The Agenda

Open or Closed: Kevin Carey on America’s Elite Universities

I was extremely impressed by Kevin Carey’s essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Harvard, scale, and the incentives facing elite universities. Every sentence is worth reading, and I’m reluctant to even try to single out one passage. But this one is as good as any:


In June 2008, at the apex of the endowment’s illusory height, President Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard dedicated much of her first commencement address to explaining why the university was not as rich as it seemed. Not because she saw the fool’s gold for what it was, but because the need to spend was so great. “Our accountability to the future challenges us to do not less, but ever more,” she said. Ever more. Aspiration without limit, accumulation without end.

That unquenchable thirst for resources, which is by no means unique to Harvard, has spread throughout the larger body of American higher education. Every state and city has its would-be Ivies now, striving for ways to build a heap of cash, not admit as many undergraduates as possible, and charge more tuition to those who remain.

Undergraduates are increasingly being used as decoration, passing strangers handy for photographs in brochures. That’s why admissions officers work so hard to get them in all manner of shapes, sizes, and colors. And that’s why nobody wants to admit more of them—you only need so many to fill out a brochure, and the more applicants you reject the more awesomely selective and unattainable—and thus attractive—you seem.

Rather than scale up, elite universities husband their prestige and consume ever more resources. I feel very fortunate to have had access to a good education, and to have been surrounded by interesting, hard-working peers. Yet I increasingly doubt the wisdom of devoting public resources to educational institutions that can’t, or that won’t, scale up to meet the needs of all students who are willing to learn. 

The Next Web’s short history of open educational innovation offers a useful counterpoint to Carey’s essay.


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