There is no such thing as private higher education

There is no such thing as private higher education. Every college and university responds to public demands. All higher education shapes the affairs of others. It could not be otherwise. In the United States, colleges and universities must engage various publics to thrive.

To engage various publics requires that schools address conflicting demands. Some constituents strive to better themselves while also reveling in campus social life. Others want to solve grand challenges without, however, upsetting the status quo. In Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education, we show how such contradictory audience interaction has set expectations for the American research university.

In particular, US citizens have had a lot riding on the expectation that college will sort and certify students based on their merits. For much of the twentieth century, this function anchored the belief that individual talent and hard work could overcome inherited privilege. European industrial democracies tended to address economic inequalities through a redistributive welfare state. In typical fashion, Americans preferred to imagine that the right kind of individual attainment would serve the commonweal. We expected our universities to reconcile the competing imperatives of individual (private) and collective (public) benefits. We expected them to do so whether they were tax-exempt corporations supported primarily by students and alumni or state agencies supported by taxpayers.

It is noteworthy, then, that arguments against “privatizating” higher education seem willing to abandon the claim that certifying individual merit guarantees a public benefit. Prominent recent books by Christopher Newfield and Cathy Davidson provide cases in point.

In Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, “privatization” names a decades-long process with multiple stages that include regular tuition hikes, state cuts to public funding, and increased student debt. He argues that this process has destroyed public universities. They no longer provide educations comparable to those of “elite private” schools. Nor do they guarantee social mobility for their debt-burdened graduates. State systems were built to have transformative effects at a massive scale. Privates were not. Thus, Newfield argues, ruined public higher education all but guarantees rising social inequality.

Similar observations animate Davidson’s The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. There too “elite privates” appear as engines of inequality, and the withdrawal of taxpayer support imperils public higher education. Despite difficult budgets, however, Davidson sees public schools as incubators for new approaches. She grants their classrooms almost magical powers to remake the social order. In community colleges and public research universities alike, her exemplars jettison the exams, grades, and lectures that characterize an archaic “industrial” education. In their place, these educators cultivate collaborative, problem-solving, student-centered approaches. These approaches not only nurture skills more suitable for today’s knowledge economy but also, she maintains, equip students to chart a more egalitarian course for the future.

If Davidson’s faith in the classroom leads her to greater optimism than Newfield, both authors treat “merit” as a dirty word. Lani Guinier’s The Tyranny of the Meritocracy persuades them. Guinier shows how testing mechanisms meant to identify and promote academic merit as a counterweight to inherited privilege have the opposite effect.

Where Guinier calls for a more “democratic,” less “testocratic” merit system, however, Davidson and Newfield seem inclined to tar “merit” and “private” with the same brush. Newfield thinks that the “elite privates” do better because they have the resources. Davidson sees them as clubs that confer benefits primarily through social networking. Both relish the conservative connotations of “private”–old, establishment, reluctant to change–and imply that private school students benefit at the expense of others.

If pressed, we suspect both authors would acknowledge that “elite private” institutions can produce public servants (Newfield has a BA from Reed College, for instance, while Davidson’s is from Elmhurst). Yet they persistently align the terms “private,” “selective,” and “elite.” This strikes us as a symptom.

The “elite privates” are not private. They are the standard bearers of a broken merit system. Neither revolutionary pedagogies nor a reversal of the state university’s decline will reweave the garland of merit. If we want university education to be something other than a way for elites to reproduce themselves, we need to reexamine every ranking mechanism. We need more convincing ways to identify and pay for talent. We need better ways to explain how publics benefit from it and what it is worth.

It may be the case, of course, that Americans no longer expect their universities to harmonize individual and collective goods. (Surveys suggests most of us do, although it’s complicated.) It may also be the case that the wishes of citizens no longer affect how our leaders and institutions conduct themselves. (The public university’s demise could indicate the last gasp of liberal democracy, Joshua Clover argues in his review of Newfield’s book.) Either scenario would make it vital to reclaim merit. If the future seems likely to be very different from the present, it will need all the help we can give it.