The ‘McDonaldization’ Of Universities: Colleges Pressured To Graduate More Students, Yet Spend Less

December 27, 2013  |  

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U.S. colleges are being yanked in vicious tug-o-war. On one side, the workforce is pleading with higher-ed institutions to churn out quality graduates. On the other side, financiers urge universities to focus on quantity. And this, experts say, contributes to the “McDonaldizing” of American college education.

Comparing colleges to McDonald’s (and even Walmart), many argue that universities are creating fast-food quality graduates while solely focusing on numbers, The Atlantic reports.

More colleges are relying on adjunct professors (part-time faculty) to teach college students. This benefits the university, but harms the pupil: Part-time professors are cheaper, but they are typically less experienced and inaccessible.

“We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate,”  said Karen Arnold, associate professor at the Educational Leadership and Higher Education Department at Boston College.

Pressured by graduation quotas, higher-ed institutions are dropping the number of credits needed to complete a degree. Some, such as University of North Carolina and the University of Southern Maine, are tickling with the idea of cutting courses. And more online classes (MOOCs) are being substituted for your typical lecture hall setting.

Steven Ward, a sociology professor at Western Connecticut State University, simply calls it “McDonaldization”: “Where you produce more things, but they’re not as good.”

But universities, especially public institutions, are being coerced to go down the fast-food route. States implicitly threaten colleges to boost their graduate rates — or else they will receive less funding.

“We all want to have more students graduate and graduate in a more timely manner,” said Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors. “The question is, do you do this by lowering your standards?”

Fichtenbaum adds performance-based funding will “create a subtle pressure to pass students who wouldn’t otherwise.”  This is the last thing we need. As the American workforce battles a skills gap with recent grads, universities aren’t helping by producing Big Mac scholars with a McFries degree on the side.

Understandably, policymakers are appalled that only 56.1 percent of college students graduate within six years, but performance-based funding isn’t the way to go.  High-caliber graduates, I believe, is much more beneficial than reaching a quota with a slew of unqualified degree-holders.

“Interactions with professors and outside-the-classroom experiential learning,” Arnold says, is the best way to churn out quality fresh-out-of-college workers.

“It could be making a bad situation worse if we don’t look at the impact of not only how many students get through,” said Debra Humphreys, vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “but what they learn.”

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