06/28/2012 03:12 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2012

The Business of Higher Education (And the UVA Example)

By SoRelle Wyckoff

My junior and senior year of high school I spent more time flipping through the pages of my "Princeton Review Best 376 Colleges" book than I did flipping through my textbooks. My fingers traced down lists like, "most school spirit," "best professor to student ratio," and "dorms like castles."

I used this encyclopedia of American universities to compile a list. I knew what I wanted in a college education and experience and I knew what I was not interested in as well. By looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each university, I was able to eliminate those institutions that were not suited to my needs.

The school at the top of my list was the pinnacle of public institutions, the University of Virginia. It was a school that valued itself in tradition, a strong liberal-arts education and an impressive resume of professors and staff, all of which I sought.

Yet, just a few weeks ago, University of Virginia's president, Teresa A. Sullivan, was asked to resign because of growing concerns about UVA's inability to adapt to the changing needs of college-bound students.

The board cited rising tuition costs, the lack of technology in the form of online classes and the need for more business and technological programs than its current liberal-arts offerings, to validate their pressure on President Sullivan. Yet that justification made little sense.

Tuition raises, while upsetting and alarming, are (unfortunately) hardly avoidable, and, at the least, are out of the control of the universities. State budgets are in a period of slashing and cutting, and often the funds that support state-universities are beheaded. But it was the board's other grounds for dismissal that were perhaps the most alarming.

Why would the University of Virginia, a school that only three years ago prided itself in a liberal arts education and the value of tradition force the resignation of a president who apparently was pursuing those values?

The decision arose from pressures that are not unique to the University of Virginia. Colleges and universities are seeing a greater interest in business and technological courses and a higher demand for online offerings. Students are pursuing degrees in fields that lead to a pre-determined job, rather than the liberal-arts educations that many top universities once boasted. This change not only speaks to the shift in the American understanding of an education, but to a shift of the changing values of American universities.

Instead of letting the student adapt to the school, schools are attempting to adapt to the student. When applying to colleges, students are given choices in class size, college environment, courses offered, etc. If educational institutions abandon their particularities in an attempt to appeal to all students, educational opportunities will only suffer.

Universities like Virginia were formed on the core of education and the pursuit of knowledge. Now, in adapting to the student, universities find themselves in a game of numbers (profit, body count, awards) to distinguish themselves. The realm of higher education is precariously straddling the line between academic institution and profitable business. One of these serves the student for the good of education; the other serves the student only for the prospect of a tuition check.

Most states, like Virginia, have schools that do offer the technology and skill-based educations that liberal arts colleges do not (Virginia Tech, for example). And, these schools, like the rest, are available for application just as the liberal-arts colleges of that state are. But it is up to the student to choose the college that best suits them based on what varying universities offer and pursue. It is not the university's job to morph into the college they think will attract the most students and make the most profit.

Sullivan was reinstated only 16 days after she was asked to resign. During her resignation, she stayed out of the limelight, politics and board meetings, just as an educator should. Her reinstatement is a sign of hopeful possibility that higher learning can remain as such, a haven of education. University communities must remain cautious of the influences of finances and politics when it comes to decisions affecting the educational values of their institutions, and wary of the change in values that occur when your powers of pressures are askew.

Not every university is right for every college-bound student, and that's okay. If universities remain centered around their educational values, the students most appropriate to them will follow suit, which sounds like a pretty good business plan.