Thursday, December 3, 2009

Means, Ends, Cost, Quality

I've been wondering lately if the effort to reduce costs (while maintaining quality) in higher ed is an end in itself, or a means to something more important. I'm afraid that the cost discussion in higher ed is following the health care discussion, where the end has become passing a health insurance reform bill, not finding ways for Americans to be healthier.

In the same way, it appears that reducing cost has become an end in itself, not a pathway to something else. This is a problem for three reasons:

1. I'm not sure that the call to cut costs motivates the people in a position to do it. Instead it may put them--faculty, staff, and administrators--on edge, worrying about their jobs and pitting them against each other. ("The expensive part of education isn't what I do, it is all that extra stuff (fill in your favorite bugbear) the college does.")

2. When a reform movement becomes an end in itself, it tends to become isolated--it has its own center, or its own organization, but it struggles to spread throughout campus. Here, the cost/quality movement would be wise to learn from all of the other reform efforts--service-learning, assessment, etc. which got stymied on campuses where the goal was simply to "have one" (a service-learning center, an assessment office, learning communities, whatever) rather than to use that tool to stay interesting, alive sorts of places.

3. The notion of something being an "end" assumes a linear path to that end and a hierarchical organization to support it. But paths aren't linear, higher ed isn't hierarchical, and colleges and universities are systems, not pyramids. So thinking about cost/quality as an end makes such efforts butt up against the complex, interdependent way that things are. (On a philosophical level, I don't believe there are really ends anyway. All things are means; ends happen when you stop to look around and take your bearings...)

So if we thought of cost/quality as a means rather than an end, what difference would it make?
A huge one, in my view, because we could then connect the effort to values that are widely held and practices that are already embraced in HE or on a particular campus.

For example, most colleges and universities are inspired by a democratic vision--that access to education is a way of building just, wise, and healthy societies. Reducing the cost of education makes that democratic vision more likely and links it with other democratization efforts--civic engagement, retention, diversity, etc.

Most colleges and universities care that their students become part of a community of learners. Linking cost reduction to community-building is a powerful activity. Let's say that a campus wants to make college more affordable by hiring more students to work on campus. The act of hiring students to work on campus knits them into the campus community, makes them not just consumers of school, but producers of learning and stewards of place.

Most schools want to stay lively, to maintain momentum, to innovate, to encourage creativity among faculty and staff, to share those innovations across the campus. The cost/quality challenge, like retention, or civic engagement, or any of the other recent reforms, calls for innovation and creativity. Linking it there reinforces the campus culture instead of suggesting that the campus culture is an impediment.

All schools are committed to learning. Where innovation advances learning (or makes it more visible) and students understand that, they are more likely to stay, and to love their time in college, both things that make the cost of higher education seem like a value, not a punishment.

All of this is to suggest that while much of the conversation about the future of higher ed assumes radical changes afoot, perhaps the best way to succeed in their face is to preserve tradition--those values and practices that inspire, unite, and advance our core mission--to educate.

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