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Most sectors of the U.S. economy are highly concentrated with one notable exception: Higher education. 

It is ironic that the academy is perhaps the most striking example in American society of the competitive marketplace in action. Colleges and universities engage in a constant struggle for resources, faculty, students, and reputation.

A marketplace mentality prevails, with institutions out for themselves and the devil take the hindmost. 

Institutional competition is a source of American higher education’s greatest strengths, but also for many of its weaknesses. No institution, no matter how prestigious, can afford to wrest on its laurels. All feel intense pressure to keep up with pace-setter institutions, whether this involves facilities, amenities, academic programs, or student services.

The drive to improve an institution’s ranking can be a force for good: promoting improvements in student-faculty ratios, reductions in class size, and expenditures on instruction and services. But the competitive marketplace also discourages institutions from deviating very far from established norms. Harvard envy and flagship envy are a genuine reality.

One consequences of market competition is that higher education is among this society’s most stratified sectors. Institutions vary widely across every fault line: endowment size, instructional and financial aid expenditures, and students’ college preparedness, among others.

The most striking consequence of institutional competitiveness is the failure of colleges and universities to focus on the needs of the ecosystem as a whole. Many of the most severe challenges facing colleges and universities can’t be solved one institution at a time. Whether this involves improving enrollment of low-income and underrepresented students or increasing the number of non-traditional students who receive a meaningful degree, cross-institutional cooperation and collaboration, not competition, is part of the answer.

When Harvard and Yale spend more than a billion dollars apiece to construction or refurbishment of undergraduate housing, something is terribly wrong.  

What, then, is to be done?

The better resourced institutions need to do more to better prepare non-traditional students for a rigorous college education. Why is it that tiny Bard College has created a series of high schools for precisely this purpose while their far wealthier counterparts have not? Why is it that elite research institutions do not do more to bring in many more undergraduates from under-resourced institutions for institutes, boot camps, and summer research opportunities?

Of course, many top institutions are good citizens, but even their best efforts tend to be localized and of limited scale. I have heard from directors of outreach programs, such as those created to inspire underrepresented students to pursue STEM fields, that they reject far, far more qualified students than they serve.

And while there has been a recent emphasis on how to scale open learning (with university-backed efforts such as edX) or to boost career readiness and advancement, there have not been parallel efforts to help the higher ed ecosystem as a whole.

Opportunity abounds. What about …

  • Creating MOOCs in indigenous languages?
  • Freely licensing the instructional resources and tools incorporated into MOOCS?
  • Openly sharing the technologies that they have developed to facilitate a better user experience in online courses or to promote interaction in face-to-face courses?
  • Developing and widely disseminating personalized, adaptive, highly interactive courseware that might be used broadly, along the lines of Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative?

In one respect, higher education has shared its wealth.I suspect that extraordinarily talented faculty members have never been so widely distributed as they are today. Every institution that I am familiar with, including many community colleges, has a host of professors who were trained at leading research universities and have a striking record of scholarly publication.

But in other respects, a miserly attitude prevails. 

It needn’t. JSTOR and ARTSTOR are stunning examples of the possibility of extending access to quality well beyond a narrow elite. One no longer needs to teach at a major research university to have access to staggering library and archival resources.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the farmers alliances called for a cooperative economy to replace the emerging corporate economy. The time has certainly come for a more collaborative higher education ecosystem with far greater sharing than is the case today.

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of the forthcoming Higher Ed Next: Advancing Access, Affordability, and Achievement.

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