Change and the University

The usual reason for change in an organization is a professed desire to make the organization more effective and efficient. Yet many organizations, especially colleges and universities, make change after change without any significant improvements, and often those changes aren’t for the better.

Those running such organizations aren’t usually idiots; so why do they persist in seeking change that seldom results in anything but cosmetic change?

From what I’ve observed, they all believe that, in any organization, there’s room for improvement. And in an overall theoretical view, it often looks that way, but the problem is that too many managers/administrators are looking at managing people as if they were machines or tools.

In this sense, if largely subconsciously, the legislators in my home state of Utah regard colleges and universities in just that way. The state is paying the university in question to be a graduate-producing factory and the faculty and staff as machines in that factory, a factory that needs to increase the percentage of students obtaining degrees.

The factory analogy doesn’t work that well for colleges for several basic reasons. First, the raw materials (i.e., the students) aren’t, if you will, a standardized feedstock or even standardized parts. They exhibit a wider range of abilities, and over the years, universities have effectively been coerced and forced into accepting an ever-greater diversity of students.

Seventy-five years ago, that wasn’t nearly the case. Students were predominantly white males, largely from at least middle-class backgrounds, graded for possibilities and intelligence by standardized tests, and by far more rigorous secondary school grading than today. Colleges were designed to smooth off the rough edges and impart a basic ability to think and solve higher-level problems. Those with greater abilities, including the ability to roughly conform, were groomed for higher education in select professions. Along the way, those who lacked adequate intelligence (as measured by the system), lack of persistence, and lack of ambition (as defined by the system) were weeded out, with the result that in 1950, only a little more than 6% of Americans had a college degree.

Since then, universities have diversified the range of applicants that they accept and the fields of studies that they offer, so that 61% of high school graduates enter college, and over half of them graduate. As a result, today 54% of working age Americans have a college degree, either a four year degree or an two year associate’s degree, while census estimates for 2024 indicate 37% have a four year degree. On average, it also takes more time and resources, with 22% of students gaining bachelor’s degrees taking six years to do.

The U.S. higher education system has moved from a limited factory model where a high percentage of pre-selected students graduated (particularly those who survived their first year of college, since a number of state universities tended to flunk out disproportionate numbers of first year students in the years prior to 1960) to a non-factory model with far wider opportunity… but with a far higher cost for that education.

The second problem with the current factory model is that it doesn’t reflect the changes in the economy and society, yet politicians and too many educators tend to cling to the “factory model,” even though it’s no longer applicable, and keep tinkering with the system, year after year, seeking even higher graduation rates without realizing that roughly 40% of graduates end up unemployed or “underemployed” every year.

Tinkering with universities to increase graduation rates isn’t a solution particularly beneficial to students when there aren’t enough jobs for existing graduates, but I’ve yet to see any university leader or politician address that issue, most likely because universities have become job creation centers for not only the administrators, faculty, and staff, but also for the local community – especially if the college or university has a strong and profitable athletic department.

Given the astronomical cost of higher education, there’s also an incentive for the financial community to provide student loans. All the economic beneficiaries of college are supported largely by student tuition and fees, including the funds paid by the forty percent of the students who will never get a job making enough to pay off their loans.

But the pressure to increase graduation rates continues, even as college students, in general, learn less than their predecessors and pay more for that privilege.

6 thoughts on “Change and the University”

  1. KTL says:


    Could you provide some source info on your statistics that say 54% of all Americans have a college degree? When last I looked at the top line summary from the 2020 US Census the number was in the mid 30s%. Here’s a link that suggest that number is 35.7% for those attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher. Note that the source is secondary and is a survey as well and not directly from the census.

    I’ll keep looking but the 54% sounds awfully high.

    1. You’re right. I inadvertently left out a few qualifiers, and I’ve amended the post to reflect that. A Lumina Foundation study gave the 54% figure, but it refers to the percentage of working age Americans with either a four year degree or a two year degree.

  2. Hanneke says:

    Do the 2-year degrees include the vocational training to become a plumber, bricklayer, tilesetter, electrician, nurse or nursing assistant, and other such practical jobs?
    People with those qualifications are needed, there tend to be more jobs than qualified applicants for those in my country.
    I think it would be a good thing if more people took that (shorter and cheaper) vocational college route instead; the top earners of the full college route careers earn more, but for most students the vocational careers can pay as well as a lot of the lower to medium level jobs that a lot of college alumni end up in.
    Status seems to play a larger part than practical considerations in school and career choices, I wonder if school guidance councellors could change that if they had to have some kind of certification in being aware of current and expected labour markets, education costs and career trajectories as well as student assesments.

    1. The reputable technical/vocational schools I know provide certifications rather than A.A. degrees.

      I agree with your point that many vocational jobs pay more than a significant percentage of jobs requiring an undergraduate degree.

  3. Bill says:

    Some of this is the consequence of the American Dream. Every young athlete dreams of being a professional athlete or competing in the Olympics even thought the likelihood is far less than getting a “good” job as an adult. Parents generally encourage the same dreams. When they don’t, there is the tale of the underdog who succeeds despite significant disadvantages. There are plenty of people who proudly tell how they were told to pick a “trade” and have gone on to be “successful”. There are just as many tales about the “most likely to succeed” not succeeding. Everyone is subtly encouraged to go for it.
    There are two bigger issues at play – one is turning measurements into goals especially bigger is better. In this case what is the right graduation percentage? An initial response is the higher the better. The consequence is either two options – only let in people who will graduate like the military academies or turn graduation into participation trophies.
    The second issue is that people move up by running a “successful” program. An assistant administrator becomes an administrator or dean by taking an idea and implementing it well. This is why software is constantly changing. Low-level managers get promoted by coming up with ideas that get chosen. Most software “improvements” are not needed by the users but needed by a manager to get promoted.

  4. Ronald Maurer says:

    The great lies of education. All the best jobs were going to college graduates. So the simple solution is if everyone goes to college, everyone will have a great job and earn loads of money. Of course simple economics tells us it will work differently. There are now a lot more people competing for those great jobs, so the pay for them goes down.
    Go to college, study what you want, it doesn’t matter what degree you get, you’ll be fine. No, a lot of degrees are simply worthless. You just put yourself in debt for years for no real gain.

    College in a lot of non-technical fields, was simply a sorting mechanism. If you could make it through, the company would probably be able to teach you what the company needed you to know. Again, this is non technical and doesn’t apply to fields like chemistry and engineering. So now with all these college grads, there are new sorting mechanisms. The biggest one I see is the “unpaid internship”. Which is another way to get free labor and cheapen the value of a college education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *