Universities Are an Illusion

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s department of African and Afro-American studies offered a now-notorious selection of non-classes for athletes — and others — who needed a little… help:

After the fraud was exposed and both the university chancellor and Mr. Davis lost their jobs, outside investigators discovered that U.N.C. had essentially no system for upholding the academic integrity of courses. “So long as a department was offering a course,” one distinguished professor told the investigators, “it was a legitimate course.”

Mr. Davis came to understand this all too well. As the investigators wrote in their final report, Mr. Davis “found Chapel Hill’s attitude toward student-athlete academics to be like an ‘Easter egg,’ beautiful and impressive to the outside world, but without much life inside.”

Most colleges, presumably, aren’t harboring in-house credit mills. Yet in its underlying design, organizational values and daily operations, North Carolina is no different from most other colleges and universities. These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.

This goes a long way toward explaining why colleges spend so much time and effort creating a sense of tribal solidarity among students and alumni. Think of the chant that Joe Paterno and students cried out together at the height of their university’s pedophilia scandal: “We are! Penn State!” The costumes, rituals and gladiatorial contests with rival colleges are all designed to portray the university as united and indivisible. Newer colleges that lack such deeply rooted identities spend millions of dollars on branding consultants in order to create them.

They do this to paper over uncomfortable truths revealed by their own researchers.

The Bible of academic research on how colleges affect students is a book titled, plainly enough, “How College Affects Students.” It’s an 848-page synthesis of many thousands of independent research studies over the decades. The latest edition was published in 2005 by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, professors at the University of Iowa and Penn State.

The sections devoted to how colleges differ from one another are notable for how little they find. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini carefully document, studies have found that some colleges are indeed better than others in certain ways. Students tend to learn more in colleges where they have closer relationships with faculty and peers, for example, and earn a little more after graduating from more selective institutions.

But these findings are overwhelmed in both size and degree by the many instances in which researchers trying to detect differences between colleges found nothing.

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

The fact that universities hardly exist as unified teaching organizations should not be confused with the question of whether going to college is “worth it.” The typical student who graduates from a college somewhere fares far better in the job market than the typical student who doesn’t.


People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

The problem for students is that it is all but impossible to know ahead of time which part of the disunified university is which. Consumers of higher education have been taught that their main choice lies between whole institutions that are qualitatively different from one another. Because this is wrong, the higher education market often fails, which is probably one reason that a third of students who enroll in four-year colleges transfer or drop out within three years.

The whole apparatus of selective college admissions is designed to deliberately confuse things that exist with things that don’t. Many of the most prestigious colleges are an order of magnitude wealthier and more selective than the typical university. These are the primary factors driving their annual rankings at or near the top of the U.S. News list of “best” colleges. The implication is that the differences in the quality of education they provide are of a similar size. There is no evidence to suggest that this is remotely true.

When college leaders talk about academic standards, they often mean admissions standards, not standards for what happens in classrooms themselves. Or they vaguely appeal to traditions and shared values without any hard evidence of their meaning. This is understandable, because the alternative is admitting that many selective institutions are not intrinsically excellent; they were just lucky enough to get into the business of selecting the best and brightest before everyone else.


  1. Grad Student says:

    As someone who works at one of the selective institutions, it is probably worth mentioning that most of them don’t think that their primary role is education. Research is the main job focus, with teaching being an activity that you spend time on when you have some.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    I taught at an elite small liberal arts school for two years and at a major research university for 35 years. Kerr’s comment about faculty being independent entrepeneurs is spot on. Faculty are hired on their proven or inferred ability to bring in research dollars. All universities have tacit quotas for the amount of monies required, and one’s promotion and tenure depend upon one’s success in getting them. PhD students and papers also count, but they are secondary products of grant money.

    It is important to note that faculty members are never supervised or monitored, so as long as the money situation is OK whatever happens in the classroom is a nonissue as long as students don’t complain. That is why the scandal at UNC’s African and African-American Studies department happened. It was revealed after decades only after a tutor spilled the beans, and she was hounded and slandered.

    It is a certainty that similar scandals exist at every university and college in the US, and likely overseas as well, at least wherever the American model prevails. The prime suspects will always be the largely contentless “* Studies Programs.” They exist because they serve the needs of faculty, students, athletic departments and administrations.

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