The McDonaldization of Higher Education

George Ritzer proposed one of the most significant contemporary sociological theories when he developed the theory of McDonaldization.

We have a tendency to McDonaldize, or rationalize traditional processes in Western culture. We like being able to bet on an outcome following a set pattern of small steps, that lead to a larger outcome. Through this rationalization process, we compartmentalize tasks, evaluate at each level, specialize skills and in the process de-skill individuals, which makes us better at our individual jobs, but less competent overall. It’s a fantastic model for building cars on an assembly line, as Henry Ford did a century ago. And when you make a billion hamburgers and oversee millions of workers, it’s a perfect business model that makes each worker replaceable at a moments notice, because the function of a worker is replaced, not the person him or herself. Ironically, in a highly specialized system, no one has a highly complex skill set. As an employer, having a perfectly McDonaldized work environment, where labor is cheap, tasks are completed more efficiently, production is more predictable, and we can prove our own worth by the number of hamburgers we sell in a given day, is the best scenario for financial success in America.

I’ve watched the McDonaldization of the Education system for the last 10 years or so, but the pace of the process of rationalization has accelerated in the last few years.

In higher education, this rationalization was first highly developed and very successful at for-profit universities. I considered teaching at a for-profit university many years ago and even completed the for-profit university’s instructor training, was assigned a class to teach, and after seeing the curriculum, realized I didn’t want to teach that way. Every day, every hour, and every 15 minutes was dictated by the course outline, every assignment was created by the university, and I was to follow a strict grading rubric that left no room for using my own judgment on what constituted a superior paper, and what was just mediocre. As long as a student completed X, Y, and Z, they would pass the assignment and the class. Quality didn’t matter, either in individual assignments or classes. Once a student completed enough of X,Y, and Z, they would complete the class; once they completed enough classes, they earned a degree.

Traditional universities used to balk at educating people this way. A few universities were so opposed that instead of traditional letter grades, professors wrote summaries of each student and recommended whether a student should move forward to a new class or not. Professors looked for quality, not quantity, when our system of higher education was first created.

As a child, I dreamed of being a college professor for many reasons. I had a vision of being able to read great works of literature, develop new ideas, write books and articles that changed the way people think, and guide students in their quest for knowledge. I craved information when I was a kid, and craved the conversations that my parents and aunts and uncles had around my grandmother’s dinner table every Sunday. I read the local newspaper every day by the time I was ten or so, and enjoyed debates with my teachers and catching people off guard with trivial bits of current events.

In short, I loved to learn, and I loved to help others see the world in a different way than they had before.

As an undergraduate student here at Chico State, even 20 years ago, we were expected to write in every general education class we were required to take, and we received extensive feed back from the majority of our professors, then would re-write, and resubmit. It was a give and take learning process that allowed the professor to gauge how well the student understood the course’s material. I fell in love with the process, the learning that could occur, the knowledge transfer, and every time a professor would say, “I never thought of it this way.”

I loved my college years, not for the social aspect, but for the knowledge and the quest. I got to take classes just because they sounded interesting. I spent nearly 9 years earning my undergraduate degree part time at a community college, then a university, earned over 200 semester units (a bachelor’s degree was 124 at the time), and I don’t regret one class in that time. The knowledge was the most important thing.

Today, the California State University system does not require writing in general education classes and fewer and fewer professors require writing in their classes as a result. There is very little back and forth interaction to gauge development and understanding. Assessing student progress and understanding of the material presented in class is completed largely through multiple-choice tests, and nothing more. If a student completes X, Y, and Z, then they pass.

This rationalization is the result of higher demand on faculty and campus resources and has changed education, from less quality to more quantity. In California, only about 35% of students complete their bachelor’s degree in 4 years, and just over 65% graduate within 6 years. It is a rate that is unacceptable to the general taxpayer who subsidizes the tuition for California students, and to the Administration, who market the California State University system partially for how quickly a student will likely graduate. As a result, the Administration called upon the California State University system to increase the number of students we serve at each campus, and decrease the time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree. At the same time of this demand from Administration, there has been a loss of approximately 600 full time faculty at the California State University system since 2008, with a decrease of only 3,000 Full Time Equivalent Students [FTES] in the same period.

The only way to fulfill this request is through rationalization.

Rationalization is edging in on the California State University system through highly specialized professors with vast expertise in only one or two topics, downsizing bachelor degree requirements to fewer units, streamlining general education requirements and decreasing course options, increasing frequency of student assessment of teaching, and the removal of any subjective course assignments to gauge student comprehension of material.

We are doing okay with this model, changing the way we teach, adapting, as Darwin would say, to our environment in order to survive. We’re doing okay, but maybe not for long.

Our most significant issue throughout the university system is this fact: we have lost an enormous number of faculty since the Great Recession, and we are not replacing faculty at a fast enough rate to keep up with the current demand, let alone the projected increased demand in the next 5 years or so.

President Obama released a proposal in early 2015 that would provide free tuition at community colleges nationwide for 2 years for certain programs, so that our youth might have a better chance of having more opportunities for employment. As you can imagine, a presidential proposal that helps my own job security is something I support. There are problems with this proposal, though, especially in a place like California, where we have an inordinately high number of community colleges, and not enough faculty to serve those students today.

College and university faculty often teach at more than one institution, with part time faculty, especially, teaching 2 or 3 classes at each institution. If community colleges begin to offer faculty more classes each semester, the already stressed California State University system (and others like it in the state and across the nation) is likely to suffer since those faculty member may give up classes at the CSU. To make up for this demand, class sizes increase, number of classes increase (full time for lecturers at Chico State in 2005 was 4 classes; today, it’s 5), and faculty will burn out faster due to the increased stress of the job.

But here’s the big problem with President Obama’s proposal, one that cannot be quantified as easily, but will have many more long-term consequences: all colleges must adopt accelerated associate’s degree programs like the ASAP program at The City University of New York.

Accelerated programs have their place, I understand that, and in the President’s proposal for community colleges, he outlines funding for technical colleges, which is where acceleration fits well. Accelerated technical programs, where individuals learn invaluable skills such as computer engineering, auto collision repair, and my own history of paramedic and emergency medical technician, will be the basis for a large portion of jobs in the next 20 years in America.

But liberal arts colleges are not the place for accelerated learning, and McDonaldization, with the most emphasis placed on arbitrary evaluations, the number of students one professor can pack into a lecture hall, and the number of passing grades a professor assigns in one semester. Education at the college level should not be about rote memorization with regurgitation of facts 3 weeks later on an arbitrary exam. Learning, new ideas, innovation, and progress do not happen that way. The greatest lesson we teach through liberal arts colleges is to think critically, to question, to analyze. We cannot teach that, nor can students learn and create new ideas, in a system that emphasizes speed, efficiency, and completely rational thought above all else.

We must be allowed to continue to teach outside the box, rather than teach our students to fill in the circles of a test bubble. President Obama’s proposal undermines education and learning in the liberal arts tradition, it crushes innovation, and critical thought, and that is the last thing we need in America.


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