“Student-Centered” Colleges and Universities Retreat from Responsibility

Western culture, like Christianity, is generously teleological. Deep in the gullies of popular culture, high-profile coaches chatter about achieving goals at the end of the season while damaged celebrities explain therapeutic processes that have yielded redemptive outcomes. High culture abounds with savvy talking heads who can identify the long-term objectives of this or that nation; with economic experts who anticipate the next end-of-the-year report; and even with a few priests willing to talk about the “four last things.” Given the intense western interest in goals achieved over time, it is all the more peculiar that one of the biggest and best inventions of western culture, colleges and universities, should become fixated on an institutionalized form of permanent childhood, that which higher education administrators nowadays call “student-centered institutions” and student “recruitment and retention.” This should give pause to Catholics who belong to a church that provides so many sacraments and ceremonies, from baptism to marriage, that commemorate the progress toward full, adult personhood.

Students attempting to choose a college face a very different prospect than they did in the days of the raccoon coat and football players who could quote Shakespeare. A promising youngster or a helpful parent who peruses the “web” or “media presence” of the nearly 2,500 American campuses that confer baccalaureate degrees will find very few that do not deploy the phrase “student-centered” in their publicity. This mantra has all but eclipsed references to tradition, culture, curriculum, quality, or knowledge. Some schools blazon their student-centeredness on their web and print publications while others tuck it away in their “strategic plans” or “mission statements,” but, whether in large or small type, those words always appear. Parents and students, who must quickly tunnel their way through the mounds of advertisements that high-achieving students receive from tuition-hungry colleges, will have a hard time resisting the lure of that designation. After all, who would object to putting students at the center of the educational agenda? Who would want to put the spotlight on imperious professors who care more for abstruse research than for America’s budding leaders?

Aristotle explains that the first step in understanding a phenomenon is a consideration of its cause. The rise of student-centered campuses over the last twenty years corresponds to cuts in public funding for higher education and to a shift to reliance on “self-generated revenues,” a code-word for tuition. Owing to demographic changes as well as to policymakers’ concern for workforce development, demand for four-year higher education has remained steady or slightly decreased while the need for tuition has increased. I say “need for tuition” rather than the more conventional “cost” because the desired increase in revenues more often comes about through expansion of student populations than through simple fee hikes.

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Tweaking admissions requirements allows for enlargement of student bodies despite adverse demographics and in ways that elicit few objections. Typical strategies include moving from standard test scores and grades to “holistic” consideration of applicants’ (usually unspecified) other achievements or by creating remedial, bridging programs for underprivileged or minority populations. Adjusting admissions standards under the guise of empowering “under-represented” groups is especially congenial to student-centered education in that it transfers attention from what a student does to what a student is.

Student recruitment and student-centeredness interact with one another in ways that undercut both educational and ethical or religious values. Unknown to most students and their parents is the enormous cost of the public relations apparatus that projects the student-centered image. Most institutions of any magnitude employ not only a highly-paid director of “enrollment management”—a sales professional who often carries an academic-sounding title such as “Vice-President for Enrollment Services”—but also a large staff of technocrats charged with data analysis, marketing, branding, and the targeting of carefully profiled sectors of the student market. Universities outsource most of their nationwide recruitment effort to a nomadic tribe of admissions representatives situated in various populous zones, most of whom have no connection with the university they represent other than their employment contract and many of whom work by turns for multiple institutions.

Student recruiting enterprises drain seven-figure sums from campus budgets and untold millions nationwide; often, they employ high-cost commercial marketing techniques such as highway billboards, sponsorship of public radio and television stations, or direct mail advertisements, not to mention getting abundant in-kind from alumni associations. The first encounter between a student candidate and a higher education institution is thus characterized by prevarication, i.e., by interactions with slick but insincere professional recruiters armed with overstated advertisements and supported by phalanxes of marketing experts. It should not be forgotten that the cost of such an operation exceeds the budget of the inevitably modest religious studies department or the underfunded Catholic Student Center.

What Plato somewhat unidiomatically called “flattery”—telling or giving people what makes them happy or comfortable—is the common core of both modern student recruitment and the student-centered theme that recruiters so heavily favor. About as far from saintly ideas of humility as can be, the student-centered ideology conceals the pain of rebirth into life as an educated person, hiding that awkward process behind a gallery of images of perpetual childhood. Those who, having read Cardinal Newman, had thought that universities guided young people on a journey from juvenile ease to responsible lives as educated citizens—perhaps into membership in what rough old Thomas Hobbes called a “Christian commonwealth”—will be surprised by the Internet offerings, catalogues, and propaganda of modern institutions, which portray an enormous range of playful student activities, whether jogging, dancing, bicycling through ivy-draped campuses, swimming, lounging, singing, rock-climbing, playing guitars, chatting over coffee, and, above all, walking across the commencement stage to claim a diploma, apparently without ever having studied.

The current website for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas presents a casually-clad but exulting young woman spreading enormous cardboard wings made from cut-up fire extinguisher cartons, as if taking off under one’s own power and putting out blazes required only flapping one’s wings while smiling. Publicity for higher-education institutions routinely boasts about instilling leadership skills in promising youngsters, yet the perversely flattering message transmitted is that campus life will miraculously change passive students: effort, struggle, hard thinking, and study have been pushed out of a vast playpen characterized by unexplained transforming powers.

Depending on one’s preferences for soft or hard metaphors, student-centered campuses push either a junk food model of education or insinuate the possibility of a bloodless, velvet revolution. The junk food model characterizes education as a treat that appears ready-made (and thoroughly sweetened) in a box that can be easily held—centered—in the student-customer’s hand. The velvet revolution model suggests that students may take leadership roles in a brave new world full of fun, collaboration, and what is loosely called “support” without making much of an effort and without taking on any personal responsibility, indeed without thinking about much of anything, let alone about the previously mentioned four last things.

So easygoing and yet blatant an attack on personal responsibility coincides with four other assaults: an attack on authority in which the so-called “sage on a stage,” i.e., a professor who has studied and researched, is obsoleted by a “flipped” classroom in which student conversation rules; an assertion that students can only learn when the classroom is responsive to contexts—when, say, the professor acknowledges a uniquely Moroccan approach to calculus or delves into an Inuit style of zoology; an aggressive presentation of the student, whose fees are usually paid largely through taxpayer subsidies, as a “client” or “customer” who must always be pleased; and an anti-intellectual insinuation that attending a given college will lead students not to a deeper understanding of the world but to a big salary (remarkably, images of lower-paying but church-endorsed public service, ecclesiastical, or charity careers are all but absent from the web sites of Catholic colleges and universities).

In the midst of the search for a “center” occupied by students, higher education has, if not forgotten, at least downplayed its teleological dimension. Probably it is too much to expect that a course in Shakespeare will help a teenager grapple strenuously with the four last things. Universities are bigger than students because they are supposed to generate knowledge and improve society, and because they aspire to achieve goals extending beyond individual persons. Even in our distracted times, they maintain their near-monopoly hold on higher education owing to a nagging awareness that individual souls need some large framework, something beyond the center of consciousness that is a student. Students, parents, and tuition-payers, after all, have a choice.

Some institutions are better than others when it comes to making students into more than they were—when it comes to getting them out of the narcissistic “center.” Even enrollment service managers live (or lose their jobs) by feedback. Might it not be part of the social responsibility of a Catholic to let a recruiter know what one thinks about the way that colleges and universities present themselves? Would it be altogether uncivil to ask a college pursuing one’s child not merely about their beautiful recreation center but also whether its library has the latest translation of St. Thomas Aquinas?

(Photo credit: Yale University / Shutterstock)


  • Kevin L. Cope

    Kevin L. Cope is Robert and Rita Wetta Adams Professor of English Literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He is the founder and editor of 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, the Co-General Editor of ECCB: The Eighteenth Century: A Current Bibliography, and the author or editor of dozens of books and articles. He received his doctorate in literature from Harvard University in 1983.

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