Think Outside Your Box

February 8, 2012 | Blog

It is often said that access/diversity and affordability in higher education can only come at the expense of quality. Thus, it is all-too-common for critics to cast those in favor of broadening college access as socialists who simply want to destroy high-quality educational institutions. They promote a false dichotomy that has been kept alive for decades by the consistent retelling of the “tragedy of the commons.” The tragedy, we’re told, is that people will always strive to maximize their private benefits, and that eventually these will necessarily come at the expense of common goods.  Garrett Hardin famously laid this out for us in 1968.

Sadly, far too many people seem to think the tragedy of the commons is a problem that can’t be solved. The “iron triangle” model dominating decision-making in higher education confirms this– since “we know” that spending leads to quality (thus less spending leads to less quality), and that increased access (e.g. more people) requires more money, then it follows that more access means less quality. Right?
Well, no, not really.  First, the link between spending and quality is notoriously weak — maybe because there’s too little variation in spending and/or quality to detect an effect, but maybe not.  Second, just because money is spent on access does not mean that money isn’t also creating more quality (especially if diversity is one measure of quality). And third, it’s possible to spend less money on quality and yet produce more quality by increasing productivity.

But you can’t produce more productivity without greater compensation since people will only respond only to cash, right?  You can’t get hard work without inequality– and inequality is good since a rising tide lifts all boats. Right?? Well, again, no.  It is possible to solicit great effort from humans with other motivators, including security, community, and self-esteem.  Higher education is terrible at distributing these things; it’s a climate where professors are said to be “independent contractors,” always trying to one-up each other, and it’s the very rare administrator who takes time to commend or praise her faculty’s hard work.  But places do exist, whole departments even, where people get along, and this keeps them content and productive even when they are not well-compensated according to “market value.”

The current crisis in public higher education demands that we make it a priority to grow and nuture such places.  They have to be created by real leaders, and leadership is what’s really lacking right now.  Higher education leaders that are educated and experienced in the areas in which they work (e.g. higher education policy), leaders that focus on goal-setting first, and policy development second, leaders that see nothing as inevitable and everything in education as a possibility— these are so hard to come by.  We are surrounded by narrow-minded thinkers who can’t imagine a world other than the one they live in now. But if we encourage and develop people who can think outside the box–the box created by a highly individualistic vision of higher education– we will find a sustainable model.  We will, as a community, move beyond the tragedy of the commons.

I’m not alone in this vision.  Hear it again, directly from the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics– Elinor Olstrom.

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