There are four models of success for institutions of higher education. These choices are available not only in higher education, but most sectors in a competitive economy, from gadgets to commodities: the high end, the low end, the middle and the unique. The first has become so alluring, however, that the other three, all viable, are at risk of being rejected without consideration.
The first option is at the high end. There is no need to name the names. A handful of institutions of higher education enjoy reputations that are excellent and extensive. As much as academics might feign indifference about the grubby business that enables their intellectual lives, the apt word to describe what the leading schools have that others covet is "brand" -- they are elite and global.
Virtually everyone aspires to this status. Many assume "aspiration" by definition means "toward the best." Administrators, encouraged by their many constituencies, display a mania for identifying their "aspirational peers," those whom they would emulate and presumably exceed. They recognize that it is money which enables the ascent. Funding flows toward great ideas and an ability to execute on strategy.
The second option is at the low end. There also is no need to name the names. There are institutions of higher education that are not a first choice for anyone except the investors in the for-profit ventures. But there is an alternative that has gained attention and should be all the more celebrated as the gateway it has always been: community colleges.
The problem is that most of us are ambitious. We mistake the gaming that enhances a school's standing with the profound work of improving an individual's prospects. A great community college remains a community college for generations of those who will transcend that starting point while always respecting its value.
The third option is in the middle. A corporate leader who headed a conglomerate that sold products at all price points would try to achieve economies of scale and differentiate their goods. They would be implacable in their efficiency; they contain overhead as much as possible. That does not work as well in higher education, because it is antithetical to the higher education ethos. But it has a counterpart: a significant state subsidy.
There's the rub. It is a cliche to observe that one cannot be all things to all people and should not try. Yet that isn't quite so with respect to public higher education.
The vision of land grant institutions of higher education was expressly based on a robust conception of the public good. The government representing the people would support the comprehensive range of programs in order to ensure the citizens would be prepared for productive participation in society. Everything from A to Z, agronomy to zoology, and the core of our culture, the canonical Great Books, are to be available. They are worth a draw on the public fisc, because they cannot make it on their own, and we would be worse off as a nation if we lost these disciplines.
The fourth option is the unique. The claim to be unique deserves the skepticism with which it is met. All schools are unique, like their peers; and perhaps so they are, in a superficial sense. With all due respect to the fine liberal arts colleges that constitute a wonderful American tradition, there are many schools that once had distinctive identities but which now are indistinguishable from their rivals. If you took their website and view book, swapped out the logos but kept everything else from mission statements to images, hardly anyone would notice the differences. They all emphasize the same characteristics of high-quality academic content, diverse student bodies, preparation for meaningful lives, and an enriching, nurturing campus experience.
These tendencies are not wholly the fault of accreditation requirements and other regulations. They also result from rankings. The common scale forces competition along its metrics.
A few bravura experiments in American higher education have sustained themselves. They include sectarian schools that have resisted secular trends. They include schools with labor programs or that serve specific populations.
There remains hope. More than anything else America is offering the world, higher education and democracy through rule of law are the most attractive. That is no accident, because the one enables the other: colleges and universities are the engine of the American Dream.