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Higher Ed, The Market, and "What Money Can't Buy"
June 17, 2012 - 9:30pm

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
Published in April 2012


What Money Can't Buy arrives at an opportune time as we debate on campus our relationship to larger market forces. The prevailing ethos in nonprofit higher ed seems to be well aligned with Sandel's central thesis, namely that markets are not neutral arbitrators of relationships, but instead influence and impact the exchanges in which market mechanisms dominate.   

Examples in which higher ed operates outside of market norms include:

Admissions: At highly competitive institutions it is not possible to "buy a seat" in a given class. Norms of meritocracy and institutional commitments to achieving diversity in our classes and opportunity regardless of income override efforts to maximize revenues. Highly competitive institutions could theoretically auction off a percentage of the available slots to the highest bidder, even setting a floor for credentials (standardized test scores, GPA etc.) that bidders must achieve in order to be considered for admission. Keeping the number of auctioned slots relatively low (say 20%), and the credential floor high, might serve a dual purpose of dramatically raising tuition revenue without significantly lowering admissions standards. Although some may argue that elite institutions already do something like this, with legacy or "special admit" categories, it is closer to the truth that the values of meritocracy in admission decisions have only grown year-after-year.  While high achievement may be associated with familial resources, the metrics in which admission decisions are made have everything do to with performance and ability (on an individual applicant level), and a desire to achieve both equity of opportunity and diversity within the class. (Perhaps you could argue the point?).

Advertising: Our campuses remain largely pristine islands in vast seas of advertising, sponsorship and marketing. Do you see billboards on campus buildings, or advertising screens within our classrooms? Is your Intro to Sociology class brought to you by Pepsi? In What Money Can't Buy Sandel discusses the spread of sponsorship, marketing and advertising into areas of life previously untouched. Have you been forced to watch advertisements on gas pumps while filling up your car? Endured ads prior to previews at a movie, or even after the flight safety video on Delta Airlines? The White Sox play at U.S. Cellular Field, instead of the old Comiskey Park (which makes me happy to be a Red Sox fan, as Fenway Park lives on!). Airport lounges may be sprouting video screens (with advertising between the programming), but our campuses remain largely ad free.  (Perhaps you can point to counter examples?).

In both admissions and advertising higher ed has largely succeeded in retaining a non-market orientation. We could think of other examples where market norms have not replaced traditional higher ed values, such as grades (which can't be bought), and course rigor (the customer / student is not always right). 

There are other areas, however, where market mechanisms are influencing campus decisions and actions to a greater extent than in previous generations. The loss of public support for higher ed, combined with rising costs and increased demand for educational services, have caused many of our institutions to enter into partnerships with private educational providers. 

Done well, these partnerships provide net gains for both parties. Academic control (and hence academic values) are maintained by the non-profit institution, where the for-profit partner can earn returns on investment by specializing in areas of strength (such as marketing, technology, or student support).  Sandel, I think, would not be opposed to these public / private partnerships in principal. He would insist, however, that entering into these relationships (and hence agreeing to make decisions at least in part following market logic of profit and loss) changes the nature of our institutions, and that these changes need to be recognized and evaluated.   

In the coming years non-profit higher ed will stand less and less apart from other information industries. We face the same competitive and cost pressures as our for-profit colleagues, and will need to follow similar paths to achieve productivity if we wish to remain viable. Inevitably, our decision making will reflect concerns around the bottom line, in addition to the more traditional values found in the academy. What Money Can't Buy, although not a book predominantly about the market and higher ed, can provide us with a useful framework as we struggle to maintain our values around knowledge creation, teaching and service in the face increasingly difficult economic circumstances.

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