Image versus worth

Morris Freedman

November 13, 1990|By Morris Freedman

COMMON wisdom holds that capitalism has made the United States flourish. Yet we resist open financial competition among colleges and universities.

Ironically we see plenty of non-monetary competitiveness. Campuses trumpet their best graduate program, best graduate business school, Nobel prize winners, most words published. Few advertise best value for money invested.

Veteran academic observers, of course, know well the good, bad and indifferent programs without an accountant's help. We know that Harvard, Yale, Berkeley and Virginia are good not just because they have money, but because they know how to spend it effectively. We know further that a student's later

success in life bears no necessary relation to how much tuition has been paid out.

Yet few families pause to examine the implicit but often false assumption that the better education is the more expensive one.

In seeking ever-increasing largess, administrators rarely report efforts to make best use of available personnel and facilities. Many actually increase costs regularly, simultaneously diminishing teaching quality, as they ease teaching assignments celebrated professors to keep them from rival institutions. They publicize their image rather than their intrinsic worth.

But financial realities may at last be forcing responsible administrations to emulate most American businesses in balancing budgets through better management rather than simply through more successful fund-raising. They may also force parents to compare value when spending their tuition dollar.

Some campuses have not hesitated to immerse themselves in business practices. Yale improved its endowment earnings through leveraged buy-outs. Academic complexes, like Harvard and MIT, have agreements with new genetic engineering firms to allow faculty to work both on campus and for them.

The chance to earn a profit has indeed encouraged some not altogether happy developments. What might once have been called diploma mills now verge on legitimacy. A developing cottage industry of "colleges" and "universities," operated out of postal boxes and home basements, have found ways of getting themselves accredited to offer degrees.

Some institutions require courses to be self-supporting, even to show a profit: not enough enrollment, no class. Some drum up students with radio jingles ("American University so easy to find/ Come out, come out and jog your mind.")

Also, some may be replicating now-illegal business practices. Top establishments, to avoid the ravages of vigorous competition, have been cooperating to set tuition fees and student aid. They have provoked a Department of Justice investigation of possible violation of Sherman anti-trust provisions.

Many regard economizing simply as a threat to quality. But maintaining quality in relation to cost has challenged industry as well as education in every free economy. Clearly, any changes in funding higher education must not despoil its quality. But present ungoverned spending erodes educational mission more insidiously than readily visible competitive pressures might. We should never justify careless wastefulness as confidently as we justify conscious efficiency.

We hardly need belabor the dangers of unbridled competitiveness, of miserliness. We need add no additional pressures to competitions that already provoke ethical and moral breaches, inflate grades and devalue standards, destroy productive collegiality. We must guard against philistine, profit-bent managers who do not understand the social need to support "unprofitable" study of classical languages, the arts and pure mathematics.

Nevertheless, what is good for business may turn out to be very good indeed for higher education. Private industry and professional sports long ago initiated controls to reduce predatory and self-destructive behavior.

We may similarly expect colleges and universities, in the sort of ,, non-conspiratorial competition that characterizes sophisticated capitalism, to maintain simultaneously their benign character and their mission of offering full opportunity for higher education at best value to taxpayers and philanthropists.

Morris Freedman teaches English at the University of Maryland College Park.

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