Expanding Post-Secondary Choice: It’s All Good…Right?

The Ministry of Advanced Education in British Columbia has just placed a six month moratorium on approvals for new degree offerings in its post-secondary institutions. As recently reported in the Globe and Mail , after approving almost 300 new degree programs over the past ten years, it sounds like the province  has decided it’s time to back up a bit and say, “Okay what are we doing here and how’s it working out?”

A couple of the comments on the Globe and Mail article just cited question whether the BC government ought to have the control that it is exercising here. After all, the state generally does a lousy job of predicting market behaviour, and the question, then, is how well the province can predict what the labour market “wants” for grads. Here’s the thing though: the alternative of allowing unbridled, competition-fueled growth in the post-secondary sector may be no better.

It is helpful to recognize that there are two competitive dynamics at play here, and that these are not nearly as tightly wound together as seems to be assumed when “the market” is held up as superior to state regulation of post-secondary offerings. First there is competition among institutions to attract students. This competition is tied, in theory at least, to a more fundamental competitive market for skilled labour.

Note that this “in theory.” What’s problematic is the assumption that post-secondary institutions (PSIs) are any more competent than the state when it comes to determining what the labour market “wants”[1]. Surely universities and colleges want to offer successful programs that can sustain solid enrolments, and it makes sense that successful programs are those that have labour market currency.

However, for a number of reasons, this doesn’t necessarily translate to quality offerings for students. First, we’ve no guarantee that a program offered is based on research showing labour market demand in the field. I’m suspicious, for example, of whether there are burgeoning opportunities for the graduate with a baccalaureate in creative writing. (Fine if you’re in it for love of learning, of course.) There’s no reason to assume that PSIs are any better equipped than the province to align their offerings to labour market needs, or even that they are necessarily incentivized to do so.

A second and related concern is that when competing institutions are offering similar programs, there’s a temptation to differentiate these offerings on grounds that have little to do with the nuances of the labour market. This is analogous to offering dryer sheets in different scents, or coming up with all of those gee-whiz innovations for diapers, or toothbrushes that really don’t make a whit of functional difference. So you end up with degree specializations like “sustainable leisure management,” “physical education and coaching,” or “new venture creation.” These sound pretty sexy, but I wonder if such offerings become so tightly niched as to limit a graduate’s options.

A third overlooked piece of the puzzle here is that PSIs are a weird world of their own, driven as Alex Usher noted in a recent blog , by prestige. As Usher observes, competitive dynamics driven by prestige are quite unlike those driven by profit. Prestige stimulates an internal market of one-upmanship [2], quite independent of what does or does not happen in the labour market. Colleges want to be universities when they grow up. Undergraduate institutions want to offer graduate degrees when they grow up. A doctoral program is cooler than just a masters program. You get the idea. This is a significant determinant of PSI behaviour that, I’d argue, frequently confounds any direct relationship between labour market demands and program offerings.

The Bottom Line: What’s Good for Students?

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink  and Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice are among a swath of recent books exploring the factors that go into our decision making. Turns out that “too much information” can be detrimental. Overwhelmed, we end up paralyzed, guessing, or using poor criteria to make choices. So when you’ve got umpteen institutions offering increasingly specialized specializations, both students and employers may be left scratching their heads. Especially when niche offerings may or may not reflect actual established or emerging labour market sectors. Too many program choices can make it difficult for students to choose education routes, encourage students to specialize too early in their careers, and make it difficult for employers and graduates to find one another [3].

So the BC Ministry of Advanced Education may be wise to take a breather and ask whether the expanding complexity of its post-secondary education system is serving its intended policy purposes. There’s little doubt that the growing specialization of programs reflects, at least in part, similar, growing specialization in the labour market, but it’s simplistic to assume this relationship is a direct one. Most importantly, from the standpoint of what’s good for students and what’s good for public investment in post-secondary education, it can’t be assumed that more and more choice is always a “good thing.”

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[1] I’d like to note that I’m not waving a flag for post-secondary education driven solely by labour market demands. But that’s a whole other blog, or series of them…

[2] Colloquially speaking (ahem), a pissing contest… A couple of good works that focus on prestige-driven competition are Brewer, D., Gates, S. & Goldman, C. (2002). In Pursuit of Prestige: Strategy and Competition in U.S. Higher Education. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. Also Newman, F., Couturier, L., and Scurry, J. (2004). The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Risks of the Market. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

[3] Drummond (2004) has a nice paper applying behavioural economics research to post-secondary choice. Drummond, G. (2004). Consumer confusion: Reduction strategies in higher education. International Journal of Educational Management, 18(4/5), 317-323.

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