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Learning from Failures: Engineering Education in an Age of Academic Capitalism

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Engineering and Public Policy Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Engineering and Public Policy

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Paper Authors


Andrew Katz Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Andrew Katz is a doctoral candidate in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. He holds a B.S. in chemical engineering from Tulane University and M.Eng. in environmental engineering from Texas A&M University. Prior to beginning his graduate studies in engineering education he taught physics at a high school in Dallas, TX.

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Donna M. Riley Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Donna Riley is Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education and Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University.

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In recent decades, scholars of higher education have noted the increasing corporatization and marketization of higher education - the trend of universities behaving like businesses and treating higher education like a market good. Although this same general phenomenon is not necessarily new (it was noted by Thorstein Veblen almost one century ago), contemporary trends might suggest an acceleration of this transformation of higher education beginning in the final third of the 20th century. Common examples of this shift include: students increasingly treated like consumers; a growing number of universities run by former business presidents and CEOs; the growth of the for-profit college sector; faculty members encouraged to translate their research into private business ventures; and departments that vie for research funding dollars and publications. Researchers have coined the term “academic capitalism” to characterize some of these phenomena, emphasizing the notion of universities and their constituent components functioning like businesses. Books like "University, Inc.", "Universities in the Marketplace", and "The Lost Soul of Higher Education" chronicle this same movement by expounding upon the myriad ways the transformation process has unfolded. In short, the form and function of higher education are changing. Engineering education is not immune to these changes since it is embedded within the structure of higher education.

While proponents of a market-based approach in higher education are sometimes loath to discuss it, classical microeconomic theory and good public policy demand a concomitant exploration of market failures. A market can be considered as a mechanism designed to enable transactions of exchange between consenting parties to achieve efficient allocations of goods and resources. Subsequently, market failures may arise when the market does not reach this efficient allocation, or more generally when it fails to promote desirable activities or to stop undesirable activities. Importantly, these market failures can also require different responses to mitigate their effects. Such responses may include tailored policy implementation and institutional arrangements.

Given the treatment of higher education as a market good and the dearth of discussion of potential market failures in this arena, this paper explores the intersection of market failures and higher education through the specific case of engineering education. What potential market failures exist, if we are to treat engineering education as a market good? What policy interventions might therefore be justified to remedy such failures? How might engineering education researchers adopt economic and policy analysis arguments to help frame and characterize current trends and dynamics in the broader enigneering education ecosystem? How might administrators and policy-makers ultimately address market failures, or otherwise the correct the treatment of engineering education and higher education as market goods? Researchers and policy-makers could benefit from understanding the language of market failures and recognizing their general characteristics when approaching their own work in engineering education because it may help them describe phenomena of interest in engineering education and provide a conceptual framework for analysis and eventual improvement.

Katz, A., & Riley, D. M. (2018, June), Learning from Failures: Engineering Education in an Age of Academic Capitalism Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30755

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