Conceptualizing Change in the Institutional Diversity of U.S. Colleges and Universities

By Morphew, Christopher C. | Journal of Higher Education, May-June 2009 | Go to article overview

Conceptualizing Change in the Institutional Diversity of U.S. Colleges and Universities


Morphew, Christopher C., Journal of Higher Education


Institutional Diversity in Higher Education

Institutional diversity, or the existence of many different kinds of colleges and universities within a specific higher education system, has long been recognized as a positive and unique attribute of the U.S. higher education system (Carnegie Commission, 1975; Clark & Youn, 1976; Stadtman, 1980; Trow, 1979). Stadtman explicitly identifies several reasons in his discussion of change among colleges and universities:

* Greater institutional diversity allows for greater learning options for students because students are afforded more choices and institutions can adapt their unique strengths to students' needs;

* Greater institutional diversity allows a diverse society like ours to create and maintain a system that can flex with the changes required of it by society; and

* Greater institutional diversity makes it harder for the state or any central authority to use higher education as an instrument for indoctrination of the younger generation.

In his discussion of the importance of institutional diversity, Birnbaum (1983) uses the case of New Jersey to make the point that states with less diverse higher education systems face greater risks of losing students to out-of-state institutions that fit these students' needs. The dangers Birnbaum described more than two decades ago continue today: New Jersey remains one of the biggest net "exporters" of college students and the state arguably risks the loss of an important natural resource as a result of this "brain drain." Likewise, Illinois is an annual exporter of college-going students, due in part to its lack of institutional diversity (Dean & Hunt, 2006).

One could also add a more utilitarian reason to Stadtman's list: cost. A more diverse system of institutions is likely to be more cost-effective at producing the kinds of outputs that a society needs and values than a less diverse system. For example, while research universities are wonderful organizations and produce quite useful products (e.g., knowledge, technology, specialized PhDs) from which a society will benefit, they educate students at a cost several times greater than that of a regional public university or community college. Statewide boards in states with relatively few resources are very cognizant of this and accordingly focus their policy attention on mission differentiation.

Examining Changes in Institutional Diversity

Robert Birnbaum (1983) published the only large-scale study of change in the institutional diversity of U.S. colleges and universities more than two decades ago. Birnbaum's study of the changes in the diversity of college and university types in eight states between 1960 and 1980 in U.S. states used population ecology theory as its primary conceptual framework. The study's findings indicated that "during a period of unprecedented growth in American higher education, the number of different institutional types has not increased" (p. 143). More specifically. Birnbaum found that even after the tremendous growth in the U.S. higher education system during the 1960s and 1970s, there was no more and perhaps less diversity of institutional types among colleges and universities.

In his discussion of these findings as well as earlier in the text, Birnbaum (1983) argued that population ecology would predict such an outcome. Population ecology theorists propose that organizations respond to their environments much the same as animals do: they adapt or don't survive, often producing less diversity as a result (Kast & Rosenzweig, 1973). In the case of organizations, this means that organizations that exist in the same environment, with the same resource providers and product users, would be expected to become more homogeneous over time as well. Put more simply, greater environmental homogeneity begets greater organizational homogeneity, while greater environmental diversity spawns greater organizational diversity. …

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