Of Majors and Publics

Those recommending that US universities might be improved by simplifying student choices fail to understand both the American academy and its students. Suggestions that colleges ought to limit their menu to a select number of offerings fail to recognize that curricula are structured more like video on demand. What’s most important is who they reach.

Our first post insisted that the universities serve not one public but several. Before asking whether higher education represents a public good, we need to ask: Which public?

Nothing more emphatically confirms the fragmentation of higher ed’s audience than the proliferation of degree programs since the 1960s. This process has affected higher education in all its parts and is generally misunderstood.

California’s Governor Brown recently provided a case in point by proposing Chipotle’s menu as a model for university course catalogs. University of California campuses “have so damn many courses,” he barked. Shifting responsibility for low graduation rates away from budget cuts, he insinuated that fancy pants professors would not deign to offer the classes students actually needed, preferring their “pet projects” instead. Solution: a “good basic education” modeled on Chipotle’s limited menu.

While we too enjoy burritos, Brown’s analogy dangerously misapprehends the causes of course proliferation. Professorial “pet projects” are really not the problem. Institutions create new courses and degrees to compete for students. And while some schools do attract undergraduates with a rice and beans approach–St. John’s comes to mind as an exemplary “limited menu” college–most have found variety important.

Curricular marketing schemes effectively called the American research university into being. The late nineteenth-century elective system put every course and professor in the position of competing with every other for student attention. Ever since, general education has constrained choices by defining “the basics” without disturbing a commitment to student selection. College is different from high school precisely because undergraduates chart their own paths.

Television analogizes these audience dynamics far better than the restaurant trade.

Like television programs, courses are not “used up” when consumed. The best burrito in the world loses its worth once eaten but even a so-so course can have durable value to the student.

Like TV producers, academic administrators invest in talent that they hope will produce attractive content, but they cannot be experts in every field–not even all the supposedly “basic” ones. Deans and department chairs do not evaluate course content like Chipotle managers assess whether a line cook has produced savory beans. They only learn if professors are effective after the fact, once their teaching record has been interpreted.

Like TV writers and directors, professors know popularity is a major criterion of success, but other factors also count: critical acclaim, experimentation, and staying power (reputation over the long term). It’s a complex evaluative situation.

Academic majors offer a way to manage the risk of new courses that may or may not meet changing student interests. Majors make demand more predictable by bundling a set of requirements with a set of electives. Majors anchor marketing, moreover–these days by offering specific career pathways. In the TV analogy, majors are series, courses are episodes. Majors are not meals, wherein chips and a drink complete the bundle.

A restaurant can measure popularity in units sold, but advertiser-supported television requires different means to measure the success of its programs. Third parties, especially the Nielsen company, develop and sell metrics of ratings, reach, and share.

Ratings measure the percentage of total potential viewers who might have watched a particular show in a particular time slot, whether or not their TVs were on. Share measures the percentage of viewers watching TV who watched a particular show at a particular time. Reach measures the availability of a particular show (at a particular time) to viewers in a particular market.

Measures of popularity in higher education have focused almost exclusively on the share of students completing particular majors. Humanists who teach in old, established fields like history and English are particularly obsessed with their recently declining share. (Ben Schmidt offers some up-to-the-minute visualizations.)

Consideration of share alone, however, presents a skewed picture. A ratings-like measure, for instance, might weigh the percentage of all adults who had earned particular degrees. Individual majors would be seen to compete not only with one another, but also with everything else potential learners might do with their time. Back in 2013Schmidt proposed that such a measure would provide a far more realistic perspective on the “crisis” in the humanities than share does.

“Reach,” offers another perspective-altering metric. In our book, Media U, we develop a reach measure for university degrees and reveal that higher ed changed historically roughly in parallel to TV. University curricula transitioned from a “broadcast” era in which majors were fewer to a “narrowcast” era of the sort often associated with cable TV’s proliferation of channels. Among other features, this shift sundered the relationship between discipline and department. Majors increased faster than the number of departments to manage them.

Although Governor Brown has reason to imagine taxpayers might find the resulting array of courses bewildering, his Chipotle analogy is full of beans. A comparison to Netflix would have been equally easy to understand and better capable of accurately capturing the allure and marketing of degree options.

Author: Mark Cooper

Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of South Carolina.