Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Risks of the Market

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 

External forces are at work and are changing "the basic nature of the higher education system" (p. 2). Most notably among these forces are the evolution of numerous new sources of competition and the emergence of a market structure as a means of regulation.


The posting below is a review by Betsy Ackerson of the book :The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Risks of the Market, by Frank Newman, Lara Couturier, and Jamie Scurry, John Wiley & Sons. It appeared in the April/June, 2006 issue of Planning for Higher Education. 34(3): 56-58. The Society for College and University Planning - Copyright © 1998-2005 Reprinted with permission. Planning for Higher Education book reviews appear at: (


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Learning Your Students Names

Tomorrow's Academia

------------------------------------------ 1,140 words -----------------------------------------

The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Risks of the Market

Reviewed by Betsy Ackerson

Institutional leaders, administrators, and policy makers agree that market forces shape the environment in which colleges and universities operate. Factors such as heightened competition, a rise in for-profit institutions, and increased calls by the public for accountability have replaced regulations and policy as determinant factors in decision making. Disagreement among the groups quickly surfaces, however, when leaders in higher education and policy attempt to consider the appropriate role for higher education within the new market. In this volume, Frank Newman and his colleagues from the Futures Project avoid discussion of the merits and drawbacks of the market itself and instead move the conversation to emphasize how higher education should respond. They provide an assessment of the market forces shaping higher education, outline the implications of those forces, particularly as they relate to the public good, and issue a call to arms for universities to lead the charge in instituting policy change.

The late Frank Newman, founder and director of the Futures Project: Policy for Higher Education in a Changing World at Brown University, had a distinguished career in higher education policy. He served 14 years as president of the Education Commission of the States, a policy group that worked with state legislators and educators in developing and implementing education policies. Previously, Newman served as a presidential fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and as president of the University of Rhode Island. The Futures Project, founded by Newman in 1999, was designed to stimulate a debate about the realities of higher education in a global market-based system and to develop effective policies that further higher education within this market. Coauthors Lara Couturier and Jamie Scurry were both actively involved in the Futures Project. Based on four years of extensive research and data collection, this volume is the culminating product of the Futures Project.

A New Market

External forces are at work and are changing "the basic nature of the higher education system" (p. 2). Most notably among these forces are the evolution of numerous new sources of competition and the emergence of a market structure as a means of regulation. Several changes are characteristic of this new market. Students are increasingly viewed as consumers, and institutions are marketing directly to them. Recruitment practices have changed; highly customized and personal techniques are being employed to attract the best and the brightest students. Stemming from this marketing approach, campus amenities such as student centers and recreation centers are used as marketing tools, and resources that might be used in academic settings are directed to support these "auxiliary" projects. Need-based financial aid, once used as an equalizer, is diminishing, and funds are being redirected and used as a means of recruiting top students through merit-based scholarships. Institutions are increasingly concerned with the prestige proffered by rankings, as opposed to alternate and more accurate measures of institutional quality. Finally, as budgets have increased and public funding has decreased, institutions are seeking new revenue sources to such an extent that revenues are the means, not the ends. The authors do not argue against these individual practices per se. However, they do find fault with the implicit priorities of such practices and the consequent disintegration of institutional principles.

Serving the Public Good

The shift towards a market-based system has led to a new discussion centered on an autonomy/accountability tradeoff. In exchange for institutional demands for increased autonomy from regulatory oversight, legislators (and at times the general public) are calling for more accountability from institutions. This in turn necessitates "serious discussion, state by state, engaging both political and academic leaders as well as key community leaders as to how to restructure the system of higher education" (p. 46). Crucial to this discussion is higher education's role in serving the public good. Newman and his colleagues assert that there is a growing gap between rhetoric and reality in this area. Seven areas of public need should drive education reform and practice: (1) the need for institutions, not students, to take responsibility for student learning, (2) the need to ensure degree attainment along with access, (3) the need to address efficiency and productivity issues, (4) the need for higher education to support elementary and secondary education, (5) the need to reduce conflicts of interest, particularly in research and finance, (6) the need to serve as "society's critic" (p. 63) by fostering open analysis and debate on critical issues, and (7) the need to influence and encourage active civic participation among students. The challenge lies in incorporating these seven needs into the policy formulation process in a way that engages and satisfies leaders from government, academe, and the community.

Framing the Policy Discussion

By taking a lead role in the policy discussion, academe can "contribute to creating a plan that ensures thoughtful and necessary interventions but avoids old-style regulation lest higher education end up with the worst of both worlds" (p. 100). In response to the changes in the competitive environment, the market drivers, and the expressed public needs, the authors focus on four key areas for policy development that, when combined, form a comprehensive response to the market-based system of higher education. These areas are autonomy and accountability, responsibility for student learning, access and completion, and competitive funding for teaching and service. Most intriguing for its novel approach is the creation of a competitive, peer-reviewed grant program for teaching and service. Drawing directly from the successful creation of competitive grants for university research, the authors advocate expanding the funding model to also include teaching and service. Alluding to the immediate success of the Fund for Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) upon its implementation, they suggest "a skillfully designed grant program can be more effective at generating willing involvement in the hard work of improving learning than a regulatory approach" (p. 190).

While the market has obviously brought significant change to higher education, institutions are poised to respond in a way that best suits them as well as the public they serve. The thoroughly researched analysis of market forces coupled with a robust presentation of thoughtfully constructed policy alternatives make this book truly compelling. What is missing is any discussion of the non-academic operations of colleges and universities. Learning does take place outside the classroom, and there is no doubt that policies have a tremendous effect on areas such as student affairs. To include a discussion on that front would strengthen the message. While the primary applications of policies in this volume are for public institutions, the market does not make such a distinction, and representatives from private institutions are also well served by the message. Upon reading this volume, administrators, campus leaders, board members, public officials, and anyone involved in the policy process will be familiar with the issues and prepared to engage in constructive dialogue that will propel higher education into the future.