Higher education’s interactions with the environment

Higher eduction institutions act as open systems interacting with a variety of stakeholders and environmental factors that influence their behaviors and activities. These interactions are critical in helping develop and support the institutional diversity that exists in American higher education. Having diversity in the types of institutions allows higher education to serve multiple needs and missions. In today’s post, I want to share an excerpt from my monograph on institutional diversity describing how these interactions play out and their value to the higher education system.

Photo credit: Antony Stanley

Students, faculty, administrators, broader economic trends, state legislators, alumni, federal policy, and demographic changes represent only a few of the inputs into the higher education system.

Diversity within higher education creates stability by allowing the system to more effectively respond to the institutional and societal expectations.

The large and relatively autonomous components within higher education can respond more adequately and sensitively to stakeholder and environmental changes than could a smaller and more centrally controlled system.

The nature of this loosely coupled system as explained by Weick (1976) and others insulates the system from undue external influence as a result of the variety within the system.

Different types of institutions vary in their response and dependence on resources and constituencies, making them more or less vulnerable to changes.

Therefore, institutional diversity not only serves as a value of the system but as a key protector as well.

In the current environment where accountability, increased scrutiny, financial cutbacks, and escalating costs seem paramount, researchers and practitioners need to critically understand the processes both internal and external to the higher education system that influence institutional diversity.

Higher education advocates and political leaders attack colleges and universities for their growth both in size and cost as well as the lack of programmatic focus (Christensen & Eyring, 2011), yet little information exists to explain the various forces responsible for changes in institutional diversity.

The tension between standardization and diversity remains underexplored as well. For example, what contextual issues created a fertile ground for online education and for-profit higher education while traditional institutional types such as women’s colleges and private 2-year colleges waned?

Most observers consider a healthy level of diversity one of the valuable attributes of a higher education system that offers choices for students, multiple entry points and programmatic offerings, and a range of programmatic options (Birnbaum, 1983).

For example, a higher education system that possesses research universities and community colleges can provide opportunities for students to engage in academic pursuits as varied as doctoral training to vocational certification.

Without a more systemic approach to the research and a broader empirical basis to explain changes in diversity, the policy debate around supporting institutional diversity will continue to struggle with “policies [that] are ill-informed and run the severe risk of becoming ineffective” (Huisman, Kaiser, & Vossensteyn, 2000, p. 564).