Among Japanese samurai, there was a cautionary maxim that one needs to really see things and not merely look at them – an important concept for people who fought with razor-sharp swords. In a larger sense, this adage is also an admonishment to us to see things as they really are and not as we might wish them. As I follow discussions regarding higher education nationwide, I am struck by how poorly many commentators understand the complexity of this market. Particularly for smaller private nonprofit institutions, a clear-headed analysis of the challenges inherent in their sector needs to be faced if they are to survive.
Higher Education: Beyond the Ivory Tower
When we think about colleges and universities, particularly private ones, we typically have a fairly stereotyped image: the manicured lawns and stately buildings of a residential campus, libraries groaning under the weight of their holdings and professors deep in research, writing and thought. The students are young and eager, engaged and capable. Learning takes place at a measured pace commensurate with the gravity of the endeavor. And this is not simply the uninformed view of the general public. While many people who work in higher education today are well aware that their educational reality does not usually align with the vision described above, they nonetheless hold tightly to this image as a standard of how things should be. We in the academy know that we cannot all be lucky enough to work at Harvard, but we typically structure our institutions as if we were at Harvard. A kind observer would say this is idealistic and aspirational. An analyst surveying the chances of sustainability for most small private nonprofit colleges and universities would say it’s delusional.