A University Is A Social Enterprise, So Why Don't They Act Like It?

Instead of focusing on making sure they’re preparing a wide range of students to make the world better, universities seem far more focused on making money.

I just got back from the Ashoka U Exchange, a truly awe-inspiring convergence of college and university students, faculty, and administrators from 30 countries. These universities are putting change-making at the center of their mission because they believe it’s the right thing to do and because in the age of free online courseware, Millennials are drawn to campuses where they can be part of a community that can prepare them for lives of purpose and meaning.

I got the chance to learn from and connect with amazing people like 21-year old Thiel fellow Eden Full, Mosaic solar CEO Billy Parish, New York Times Fixes journalist David Bornstein, Civic Ventures founder Marc Freedman, and former Obama deputy Henry De Sio, and to hear Bill Drayton himself speak to a small group of university leaders as part of the President’s Track.

But something has been bugging me:

A university, if you think about it, is one of the original social enterprises. It’s a publicly and philanthropically supported organization with missions for good in both research and teaching. Unlike charities, universities’ services are not free to the people they serve. In this, they resemble some of the newer breed of social enterprises like microfinance organizations, which lend money to the poor at interest—often quite high interest.

But universities by and large refuse to rigorously track their impact on their students: How many leave with degrees? Are they able to pay back their debt? Do they find good jobs in their chosen field? And they don’t want the government to impose metrics either.

Metrics may be THE defining characteristic of 21st-century social enterprise. In the absence of good honest metrics and accountability measures, a social entrepreneur risks drifting very far from her mission. For example, a central—if not the central—historical mission of the university as a social enterprise is to provide access to a higher education as a path to accomplishment for highly able people of all social backgrounds. Sure enough, in the absence of good metrics and accountability, colleges and universities collectively no longer contribute to social mobility in this country. The wealthiest universities with the largest endowments claim to give out financial aid at their discretion to counteract the effects of their stratospherically high tuition, but the vast over-representation of the richest kids at the most expensive institutions indicates that "need-blind" admissions isn’t doing its job. Fifty-four percent of the richest kids graduate; only 9% of the poorest kids do.

At Ashoka U, I listened to a private university president talk about how he was partnering with a nonprofit to allow his students to spend their entire freshman year doing good works in a developing-country village. They would then arrive on campus as sophomores and have three years to complete their degrees. My jaw dropped when he revealed that the university, which has little financial aid funding, plans to charge students the full regular $40,000 tuition for the privilege of digging wells in Africa, a sum to be split between the university and the nonprofit. This silver-plated charity scheme saves the college money, by arranging for paying students to spend less time on campus, and gives the college the marketing angle of being innovative and aligned with a social mission.

Charity begins at home. If a college can’t provide meaningful access to students regardless of income, either by radically lowering its upfront costs through the use of technology, shortening time to degree, increasing the flexibility of its programs, changing its recruiting, support and accreditation policies, or all of the above, then it shouldn’t call itself a changemaker.

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  • Aaron B.

    As several comments have already pointed out most universities do in fact track the information that you are suggesting that they are not tracking. In fact most institutions have an institutional research office dedicated to such endeavors. 

    Secondly, yes the cost of "college" continues to increase but let's get real. Student's are not paying $40K for just college credit. These days the typical college campus is more like an all inclusive resort than a school - and they get nicer every year as colleges build fancier dorms, bigger rec centers, more advanced research labs, higher tech libraries, and luxurious lifestyle centers featuring as many dining options as you would find in a mall food court - all in an effort to compete with each other for students. 

    Also, you mentioned Ashoka U and their full priced service trip. I'm not familiar with the program but my guess is they are still earning a full load of college credit - that's what they are paying for right? Or is it the country club they are paying for.

    Lastly, you mention meaningful access regardless of income and criticize higher education as failing to be a change maker if it falls short of this. I'm not sure how you define "meaningful access" is in this case but I can tell you that the thrust of the dialogue and the direction of the bulk of new initiatives in strategic enrollment management have to do with first generation college students, meeting financial need to provide access, and navigating the integration of rapidly changing technology into the delivery of curriculum. 

    Quite frankly I wish you would have spoken to someone who works in the academy prior to this post, I think you would have found that we are quit rigorously doing what you accuse us of failing to do.

  • Matt Writer

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  • JMH

    I'm  a little confused about your main issue here - is it measuring impact or reducing costs?

    If you're concerned that universities aren't measuring their impact, it starts with defining what the impact should be.  They (educational instituions) certainly track and record how many people graduate, how many find jobs in X months after graduation, and average starting salary.  In fact, most universities publicize this information.  What I would question is - are these simple quantitative measures encapsulating the impact? You mention measuring "good jobs" - what is a good job? and "Are students able to pay back their debt?" - there are a confluence of factors that contribute to this. 

    I would argue that universities need to create NEW metrics rather than the ones you've listed here - technological competency (companies can't find anyone to fill these positions), student satisfaction, employer satisfaction, exit testing, tracking student progress via internships, jobs while in school.  Things that are a bit more qualitative - I went to an expensive in-state public university, and I have a job, but I did not feel prepared for the workforce.  Additionally, at these universities, there are kids that can earn a degree doing a bare minimum and others that have a great educational experience.

    The issue is: what are the new metrics we need to demand that universities measure? It is then our responsibility to hold them to this.

    The second issue you mention is cost.  Are universities overpriced? Certainly.  That's why public education, corporations, and innovative organizations need to create something to disrupt the industry - MOOC's aren't the answer at the moment.  

    Jared H.

  • studentforce

    To answer your question ...... although tools exist by which the University can act like a Social Enterprise schools have yet to embrace and deploy - please see studentforce.  It enables students to manage their own education regardless of program, MOOC, school, etc.

  • Liz Barnett

    I used to work on several university campuses.  We did track our impact on students in many different ways - there are standardized instruments for that.  We were also grossly underpaid.  In my first position (2004) I was only paid $19,000/year for my full time position.  THAT is the problem.  The people at the university charged with the tasks you are saying a university should do (and are doing) are not getting recognition or attention to what they are doing.  These people are called Student Affairs professionals.  In the sea of a university they are not treated like professionals.  Many people assumed I was an undergraduate student because many of the people working in Student Affairs tend to be young and entry level because the pay is so low.  If that profession was given more klout this would be a different story.  If Student Affairs professionals who are people with advanced degrees, often more degrees than professors hold, were treated like they deserve to be treated your entire article would not be published.  My guess is that there are people from that institution reading this article right now screaming inside because your visit probably did not include them and their voices were not heard.  My guess is that there are many metrics used to track student engagement and outcome of student success from a variety of Student Affairs offices on campus but that the faculty are completely unaware because they live in silos.  The faculty - on every campus I encountered - did not consider the work of Student Affairs to be AS valueable as their work so they did not recognize it or give it the attention it deserves.  There is an entire body of research and a field of study that people undergo to literally bring to action what you talk about in this article, but they are often blended in doing the grunt work of the campus.  They are doing things like helping students who just found out they are pregnant and are considering an abortion.  They are assisting students with severe alcohol and drug problems with the realities they are facing.  They are organizing events to build student engagement (which later translates to alumni involvement).  They are helping students build their resumes through coaching programs.  They are teaching students practical skills necessary to survive and thrive.  They are assisting students who have been date raped.  They are educating students on tolerance and diversity. 

    What you are talking about already exists.  It is already happening on campuses.  Student Affairs professionals are the people making sure that value is brought to the college experience.  They are researching what that value is in graduate programs in the field of study and they are applying it to campus life every day. 

    I don't know about you, but my college education was worth WAY more than the $35,000 a year they charged in 1997.  WAY more.  It literally was priceless to me. 

    We can save for another discussion how money is managed at a university, but I needed to make the point that colleges and universities are well aware of the impact they are having and could have on student life.  Most likely the people doing that were busy actually working.  :)

    There are good metrics.  There is accountability.  Take a trip back and talk to the Student Affairs people - they'll have to work you in between the meeting with the first year student who was raped the night before and the meeting with the football player who got drunk and arrested, but they'll do it.

  • Tanzi Gill

    Couldn't have said it any better. Student Affairs professionals aren't mythical creatures. They do exist. It's just they aren't given enough importance. Hope that it all changes.

  • Calamity

     You are so Right. How can administrators live with themselves for charging such and exorbitant amount of money , when the education they claim to provide cannot even land their graduates a good job?

  • ParasiteUniversities

     Thank you for addressing this issue. It's a sad state when the only thing institutions of higher learning produces these days is wage slaves.

  • Liz Barnett

    This may be true for some universities, but this is not true for all institutions of higher learning.