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

December 27, 2013  |  


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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  • JosephERaper

    This can be achieve if all of their teachers can be able to have some perfect strategy to teach their students better. It’s one of the most common factor to have more graduates in a year and be able to spend less.

  • guest

    FINALLY!!! So glad this issue is being brought to light. What I want to add to the conversation is that this is happening MUCH, MUCH earlier than college. It’s happening in Elementary School as well. I know of several students who are given grades much higher than they earned and much higher than their actual knowledge/ability levels. It only sets them up for failure. A young lady I knew had been given “A” grades in Math from her teachers in Elementary School, but when she got to Middle School, it was discovered that she knew little to nothing about Math. She was unable to do even second-grade Math problems.
    .And it continues to happen so easily because parents love to see straight A and B grades on their kids’ report cards (naturally), and students, even when they KNOW the grades are inaccurate, are never going to ‘fess up and tell their parents they got an “A” they didn’t deserve. Teachers continue to do it because they want to hang on to their jobs and are told by administrators that in order to keep the federal funding flowing into their schools, they need to ‘find a way to give a higher grade.’ And schools are verrrrry reluctant to hold a kid back even when he/she has demonstrated below-grade-level performance. ALL of this is how and why these kids get pushed through high school and on into college without learning anything.
    If you’re a parent, don’t allow your child’s teacher to be the ONLY person to assess their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Do it yourself. Ask your kids questions, give them a few grade-level Math problems and Reading Comprehension passages of your own and see how they perform. If your child can’t do the work, but is bringing home straight A and B grades, go see their teachers — with the quickness.

  • Paula Banks

    I agree 100% but the students themselves should want better for themselves. Educators can only do so much but as stated below it is up to the student to want to learn and do more and want more out of their own education. Some students after leaving college lack the basic skills needed to maintain and keep a decent career. Having a positive attitude and showing up on time for work are very important when trying to maintain employment with any organization.

  • Allyce

    This is very true! They are pushing students out the door who can’t write a decent sentence or think critically. Educators do the best they can but it’s up to the student to want to step up their game. Everyone wants A grades for D and C work. I call it Slackers U. The tenured professors don’t care – give the student underperforming students C grades and gets them out the door. Schools want the tuition. The student will end up with a piece of paper that is worthless. How many folks do you know with college degrees and still can’t get themselves together. Sometimes its the basic skills they are lacking and that holds them back. Stink attitudes too.