The ruling this week that Northwestern University must treat scholarship football players as employees defies the way colleges view themselves, and has administrators nationwide wondering if this is the first step toward turning college sports into something unrecognizable.
But in one key sense, the decision by an official of the National Labor Relations Board, which will allow the players to form a union and bargain collectively, fits into a long and familiar trend: Higher education is today less a rite of passage in which institutions serve in loco parentis, and more a commercial transaction between school and student.
Graduate students are forming unions, or trying to, at a growing number of universities. The new vogue in college ratings compares them by graduates’ incomes, and publications are full of debate about the price and value of college. Bookstores carry shelves of volumes on wringing more aid from schools and maximizing return on investment.
“We’ve had decades of rising supercompetitiveness among colleges and universities — competitiveness in research, in athletics, for students, for money — and it produces a loss of innocence,” said Robert Zemsky, a professor at the Graduate School of Education of the University of Pennsylvania. “It has crystallized the understanding that higher education is a market,” and in a market, the goal is to beat the competition.
The Northwestern ruling faces several potential legal challenges, and may never take effect. But either way, it is a jarring reminder how things have changed from half a century ago, when far fewer people went to college, student behavior and even dress were regulated as part of a broader definition of education, and students were more privileged and less free to chart their own educational courses.
Traditional nonprofit colleges and universities like to think of themselves as producing not just workers but citizens, rounded contributors to society, and students think that way, too, said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.
When he was president of Michigan State University, he noted “how many people who are graduates of Michigan State are on city councils, how many are principals of schools,” Mr. McPherson said. “I think there has been some movement away from the public good to the private value, but I just hate the idea of thinking of college as transactional.”
Hunter R. Rawlings III, a former president of the University of Iowa and Cornell University, and now president of the Association of American Universities, agreed. “We’re a lot less sentimental about college than we used to be,” he said. “Much more than before, society tends to look at a college education as primarily a steppingstone to a job and prosperity, and there are things going on in the economy that have fueled this view.”
Careers require more education than in the past, the income disparity between those with and without a degree has widened, and the rising cost of college has sharpened families’ focus on the bottom line. When politicians talk about promoting education, it is couched in terms of meeting the demands of a more sophisticated job market and competing economically with other nations.
The rapid expansion of for-profit colleges in the last generation has drawn attention to schools that freely admit to being commercial enterprises, without the gauzy images of neo-Gothic architecture and ivy-covered dorms. At the same time, a growing number of college students come from low-income families that have more reason than their privileged peers to take a utilitarian view of education.
“It makes a certain amount of sense for those families, especially, to think about return on investment, but I would hope that they would see other values, as well,” Mr. Rawlings said. He disparaged evaluations of alumni earnings by college and major, “but let’s face it, it’s really part of American culture, because we evaluate practically everything monetarily.”
And even he could not help shifting to an argument that is, at its core, economic. “Most people are going to have many jobs in their lives, so training for a specific field is less important than learning how to think and adapt,” he said.
Reports on the amount of money poured into higher education, high salaries for administrators and competition among schools invite comparisons to big business, with major college sports looking like an industry within that industry. And it is hard not to think of education as a commodity for sale in an era when colleges vie for students with promises not about the caliber of their academics, but also about the comfort of their dorms, the quality of their food and the amount of financial aid they can offer.
“Students everywhere are being treated more and more as clients and customers,” said Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia University and the author of “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.” “Sometimes they’re coddled, sometimes exploited — usually some of both.”
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service — if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.
Powered by WPeMatico