Quality in Higher Education: Systems and Lifeworlds in Collision

Article excerpt


Questions abound about the quality and purpose of American higher education in the early 21st century. Solutions have tended to be framed in terms of economic production and manufacturing quality control models, and these terms increasingly characterize state and federal systems of authority over colleges and universities. As Habermas theorized, system logic, left to its own devices, will ultimately overpower, or "colonize," the day to day meaning making culture or "lifeworld" of the campus. This colonization runs at counter purposes to the essential foundation of meaning for authentic education. A solution is proposed, suggesting that a deeper base to higher learning lies in embracing the traditional values of the academy and cultivating the faculty as a uniquely rich resource in support of student learning and the dual work of preservation and innovation in addressing the most pressing needs of humanity.


As Steve Culver has documented elsewhere in this issue, higher education in the United States has been subject to escalating scrutiny on matters of cost and quality over the past three decades (see also Aper, 1993; Glenn, 2010). At the same time public and private investments in higher education came to total hundreds of billions of dollars annually. As a contemporary example, the Obama administration's fiscal year 2011 budget proposal calls for almost $200 billion in direct support for programs related to higher education (U.S. Department of Education, 20 1 0) and the 50 states add billions more annually in subsidy of higher education within their boundaries. At the same time the average cost of attendance at public four year institutions has risen almost 70% since 1 990, while the average cost of attendance at private institutions has risen 50%. This stands in contrast to the less than 20% increase in average family income over the same period Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010).

This massive investment has been coupled with the rise of critical questions about the relationship between attainment, or the formal acquisition of educational credentials, and achievement, or the actual knowledge and skill that has demonstrably been gained. Stories abounded of college graduates who could not read, write, think, or work effectively with others. Empirical research on knowledge and skills, the popular press, and political pundits have agreed for some time that many graduates did not seem to have essential knowledge and skills that were expected to have been achieved by those who had attained a baccalaureate degree (e.g. - Miller & Milandra, 2005; Romano, 2005).

Yet, while there is a broad sense that undergraduates are perhaps not coming out of their college experience as a uniform high quality product, there is less agreement on what they should be gaining from their educational experiences and how to somehow verify the quality of these outcomes. Many authors have attempted to articulate the purpose of undergraduate education, and certainly every institution has a statement of mission and sometimes elaborate explanations of the intended outcomes for graduates (e.g. - Hirsch, Kett, & Trefil, 1987; National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2003; Schneider, 2010). While there is substantive documentation of the important non-cognitive outcomes of higher education, most quality control concerns center on cognitive knowledge and skill. This focus is almost certainly too narrow, though it lends itself to greater clarity in defining intended outcomes in ways amendable to modern methods of standardized measurement.

Indeed, it is this disconnection between production and personal values that lies at the crux of the difficulties attending efforts to imbue higher education with modern conceptions of quality assurance. There would seem to be little argument in asserting that those concerned about undergraduate education care about cognitive outcomes like facts and specialized skills, and certainly economic competence (as a functional, efficient producer and consumer of goods and services). …