five issues in higher ed that are begging for organizational sociology

Our new volume of RSO on “The University under Pressure” is now out in hard copy (electronic version here). Which prompted this post about the five areas where I think organizational sociology can really help us understand the current transformation of higher education.

Historically, the sociology of education, including higher education, has focused on stratification and social mobility. There’s lots of quantitative work on how social background (mostly class and race) affect whether students get to college, what happens once they’re there, and whether they finish. This is counterbalanced with qualitative work, often focused on cultural capital, that looks at how college mostly reproduces existing advantages.

In the last ten years, though, a growing body of work has emerged that looks at U.S. higher education through an organizational lens. There have always been specific examples of such research—e.g. Brint and Karabel’s The Diverted Dream (1990), on community colleges. But we can now point to scholarship from Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, Mike Bastedo, Amy Binder and Kate Wood, Joe Hermanowicz, Ozan Jaquette, Matt Kraatz, Lauren Rivera, Sheila Slaughter and her collaborators, Mike Sauder and Wendy Espeland, Mitchell Stevens, Gaye Tuchman, Melissa Wooten, not to mention myself or orgtheory’s own Fabio Rojas, that draw on organizational sociology to understand higher education—and this is hardly an exhaustive list.

And much more is in the pipeline. At Berkeley, Charlie Eaton and others are studying the financialization of higher education. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s widely awaited book on the for-profit sector will be out in a few months.

So why does this matter? Well, it matters because higher education is going through a period of intense change right now, and it’s happening at the organizational level. Social mobility will continue to be important, but even that is hard to understand without a sense of what the for-profit sector does, how public institutions are responding to a changed resource environment, and how organizational decisions channel students into tracks that help or hurt them.

With that in mind, here are five areas I think are ripe for study by organizational scholars with an interest in higher education.

1. How financial logics are transforming higher education

It’s been several decades since academic science embraced “market logic”—that is, a perspective that sees science primarily in terms of its economic value. But in the last twenty years, financial logics have come to permeate higher education much more thoroughly.

Students are recast as revenue streams, to be managed through complex enrollment management practices. Elite universities’ endowments allow them to pull further ahead of the rest, while publics turn to international and out-of-state students to underwrite their budgets and the shareholder obligations of for-profits drive them to extract as much money as possible from the financial aid system. Tight budgets encourage an increasingly competitive and unsustainable grant economy.

And students themselves have come to see higher education as, first and foremost, a financial investment—a perspective that is hard to avoid when you’re facing significant debt and shaky career prospects. Adopting financial logics appears necessary for organizational survival, yet those logics are often at odds with both educational and knowledge-production missions.

2. Quantification and the proliferation of data

A significant literature exists on how rankings have affected higher education. But we are now in a world in which metrics—from impact factors to ROI calculations—are proliferating, and becoming global rather than national. At the same time, the explosion of data makes it easier to track students’ performance both in and after college. This creates the potential to intervene in ways that facilitate student success, but also risks making the easily measurable—like post-graduation salary—the primary metric of institutional success. There is huge room for work that seeks to understand how the massive expansion of data in higher education is transforming organizational incentives, and potentially organizational purpose.

3. The blurring of public/private and for-profit/nonprofit boundaries

The old joke says, “We used to be a state-supported institution, and then we were state-assisted, and now we’re state-located.” For many institutions, this is increasingly true. Yet the same schools—as well as their private counterparts—are increasingly dependent on federal financial aid and research grants. And the entire nonprofit sector benefits from its tax-exempt status, which increasingly raises questions about universities with multibillion dollar endowments. At the same time, for-profit colleges receive most of their revenues from federal financial aid, even as their own obligations are to their shareholders, not to students.

The line between public and private higher education is rapidly shifting in ways we don’t really understand. What obligations do institutions have to the public, and what obligations does government have to higher education?

And the blurring is not limited to the public/private distinction. The line between for-profit and nonprofit is itself increasingly hazy, as traditional colleges become more driven by financial motives, and as nonprofits contract with for-profit organizations to provide not only food and student housing but strategic planning services, online education platforms, and even prepackaged curricula.

4. Growing stratification among higher education organizations

There’s always been a big resource gap between the Harvards of the world and the community colleges. But, mirroring broader trends in U.S. society, these disparities are only increasing. Yale spends over $150,000 per student on educational expenses; Schenectady County Community College, a mere $6,300. Access to elites and public flagships is narrowing even as open-access schools are being defunded.

It’s hard to imagine how this won’t intensify the role of higher education in reproducing social inequality. Moreover, it points to the possibility of an increasingly insular elite stratum not only in higher education itself but, following that, in finance, technology, government, media, and beyond. On the other end of the economic spectrum, low-income and minority students are channeled into for-profit colleges that will saddle them with the albatross of student loan debt but no degree, or a worthless one.

The effects go beyond students, however. This stratification increasingly affects knowledge production as well. As the financial gap between the elites and all but a very few well-endowed publics grows, it becomes harder to do science at top levels outside of those wealthy institutions. There’s a case to be made for clustering talent at a relatively small number of institutions, but this looks more like failure to support talent elsewhere, with unknown consequences.

5. The globalization of higher education

This post has focused heavily on higher education in the United States, as does U.S. sociology of (higher) education in general. But this myopia is a huge mistake. Higher ed is already a global enterprise, and it’s becoming even more so. This is much more evident from outside the U.S., but even here, it is becoming hard to ignore as, for example, Chinese undergraduates become increasingly important in balancing budgets at many universities. And as the U.S. system is going through a painful transformation, Europe and China are trying to emulate what they see as its strengths.

These global dynamics are already transforming higher education elsewhere, and are becoming increasingly important within the U.S. as well. We ignore this at our peril. Comparative scholarship also can help us understand potential effects of policy decisions on complex higher education organizations. The U.K., for example, is a test case for how an increasingly managerial, centralized governance system will affect the education of students and the production of knowledge.

There are plenty of other topics related to higher education—both organizational and otherwise—that are and will remain important. But if I had to put money on five where an organizational perspective can add real value in understanding the current transformation, these are my picks. Add your own in the comments.


Written by epopp

April 8, 2016 at 6:46 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Great post. Now for the scholars in this field it is important to make the policy connections to stakeholders in your state legislatures, teacher unions, US Department of Education and the like. Smart organizational analyses are largely missing in policy discussions, which leads to defaulting to crude market mimicking policy recipes.

    Liked by 1 person

    Don Tomaskovic-Devey

    April 8, 2016 at 7:19 pm

  2. Re: #4–there’s always been a bias towards studying the top, and increasingly scholars are starting to realize the importance of studying the bottom. But the middle matters too! Anyone want to give me a bunch of $$$ so I can study the middle?



    April 8, 2016 at 8:23 pm

  3. @Mikaila — YES. The middle is huge, and almost entirely ignored. I hope someone gives you a bunch of $$$ too!



    April 8, 2016 at 10:25 pm

  4. I’m an English composition and rhetoric scholar. The issues you’re writing about here are highly relevant to my field’s working conditions and scholarship. The work we share suggests a convergence of approaches are vital to not only understanding higher ed phenomenon but also bending the whole in more socially progressive ways. sociological, historical, rhetorical, surely many more angles. Let’s keep our disciplines talking to each other.


    Collie Fulford

    April 8, 2016 at 10:46 pm

  5. Another interesting post. For any scholars working on these area with respect to issues in business schools, one outlet you might consider is Academy of Management Learning & Education (AMLE) – a 4 (highest) on the ABS list. Lots of great AMLE articles on other related issues such as Business School Boom (and Bust) in Dubai, implications of working in student teams speaking English versus students’ native language etc.


    Siri Terjesen

    April 14, 2016 at 9:14 pm

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