What Universities Do

August 27, 2020 • #

Last week I linked to Mike Munger’s interview on EconTalk where he and Russ Roberts discussed the roles universities play (above and beyond the educational) and the likelihood that these components could be unbundled or disrupted in the post-COVID landscape.


This piece from earlier in the year goes deeper into Munger’s lexicon for separating these roles (using some clever metonyms):

  • The Clock Tower — Even with online courses making asynchronous learning possible, students still crave certain synchronous, shared activities outside of the classroom. There’s still value in shared experiences.
  • The Stadium — College administrators probably on average biased toward thinking that students select them mostly based on educational merits. But the craving of tribal associations with things like sports teams and mascots is omnipresent for a huge chunk of the student body. As Munger says: “many students were recruited 10 years earlier, on Saturday afternoons in the fall, watching football with their parents.”
  • The Student Union — Clubs and student organizations provide essential social alignment and sorting tools for people to find friends, build relationships, find job opportunities, and more.
  • The Admissions Office — With any college, especially elite ones, merely getting accepted for enrollment is a huge signal boost to your value as a future co-worker or employee. Universities can still provide an amount of cachet through applying this institutional badge of honor using the social capital they’ve accrued over the decades.

This is an interesting lens through which to look at the university’s value. Most of the conversation about the state of higher education post-COVID focuses in too tightly on the classroom instruction side of the problem. While that’s certainly the most easily disrupted with e-learning, it’s far from the only benefit being delivered to a college student.

I’m reminded of the same situation that exists in elementary school education — that most of our collective attention has been paid on how to conduct “Zoom School” and make sure kids aren’t falling behind educationally. Less well appreciated is the degree to which elementary school is also providing essentially a day care service as part of the education “bundle.” It seems like many in our school systems want to consider themselves educators (which they of course are), and think that the moniker of “day care supervisor” is denigrating in some way. I say we need to celebrate, not denigrate, that essential quality more than we do, just as we should recognize and support the unique aspects of the university if we want them to live on.