Mitch Daniels, the Purdue University president and the former Indiana governor, recently announced that Purdue plans to acquire seven for-profit schools and colleges from Kaplan University, along with more than 30,000 online students and some 3,000 current Kaplan employees. The new nonprofit university will have its own name but carry the Purdue label.
In response, the Purdue University Senate held a special session and passed a resolution condemning the deal, saying it posed a potential threat to Purdue’s academic quality. The resolution also noted that the faculty was never consulted prior to the announcement, something the Senate said violated the practice of shared governance and faculty control of the curriculum. The Senate also questioned how faculty governance and academic freedom would be assured at the newly created university, and it called for a rescission of the decision by Purdue to acquire Kaplan.
The blogosphere has been buzzing ever since. A story in Inside Higher Ed (May 5, 2017) generated more than 40 responses in just six hours, most of which were largely supportive of the Senate’s position, although some backed President Daniels.
At the heart of the dispute is an issue that has bedeviled education for centuries: the struggle for access by those seeking education, and the opposition by those who are educated and who seek to preserve their special status by restricting access to newcomers.
In the Middle Ages, literate monks worked to prevent the spread of literacy to peasants. Colonial-era colleges were almost exclusively limited to the landed gentry (male only, thank you). African Americans were obliged to create their own colleges, since very few of the existing colleges, including public colleges, permitted their enrollment. Jews were placed on a quota system in the first half of the 20th century by many of our most prestigious institutions. Some Ivy League presidents opposed the GI Bill, because it opened the doors of higher education to the working class. There are claims that, even today, students of Asian descent face a higher standard for admission at the University of California than do white students.
The students (current and prospective), the colleges and universities, and society at large all are parties of interest as regards who are, and are not, offered admission to college — and their views are not congruent.
The purpose of college from the student perspective is to assure access to, and graduation from, colleges and universities that will prepare them well for their post-graduate future.
The purpose of college from society’s perspective is to build a stronger society. A recent study at Georgetown University found that 73 percent of the jobs created since the beginning of the Great Recession required a four-year degree. Since only about 34 percent of adult Americans have a four-year degree, it is clearly in society’s interest to have more college graduates, and this means supporting the creation of educational pathways for students who are now largely excluded from higher education, including working adults and most low-income students. A better educated workforce, one with the skills and abilities needed by the knowledge economy, will accelerate the growth of our nation’s economy, and provide a higher standard of living for more Americans.
The purpose of college from the perspective of the individual institutions is to survive and prosper. At many colleges and universities, this purpose manifests as actions to protect and enhance their “quality,” a word we can interpret as meaning “reputation,” or even “ranking.” Purdue University is a fine institution, regularly ranking in the top 60 or so national universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. It has every reason to be proud of its academic reputation, and understandably wants to protect it. Purdue enrolls about 28,000 undergraduates, has a six-year graduation rate of 76 percent, and 43 percent of its freshmen are from the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class.
But Purdue is a public university, and surely that means putting the public’s interests ahead of its own. Our nation needs to double the current percentage of adult Americans with a four-year degree. Public universities are being called upon to scale up. Purdue President Daniels proposes to do just that, by putting Purdue in the big leagues of online instruction through the acquisition of Kaplan. He is doubling the size of Purdue’s footprint, without adding a single student to the 28,000 undergraduates now on the West Lafayette campus. As president, he has no interest in weakening the perceived value of a Purdue degree, so I take it as a given that he will be scrupulous in ensuring that the online students meet the same academic expectations as the students in residence. Many of these online students are working adults, who are only able to access higher education through an online option—and now they may have the possibility of earning a degree from Purdue!
The issue of how higher education can better serve society was made more immediate by the recent release of survey results showing that 58 percent of adult Americans believe that colleges and universities put their own interests ahead of the interests of students (Hechinger Report, May 11, 2017). We in higher education can ill afford further alienation of the public.
The controversy at Purdue will not be the last time that faculty at well-established universities face the question of whether to place the obvious needs of society ahead of concerns they may have about the possibility of damage to their institutions’ reputations. I very much hope that the Purdue University Senate will reconsider its objection to what President Daniels is proposing to do. Purdue has the opportunity of showing the country how a great public university can provide even greater service to society by dramatically increasing access to a Purdue education.