, now that I have learned more about the Dutch and Flemish systems, I see a whole lot of sense in the way they do it here. The goal of most Flemish higher ed professionals, it seems, is to get students to the institutions that best meet their needs. They aren't so desperate for tuition money that they'll say anything to attract students. In the US, particularly in the morally bankrupt for-profit sector, institutions often try to get students to stay where they are not well-suited so they'll continue contributing to the institution's bottom line.

As I think through what my vision for the US system would be in the future, it occurs to me that we need a system reliant not on additional entrepreneurialism on the part of institutions but on the proper funding of education by federal and state governments. This, however, only happens when citizens understand higher education as a public good rather than as an individual good. So long as Fox News talking heads continue to spread misinformation and lies about college students - you know, that they are all liberal snowflakes who need safe spaces and study useless things - there will be little consensus about the public good of education. If only people would turn off the pundits and go visit real colleges and universities and see what happens there, we might be able to have a more productive dialogue about the fact that college is not, and should never be, a business.

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