Article Summary #20: Conceptualizing change in the institutional diversity of U.S. colleges and universities

Citation: Morphew, C. (2009). Conceptualizing change in the institutional diversity of U.S. colleges and universities. Journal of Higher Education, 80 (3), 243-269. 
Word cloud of article: Conceptualizing change in the institutional diversity of U.S. colleges and universities

Summary:  The diversity of higher education in the United States has always been seen as important in contributing to matching students with the right learning environment, creating a more dynamic society, and reducing the chance for indoctrination.  Birnbaum's study (1983) of institutions from 1960 to 1980 indicated a shift towards homogeneity among institutions. Morphew starts with this study and looks to recreate it to understand what has occurred since Birnbaum's study, particularly the period from 1972 to 2002.  Morphew wants to see what type of changes have occurred to institutional diversity in higher education in the United States between 1972 and 2002 and whether institutional theory can shed any light on the changes or lack thereof.  Morphew builds a five-item matrix (including type, degree level, sex, size, and cost)  inspired from Birnbaum's approach and then uses it to organized institutional data (IPEDS and enrollment datasets from all 50 states) from 2,679 institutions in 1972 and 3,718 institutions in 2002-2003.  Institutional diversity didn't increase and on some measures it decreased but new institutional types did emerge.  There were also shifts among the most populated institutional types between Birnbaum and Morphew's results (e.g. the four types that were most populated 1972, were not found among the most populated in 2002).  Morphew concludes that because there is little change during an arguable period of change (see below), then population ecology theory fails to provide an adequate explanation.  Instead, he believes that institutional theory can be used to explain the lack of change when considering the concept of balance in which institutions do need to work to reflect the external ideas but must also work with internal entities that might resist (e.g. the faculty).  This potentially explains how for-profits which have less internal balance to maintain can gain traction in the higher education market because they can be more flexible.  Institutions with "highly institutionalized environments" are not likely to be capable of big changes but can only change incrementally because their existence relies on their stable identity.  

On a side note and critique of the article, Morphew identifies demographic changes between 1972 and 2002 as an indicator of a changing environment for institutions to respond to.  But I wonder if this is where the article actually falters.  Student growth is not necessarily the same as change.  After all, the growth of student population is a constant over the history of higher education in the 19th and 20th century.  Sometimes, it grows faster than other times, but it is still growth.   I would think subtracting this from the exploration might actually then require one to revisit and ask if there were large environmental changes between 1972 to 2002.  

I would be curious to see what that study would look like if it were between 1981 and 2016.   Morphew says that “"organizations in fields like higher education—where goals (e.g., educated students, knowledge) are hard to measure, technology (e.g., teaching) is unclear, and organizational actors are highly professionalized—are extremely susceptible to isomorphic forces.” (P. 248)  Given that we’ve seen an increase in easier-to-measure goals (through stronger calls for assessment as well as the rise of competency based and online programs that can better quantify actions to outcomes), teaching is becoming clearer (again through learning analytics, learning sciences, and easier means of seeing the interaction between students and learning objects in learning management systems), and a de-professionalization of organizational actors (adjunct faculty, courses where instructors only discuss and grade, but do not develop curriculum, and online courses, where much of what the instructor does is automated such as grading and lectures), I wonder if there would be increased diversity.  Beyond the rise of for-profit, we now have MOOCs, competency based learning, “boot camp” institutes, or other initiatives like the Minerva Project.

Keywords: higher education, institutional theory, population ecology theory, institutional change, environmental factors

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