Higher Education and Society

by Joseph L. DeVitis (Volume editor) Pietro A. Sasso (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook VIII, 310 Pages


Higher education and society are becoming increasingly intertwined. Both act as a transmitter of culture, yet many colleges and universities also ideally seek to create a more perfectible society and more enlightened, engaged citizens. When the connections between social structures and post-secondary education are closely entangled, the university’s aims can take on a contentious struggle for identity in a vexing web of competing external interests – especially in light of scarce economic resources, corporate pressures, technological questions, and globalizing trends. Higher Education and Society weighs the urgent question of how society and higher education influence each other. How the latter responds to that unsettled issue may well determine whether colleges and universities chart a more self-reflective path or one of rising deference to societal contingencies. This book is essential for all those who study and work in today’s colleges – and for all those who seek a better education for their children, the nation, and the world. It is especially recommended for courses in higher education and society, contemporary issues in higher education, the philosophy of higher education, academic issues in higher education, leadership in higher education, and globalization and higher education. The book is also useful for the preparation of faculty development programs in colleges and universities.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part One: The Influence of Higher Education on Society
  • 1. On Purpose: Liberal Education and the Question of Value
  • 2. Higher Education, the Professions, and the Place of Expertise
  • 3. Higher Education: Private Good? Public Good?
  • 4. Civic Engagement and Higher Learning
  • 5. Academic Freedom and Public Higher Education in the Neoliberal Age
  • 6. Town and Gown Relationships: The Extension of the University Into the Community
  • 7. College Sports and Society
  • Part Two: The Influence of Society on Higher Education
  • 8. Preparing Students for Higher Education: How School Counselors Can Foster College Readiness and Access
  • 9. Student Loans: A Brief History, the Current Landscape, and Impacts on Society
  • 10. The Commercialization of the Community College
  • 11. Social Capital and Higher Education: Network Resources, Outcomes, and Opportunities
  • 12. Higher Education and the Capitalist Turn: Research and Reflections
  • 13. The Digitalization of the University
  • 14. How Did We Get to This Situation? The Immiseration of the Modern University in a Globalizing Context
  • Contributors
  • Index

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[The academy should] make for less misery among the poor, less ignorance in the schools, less suffering in the hospital, less fraud in business, [and] less folly in politics.

Daniel Coit Gilman
President, Johns Hopkins University (1876)

If the university does not take seriously and rigorously its role as a guardian of wider civic freedom, as interrogator of more and more complex ethical problems, as servant and preserver of deeper democratic practices, then some other regime or ménage of regimes will do it for us, in spite of us, and without us.

—Toni Morrison

Fundamentally, this book asks, and responds to, a two-pronged question: What are the influences of higher education on society—and what are the influences of society on higher education? The two sections of the text are devoted to that essential inquiry. Each of those parts is not easily disentangled, nor should it be. In fact, higher education and society are intrinsically interrelated. Post-secondary education tends to mirror society, especially its more dominant groups and institutions. But there are several sides to that issue as well. Yes, colleges and universities operate within a messy societal web that breeds cultural lag within their institutional structures. That is, they function as transmitters of culture. At the same time, however, they can bring striking—and welcome—changes as a result of their intellectual pursuits. In that case, they act as transformative agents. Even more paradoxically, sometimes the element of lag might even be seen as an enlightened struggle to sustain core academic values, while some efforts toward societal “progress” can be viewed, in some scholastic quarters, as abject surrender to external (e.g., corporate and political) interests: ← 1 | 2 →

Because the university has come to serve so many constituencies, its goals have become a part of the marketplace mosaic. In colonial times, those pathways were guided by largely theological priorities. In the modern age, moneyed captains of industry have become more prominent in shaping collegiate aims:

Originally, higher education served to transmit past knowledge to the next generation of elite, landed gentry of solely privileged male students. The relatively few who attended college were preparing for the ministry and/or leadership roles in society.

America’s colonial colleges offered little else than a small faculty in residence and a prescribed curriculum in classical studies, astronomy, and metaphysics. They did serve to underscore higher education as a particular private privilege. By the mid-19th century, new and more varied educational demands helped to create the first federal Morrill Act (1862), which established 101 land-grant institutions in light of the growing technical and agricultural needs of an ever-increasing population. That legislation gave birth to an unwritten “social contract” between the public and its various state colleges. Thus, this social contract implied that the citizenry would invest in the advancement of post-secondary education via large-scale learning communities (Kerr, 1963/2001). In the 20th century, state colleges and their supporting governmental agencies continued that tradition as enrollment swelled during the Great Depression and students sought to weather the severe economic downturn. After World War II, the G.I. Bill further invigorated the social contract when it sent thousands of veterans to college. Soon after, higher education became a more viable pathway to the middle class and a vehicle for social mobility.

Was equal access for all students, at least in theory, on the horizon? In the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” program passed Civil Rights legislation and the Higher Education Act of 1965. The latter created federal grants and so-called equal opportunity. These grants, or tuition waivers, offered low-income families and underrepresented minority students the chance to attend college. Yet they did not confirm equal access as a complete reality. Individuals, not the state, still carried a heavy burden in terms of ← 2 | 3 → college attendance and persistence. Since the more liberal 1960s, there have been a series of tensions and setbacks to equal access. It began with Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, when he questioned the value of public education and quipped, “Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?” (Clabaugh, 2011). That query transitioned to additional trends: Reaganomics and the end of free tuition, even in certain locales (e.g., California and New York City); political and legal barriers to affirmative action; downward trends in federal student aid; less commitment from state governments; and the growth of for-profit colleges, which often thrive on “buyers” from lower-income classes who are often less versed on college choice.

If the arc of American higher education has begun to bend toward college attendance as a “right” (Kerr, 1963/2001), it has still not fully progressed from the earlier notion of social contract. Indeed, some critics argue that the social contract itself needs to be protected in the present age: “The tragedy is that while public policies in the past helped mitigate inequality and open the doors to college to more Americans, today they themselves play a crucial role in segmenting our society” (Mettler, 2014, p. 5). In the tantalizing image of higher education as a “right,” today’s undergraduates have become mass consumers. Colleges and universities have sold their services (and some would say their souls) as part of that expectation under the pressure of meeting the bottom line. In the process, they have become more like corporate entities that exist to sell a product. They are building more enticing residence halls with single rooms and private commodes, student unions (some with adjacent swimming pools), and state-of-the-art laboratories to attract students. Academic capitalism has become increasingly entrepreneurial as a way of coping with decreased state allocations and the highly competitive race for private funding drawn from alumni, foundations, and corporations. Once insular pockets of knowledge and learning, colleges and universities have been transformed into vehicles of economic trends and the vagaries of supply and demand. Within the academy, corporate “branding,” rankings, and the quest for “prestige” often replace the search for purpose and truth. More and more, higher education institutions are investing in “reputation” over substance and affordability. In a word, economics has become the one-way street on to the campus green. Perhaps Christopher Newfield (2011) says it best:

Thus, the contemporary college and university have also adopted the role of “certifier” of middle-class America in search of success, privilege, and prestige. The trend toward consumerism seems antithetical to the life of the mind and a development of well-rounded character so vital in more traditional forms of liberal education. That evolution of the core purposes of the college into a university industry has underlined the importance that society now places on “credentialing”—a process and practice that has widely co-opted more humane, moral, and kindred academic values. Yet, at the same time, the U.S. can no longer claim to lead the world in even the credentialing function of college graduation; it now ranks 12th among industrialized nations on that score. (Lewin, 2010)

The Influence of Higher Education on Society/The Influence of Society on Higher Education

As mentioned above, there is really no bright line separating higher education and society. The latter’s overarching effects obviously produce wider and deeper repercussions for colleges and universities. In a large sense, higher education can be seen to reproduce what major societal forces desire, assuming those forces supply the requisite purposes and resources (a very open question). Conversely, higher education may also be viewed, at times, as a more ideal laboratory for society’s higher hopes and aspirations, for example, impactful research, a more informed and critical citizenry, and moral development. These interlocking tensions can thus be a cardinal cause for the better, for ill, or for simply sustaining the status quo. The contents of this text seek to shed light on how and why those consequences can occur.

Part One

Part One deals with higher education’s interplay with society and how that relationship can affect local, state, national, and international interests. The chapters display how academic purposes can be changed by societal forces and used in various ways, especially in an age of increasing scarcity. That constricted circumstance requires colleges and universities to ask sobering questions about their purposes, goals, and strategies for the present and future. Will they respond haphazardly to societal demands, or will their leaders and constituents rise to the occasion with questions and answers of their own?

In Chapter 1, “On Purpose: Liberal Education and the Question of Value,” Grant H. Cornwell defends the relevance of the liberal arts for both intrinsic and instrumental reasons. He deflates criticism about the market ← 4 | 5 → worth of attending college while highlighting its potential for enlarging both individual enlightenment and citizenship in a global economy. Cornwell calls upon ancient and modern philosophers in driving home his trenchant arguments.

In Chapter 2, “Higher Education, the Professions, and the Place of Expertise,” Daniel R. DeNicola makes careful use of language to clarify the role of academe in defining and regulating professional life. He traces how the professions, the university, and public perceptions have all changed over time. DeNicola’s acute philosophical arguments are buttressed by both classical and modern-day theorists of knowledge.

In Chapter 3, “Higher Education: Private Good? Public Good?” John F. Covaleskie pens a well-defined philosophical account of the inherent complexities in different types of American colleges and universities. In so doing, he makes precise distinctions in the use of the terms “private” and “public.” Importantly, Covaleskie also views the thorny nature of more “mixed” kinds of higher education institutions. In the end, he seeks to ensure that the “good,” wherever it might be, is employed both practicably and wisely.

In Chapter 4, “Civic Engagement and Higher Learning,” Richard Guarasci ably surveys the recent interest among colleges and universities to reconnect their pedagogical and public-service missions through civic engagement initiatives. He makes the case that linking service learning with the local community allows us to revivify the earlier roots of American post-secondary education. His examples from Wagner College, the University of Louisville, and other institutions demonstrate how civic engagement can facilitate transformative change within the larger university community.

In Chapter 5, “Academic Freedom and Public Higher Education in the Neoliberal Age,” John M. Elmore critically analyzes how the ideology of neoliberalism threatens academic freedom, particularly in public higher education, in dangerous ways. Through its insistence on deregulation and privatization, he argues that it has made democratic education vulnerable to powerful challenges from non-academic corporate sources. To restore the life of the mind and more public responsibility, he calls for a collective “mechanics of resistance” against those pressures.

In Chapter 6, “Town and Gown Relationships: The Extension of the University Into the Community,” William Hatcher and Erica Childress explore the interplay between these two institutions. While discussing both its origins and ongoing challenges, they skillfully portray how those connections are symbiotic in nature. Hatcher and Childress also analyze what makes for good town and gown relationships, emphasizing the need to share a panoply of potential mutual benefits—social, economic, political, cultural, and pedagogical. ← 5 | 6 →

In Chapter 7, “College Sports and Society,” John Vincent and Dylan Williams tackle the increasingly problematic dimensions of intercollegiate athletics and its place on campus and in society. They detail its origins and evolutionary formations—its structural levels and divisions, the differences therein, and its overall diversity. They also discuss gender equity, the treatment of racial minorities in collegiate athletics, and the role of “big-time” sport. Vincent and Dylan give particular attention to the controversies surrounding the “student-athlete” versus “athlete-student,” player compensation and unionization, and power-conference autonomy.

Part Two

Part Two considers how the wider society greatly affects what colleges and universities can and cannot do, or put another way, what it chooses to do or not to do. Societal constraints run deep, but they are not necessarily intractable. Indeed, how successful a given college or university is in navigating changing demands will be shown in its willingness and ability to guard and maintain fundamental senses of purpose. The pressures that higher education faces and its responses to them form the foci for discussion in this section of the book.

In Chapter 8, “Preparing Students for Higher Education: How School Counselors Can Foster College Readiness and Access,” Julia Bryan, Anita Young, Dana C. Griffin, and Lynette M. Henry provide an in-depth account of the impact that school counselors can have on developing capacity for college student success. They highlight enrollment trends among students from diverse backgrounds and recent federal initiatives that elevate counselors’ roles in facilitating college readiness. Employing a school-family-community approach, they emphasize engaging all stakeholders and promoting the ethical obligation to be student-centered advocates.

In Chapter 9, “Student Loans: A Brief History, the Current Landscape, and Impacts on Society,” Robert Kelchen offers an extensive appraisal of why college costs are rising, citing the decline in per-student funding, growth in administration, faculty incentives for research rather than teaching, and student demands for better amenities. Kelchen outlines the different types of student loans and present options for parents and students. Finally, he surveys the literature on trends in student loan debt and upholds, in general, the value of college completion.

In Chapter 10, “The Commercialization of the Community College,” E. Keith Kroll provides incisive historical and contemporary commentary on the distinctions between “training” and “education” and how corporate interests have further marginalized liberal arts in two-year college curricula. ← 6 | 7 → He also argues that the popular literature on higher education has given short shrift to community colleges. Conversely, Kroll contends that they have been lionized by recent federal administrations, thus establishing a more stratified social structure in America.

In Chapter 11, “Social Capital and Higher Education: Network Resources, Outcomes, and Opportunities,” James Bridgeforth and Stephanie M. McClure lay out the close nexus between the concept of social capital and how that notion plays out in the world of post-secondary education. They show how social capital can influence college students both positively and negatively. Bridgeforth and McClure draw upon seminal thinkers in sociology to frame their broad-ranging chapter.

In Chapter 12, “Higher Education and the Capitalist Turn: Research and Reflections,” Eric Margolis and Michael Soldatenko trace the university’s mission from ancient to modern times, introducing us to several main paradigms. They train a special spotlight on what they view as the pernicious effects of corporate, neoliberal policies and practices: drastic reductions in public funding for higher education; the erosion of faculty governance, tenure, and academic freedom; the growth of a more constrained academic labor force; “McDonaldization” of the academy as a funnel for deliverable services; and the general debasement of efforts toward social betterment.

In Chapter 13, “The Digitalization of the University,” Craig A. Cunningham offers a historical and philosophical survey of crucial movements in technology and how they interface with societal and educational changes. His balanced perspective presents both the helpful and harmful consequences of technological innovation as applied in school and society. (Of course, its effects are dependent upon how it is used by people.) Ultimately, Cunningham views the use of technology as a larger social matter grounded in problematic issues of humanity and morality.

In Chapter 14, “How Did We Get to This Situation? The Immiseration of the Modern University in a Globalizing Context,” John Smyth contends that certain worldwide trends—managerialism, marketization, and corporatism—are bringing the academy to its knees. Amidst a “pedagogy of profit,” he perceives faculty as becoming more insecure and domesticated, thus diluting the traditional quest for larger ideas and privileging more instrumentalized forms of knowledge. Smyth further bemoans what he sees as a headlong rush toward the “private good” and excessive global competition in a knowledge economy run amok.

In closing, we dearly hope that our colleges and universities will more fully invigorate “the capacity to inquire, to create, to innovate, to challenge” (Chomsky, 2014) while we still have the opportunity to nourish the Earth and its inhabitants. ← 7 | 8 →


Chomsky, N. (2014, March 3). The death of American universities. Retrieved from https:/www.jacobinmag.com/2014/03-the-death-of-american-universities/

Clabaugh, G. K. (2011, August 16). The educational legacy of Ronald Reagan. Retrieved from http://www.newfoundations.com/Clabaugh/CuttingEdge/Reagan.html

Kerr, C. (2001). The uses of the university. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1963)


VIII, 310
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Social Structure Children Education
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VIII, 310 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Joseph L. DeVitis (Volume editor) Pietro A. Sasso (Volume editor)

Joseph L. DeVitis has taught educational foundations and higher education at five universities in his 43-year academic career. Three of his books earned Choice journal awards from the American Library Association as outstanding books of the year, and two others won American Educational Studies Association Critics Choice awards. His latest volumes are Today’s College Students (Peter Lang, 2015) and School Reform Critics: The Struggle for Democratic Schooling (Peter Lang, 2014). Pietro A. Sasso is Assistant Professor of Student Affairs and College Counseling at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. His most recent book is Today’s College Students (Peter Lang, 2015).


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320 pages