book spotlight: remaking college: the changing ecology of higher education, edited by kirst and stevens

Recent orgtheory posts excepted, we pay way too much attention to a tiny handful of higher education institutions in the U.S. (Not to mention too much attention to the U.S. relative to the rest of the world.)

Academic chatter often assumes research universities are the prototypical higher ed organization, even though only 23% of students are enrolled in such universities (RU/VH or RU/H). By comparison, more than a third are enrolled in community colleges, and nearly 10% in for-profit institutions.

At the level of public attention, focus gets even narrower. A New York Times search gets 310 hits for “community college,” versus nearly 13,000 for “Harvard.” Recently historian David Perry surveyed two months of NYT op-eds containing the word “professor” and found

zero by community college or lower-status teaching school profs, zero by branch campus public profs, and a handful by top liberal arts schools (Smith, Dickinson) or lower-tier R1 publics (Colorado State, South Carolina).

And of course nothing gets our collective hearts aflutter like a good old fashioned spat over whether the Ivy League is an awful, awful place.

So kudos to Michael Kirst and Mitchell Stevens for noticing that the world of higher ed is bigger than that. Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education, published a couple of months ago by Stanford UP, focuses on the institutions that are underappreciated by the media and scholars: comprehensive colleges, community colleges, for-profit colleges. By bringing together a diverse group of academics — several of whom take an explicitly organizational approach — to focus on broad-access institutions, they have done the field a real service.

The essays cover a range of ground and approaches. Several, including an orienting one by W. Richard Scott, conceptualize higher ed as an ecology or field. I’ll just highlight a couple I particularly enjoyed here.

In “The Classification of Organizational Forms: Theory and Application to the Field of Higher Education,” Martin Ruef and Manish Nag use topic models based on IPEDS data to generate new sets of categories for U.S. postsecondary institutions. From mission statements, for example, they infer not only two distinct clusters of liberal arts schools and two of community colleges, but several additional types of institutions — globally-oriented colleges, Christian colleges, medical tech schools, student-oriented universities — that might otherwise go unnoticed. Like other good work that identifies patterns from texts, it prompts a rethinking of cultural identity beyond assumed categories.

Regina Deil-Amen makes a significant contribution just by hammering home how atypical the “typical” college student really is. Nearly three-quarters of first-year undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges or for-profit institutions. 53% are not enrolled full-time. Only 13% live on campus. 13 percent! Her quotes of interviews with lower-income and Latino students, who are dealing with family stresses and financial struggles, are telling:

My family has a lot of financial problems, so that’s another stress that I’m constantly dealing with. I have to call them like, ‘Mom, are you gonna be able to pay rent this month?’…I’ve actually used some of my loans to help them pay their rent this year. (p. 146)

These firsthand accounts reinforce how inaccurate the picture of a dependent 18-year-old striking out on her own for the first time actually is.

I also enjoyed Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s reflection on measuring college performance, where they emphasize that they

have vehemently argued against the desirability of an externally imposed accountability schema. We are deeply skeptical of increased centralized regulation of this character—fearing that the unintended consequences would far outweigh any benefits—and have instead called for institutions themselves to assume enhance responsibility for monitoring and improving student outcomes. (p. 170)

I’m not sure they know how to measure college quality either, but it’s a thoughtful piece.

Higher ed really is a diverse organizational ecology, and it’s going to take a lot of work to map out the whole landscape. But I’m very glad that people like Kirst and Stevens are moving us in that direction.

Written by epopp

June 16, 2015 at 12:15 pm

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