The general public often views colleges and universities as the purest symbols of American democracy because of the essential role they have played in promoting upward social mobility. Indeed, they have been outstanding vehicles for untold millions to achieve a better life than the one enjoyed by their parents. If they were ever pure, however, that is certainly not the case today.
Currently, many colleges and universities resemble nation-states. Some colleges and universities are economic powerhouses, with endowments in the billions; some have intercontinental ballistic missiles disguised as football and basketball teams; some get together to form loose alliances which you may recognize as the Ivy League, the Big Ten, the Southeastern Conference, and the Pacific 12, just to name a few. These alliances are predicated on the same goal- increase income. When a college or university feels it would be able to do better financially, it follows its self-interest and its former partners be damned.
Today, America's universities and colleges are expanding even beyond the nation's borders by establishing campuses abroad. For example, New York University has established a campus in Abu Dhabi, in the Middle East, for the purpose of attracting talented students from throughout that region. Other universities have set up shop in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The stated goal is to develop a global university aimed at attracting a talented student body and world-class faculty from the international academic community. In our opinion, profit is the driving force in the expansion of American universities abroad. Such expansion is also predicated on enhancing the reputation of that specific university. No university wants to be left behind. In this respect, higher education is coming to resemble major corporations in the same industry, which compete with each other in order to keep or expand their share of the market. This situation also reminds us of the Cold War during which the Soviet Union and United States were constantly trying to outdo one another in weaponry development.
As universities have become more competitive with one another, the nature of the professoriate has evolved. The days of earning a doctorate, securing a position at the university in one's area of expertise, achieving tenure, and reaching the rank of full professor is now much less frequent an occurrence than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Although colleges are increasing in size, there has not been a commensurate growth in the size of faculty. We define faculty as those individuals occupying tenure track lines. Currently, instead of adding faculty lines, there is now tremendous reliance on adjuncts, part-time, and so-called clinical faculty (individuals who are not on tenure track lines but do have experience in the fields in which they are employed. These individuals need not publish, are employed full time, by contract for a specified period of time usually ranging from two to four years. Tenure track, but not yet tenured, faculty see this and are now aware of their precarious position in the university.
Competition in higher education has also increased because of the growth of self-proclaimed profit-making institutions. Whether or not institutions of higher education specifically proclaim their profit-making goal, they are all entrepreneurial as they are in the business of selling their product, raising funds, advertising, and even pretending that this enhances their abilities to offer a better quality education to students. The internal operation of higher education has many flaws, and what the public sees does not convey how institutions of higher education are managed, supported, and promoted. All universities and post-secondary schools compete with each other, and the form of that competition depends on where that institution sees itself in the academic pecking order.
Colleges reflect our economic system and, in doing so, they make the playing field uneven in terms of ease of achieving social and economic mobility. The richest and most influential institutions get the lions' share of financial support from tuition federal grants, gifts from alums, and foundations. In today's economic market, the status of a student's college is acutely reflected in the job market. Admission to Harvard or Yale can be heavily weighted by a combination of economic status, legacy and academic achievement. Thus, only a small portion of the population from the lower social classes can overcome their background and gain admission to such elite schools. Yes, affirmative action programs exist as a showplace of university integrity and equal opportunity, but always remember that admission by legacy is a reality and far outstrips the number the admissions allocated to minority and economically deprived students. This point was made by a Harvard researcher in the January 5th, 2011 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, examined "the impact of legacy status at 30 highly selective colleges and concluded that, all other things being equal, legacy applicants got a 23.3 percentage point increase in their probability of admission. If the applicant's connection was a parent who attended the college as an undergraduate, a 'primary legacy,' the increase was 45.1 percentage points." Hurwitz concluded that a legacy applicant had four times greater chance of admission at an elite institution than an identical applicant without a legacy.
Entrepreneurship is a paramount consideration in the world of colleges and universities. Over the years, such questions as, "How many students are enrolled? Will we make our budget projections? How are we doing compared to our sister institutions? Do we have too many small classes?" A special fear occurs among college faculty administrators when enrollment in a school decreases. This can lead to faculty downsizing or even elimination of some programs. Panic then permeates the ranks of faculty and staff and resumes are soon mailed out.
From an institutional point of view, the race to increase the university's endowment never ceases. As the economy stagnates, universities will provide guidebooks for students and their families informing them where they can go for loans and grants so that the particular school can receive its tuition. Although students and their families continually express dissatisfaction with tuition increases far beyond inflation, most college administrators believe that their institution must continue to expand.