The University as Business

Universities have come to regard their students as customers 
More

A number of colleges and universities have announced steep tuition increases for next year—much steeper than the current, very low, rate of inflation. They say the increases are needed because of a loss in value of university endowments heavily invested in common stock. I am skeptical. A business firm chooses the price that maximizes its net revenues, irrespective of fluctuations in income; and increasingly the outlook of universities in the United States is indistinguishable from that of business firms. The rise in tuitions may reflect the fact that economic uncertainty increases the demand for education. The biggest cost of being in school is forgoing income from a job (this is primarily a factor in graduate-and professional-school tuition); the poorer one's job prospects, the more sense it makes to reallocate time from the job market to education, in order to make oneself more marketable.

The close economic similarities between the business and university sectors are often obscured by the fact that university faculties are dense with critics of capitalism. Further, enterprises that operate in the not-for-profit form are supposed to have motivations fundamentally different from those of for-profit enterprises, to justify their tax exemptions. But how realistic is that?

The American university sector is distinctive in being largely private in structure and even more so in behavior; in contrast, almost all foreign universities are public. Even our state universities compete vigorously with one another and with private universities; moreover, increasingly they are only quasi-public. For example, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—Illinois's flagship public university—receives only 30 percent of its funding from the state.

What "not for profit" means in the university world is simply that a university's surplus of revenue over expenses does not go to shareholders but is instead added to endowment or invested in new projects, much as at a for-profit firm that doesn't pay dividends. Not-for-profit enterprises often compete just as fiercely as business firms do. Consider the universities' competition for students. It might seem that a profit-maximizing university would simply charge the highest tuition the market would bear and then admit anyone willing to pay it. Actually that would not be profit-maximizing. Faculty members would have to be paid more to teach slow students; and for students the market value of higher education depends significantly on the quality of their peers—as a signal of worth to potential employers and because students learn from one another and make valuable contacts for the future.

To increase the perceived quality of the education and the prestige of the institution (things valued by alumni and other potential donors, and by grantors of research contracts), universities compete to attract professorial stars. The result is a great variance in faculty salaries both among and within universities—indeed, often within departments. One thing the stars negotiate for is a reduced teaching load. The slack is picked up by poorly paid graduate students and by non-tenure-track adjuncts with low salaries and no fringe benefits. Some of the stars do little teaching, and some do little research as well, instead moonlighting as "public intellectuals" commenting in the popular media on the events of the day. This commentary is often uninformed, so one might think that a university would fear damage to its trademark; but most universities treasure their celebrity academics. Celebrity advertises the university. And students go to college not merely to learn but also to have a good time. The celebrity professor is an entertainer (though purists will question the appropriateness of tax exemptions for universities that double as entertainment companies).

The ways in which universities make themselves attractive to students include soft majors, student evaluations of teachers, giving students a governance role, and eliminating required courses. Sky-high tuitions have caused universities to regard their students as customers rather than as kids requiring an intellectual hazing. Just as business firms sometimes collude to lessen the rigors of competition, universities collude to minimize the cost to them of the athletes whom they recruit in order to stimulate alumni donations—so the best athletes now often bypass higher education in order to obtain salaries earlier from professional teams. And until they were stopped by the antitrust authorities, the Ivy League schools colluded to limit competition for the best students, by agreeing not to award scholarships on the basis of merit rather than purely of need—much as if business firms agreed not to give discounts to their best customers.

Major universities have become multi-hundred-million-dollar enterprises, and they behave accordingly and are managed accordingly. Gone are the days when a university president was a retired scholar of note. Now presidents are former provosts, and provosts are former deans—a promotion ladder that conforms to the norms of bureaucratic rationality.

The professionalization of the university is part of a broader trend, one first spotted by the German sociologist Max Weber, toward bringing an ever greater range of human activities under the direction of rational principles. Almost everything nowadays is "rationalized," in Weber's sense of the word—businesslike, rule-bound, disenchanted. The loss of enchantment—of idealistic, romantic, charismatic, or otherwise "primitive" or unrealistic methods of coordinating human endeavors—is the source of incessant diatribes against the university's loss of soul.

The loss is real, but we should not overlook the gains, which include wider access to higher education, the dismantling of many discriminatory and archaic practices, and increased breadth and sophistication in many fields of research. The university sector has modernized; but modernity comes with a price.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Richard A. Posner

Richard Posner is an author and federal appeals court judge. He has written more than 2500 published judicial opinions and continues to teach at the University of Chicago Law School. More

Richard A. Posner worked for several years in Washington during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. He worked for Justice William J. Brennan, Jr, the Solicitor General of the U.S., Thurgood Marshall, and as general counsel of President Johnson's Task Force on Communications Policy. Posner entered law teaching in 1968 at Stanford and became professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School in 1969. He was appointed Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 1981 and served as Chief Judge from 1993 to 2000. He has written more than 2500 published judicial opinions and continues to teach at the University of Chicago Law School. His academic work has covered a broad range, with particular emphasis on the application of economics to law. His most recent books are How Judges Think (2008), Law and Literature (3d ed. 2009), A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression (2009). He has received the Thomas C. Schelling Award for scholarly contributions that have had an impact on public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the Henry J. Friendly Medal from the American Law Institute.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

This Short Film Skewers Hollywood, Probably Predicts Disney's Next Hit

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.

Video

The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In