The Four Perspectives of Higher Education Policy Explained

Explaining higher education policy is never easy (even to people who are involved in it). Over the years, while training young writers for the Martin Center, I have come up with a model that has proven useful. One way to produce clarity among the confusion is to apply a model having four basic perspectives rather than just two.

One major problem the model overcomes is the tendency to reflexively think about policy according to the left-right political paradigm. It’s not that higher education is not political—it is among the most politicized institutions in our society, the central battleground of the culture war.

But the standard left-right political model is inadequate or misleading for discussing higher education policy. There are too many non-political dynamics at play; perhaps the most important of these is an unstable economy centered on knowledge that has added a new range of higher education controversies on top of longstanding political ones.

Nor does the liberal model in which there is a corporate takeover of the academy work. Higher education is simply too complex for that explanation.


The Four Perspectives

The first of these perspectives can be deemed “Traditional;” its focus is on educating new generations within the longstanding Western tradition. Students are taught to see themselves as heirs to a civilization that began in the ancient Middle East, was transformed through Judeo-Christian theology and Greek philosophy, and advanced over the centuries to produce the modern world. Heavy emphasis is placed on the so-called Western canon, or “Great Books,” and on the founding documents of the United States and their underlying philosophies. The Traditional perspective is, as its emphases suggest, often connected to conservative politics and Judeo-Christian religious beliefs. Yet, some political liberals, such as celebrated educator E.D. Hirsch, also adhere to this view.

The second can be termed “Transformative,” in which the focus is on getting students to question the values of their formative associations, such as families, communities, and churches, and adopt new worldviews that echo those prevalent in academia. It is highly political—on the left, to be precise—and is in part defined by its rejection of the Western tradition. Advocates of the Transformative paradigm ardently defend study of the humanities, and perhaps even more so, the social sciences. And it is unquestionably a left-wing perspective.

Despite being on opposite ends of the standard political spectrum, Traditionalists and Transformatives share a great deal, beginning with a foundational belief in educating the whole person rather than just teaching knowledge and skills. Both place great emphasis on values and favor an education that shapes students morally and develops their critical thinking, often through exposure to the humanities.

But the Traditional and Transformative camps are still more oppositional than allied. They may both defend the humanities and wish to impart their values to students, but they vary widely on which values they wish to pass on and which texts they wish to be read. One big difference is their attitudes toward free speech; whereas Traditionalists are forced to fight for the right to express their views on campus and in class without fear of retribution, Transformatives tend to favor restrictions on so-called “hate speech” and views they consider offensive.

The other two perspectives are relatively value-neutral and apolitical; they are instead centered on higher education’s economic aspects. One can be called “Vocational,” in which, as the label describes, higher education is seen primarily as a way to train workers at the highest skill levels. They are especially critical of the humanities and social sciences, considering them impractical and irrelevant to the task of preparing for a career.

There is something of a schism among Vocationals, with two subgroups tied together by a central belief that higher education has become too much of an end instead of a means. The division is primarily a matter of degree; the main branch wishes to streamline college and make content focus on usefulness. They often favor educational innovations such as online learning over traditional methods.

The other faction wishes to do away with much of higher education, regarding it as unnecessary and wasteful; they may, for instance, promote hands-on learning in apprentice programs as preferable alternatives.

A frequent prediction made by many Vocationals (of both stripes) is that higher education is facing a market “bubble,” in which demand for standard four-year academic degrees has been driven unsustainably high by student loans and a weak labor market. As with all such bubbles, collapse is considered to be inevitable and many colleges will be forced to close their doors. So far, no such bubble collapse has materialized, and such an event is unlikely in the foreseeable future given continued high levels of student aid. Yet the potential for a large market shift is certainly within the realm of the possible.

Although sometimes people within academia and government may see the Vocational view as belonging to the political right, it is more libertarian than conservative. Or it can be apolitical—its pragmatic anti-intellectualism belongs to no party.

The other perspective that emphasizes economics over other concerns can be termed the “Multiversity” (from a speech by University of California president Clark Kerr in 1960). It gives the university an enormous role in American society, perceiving it to be the driver of the economy and the source of a vast array of solutions to all manner of problems. It promotes both research and complex interactions between universities and government, private industry, and communities.

Many on the left suggest the Multiversity is a right-wing perspective, reordering academia into a tool of large corporations for partnerships in research and career-focused education. At the same time, conservative critics view it as “big government” gone mad with “mission creep.” Yet it is essentially bureaucratic rather than political and is favored by establishment politicians from both parties.

One consideration that can lead to confusion is caused by the overwhelming percentage of students who say their primary reason for seeking a degree is to gain the training and credentials to improve their employment prospects. Although one may reflexively wish to regard them as Vocationals, most belong philosophically to the Multiversity, as they tend to favor the Multiversity’s aggrandizement of the university, with lots of spending on amenities, activities, and athletics. That is not true of the growing population of older “non-traditional” students, however, who are usually Vocationals.

The Multiversity is very much favored by most policymakers, administrators, donors, and employers. Faculty members are divided primarily between the Multiversity and Transformatives.

As can be expected, support for these perspectives comes from different constituencies; as a result, some have more influence. The Multiversity is very much favored by most policymakers, administrators, donors, and employers. Faculty members are divided primarily between the Multiversity and Transformatives. Transformatives also have powerful allies in the media and political left. When students are politically active, they tend toward the Transformative camp, although there is a rapidly growing contingent of activists in the Traditionalist camp. Both Traditionalists and Vocationals tend to have less support on campus than they do among the general population, where their ideas are rapidly gaining popularity.

The interplay between these perspectives is complex. Traditionalists aggressively critique Transformatives and the Multiversity, yet their attacks are generally not returned but ignored, as Traditionalists are often without much power inside the Ivory Tower.

The Transformatives’ main target tends to be the Multiversity since they are usually in charge of the campus: The Transformative faculty and the administrative Multiversity are often pitted against one another over governance and employment issues. And since Transformatives are often socialist in their political and economic outlooks, the Multiversity’s cooperation with private industry is regarded as an affront to their political agenda (and to the supposed sanctity of the “pure” academy).

Transformatives and the Multiversity, though adversaries on some matters, often join forces; they both want higher revenues, expanding enrollments, and greater influence for higher education. The Multiversity’s response to attacks by Transformatives has been to yield to them on political and curricular issues but to press their advantage when it comes to monetary concerns.

Vocationals share some common ground with Traditionalists, as they mutually oppose and criticize the ever-expanding bureaucracy and mission creep of the Multiversity. Both eye the political agenda of the Transformatives with dread. At the same time, Vocationals expressly reject the Traditionalist emphasis on values and morality (and their focus on the humanities).

Vocationals share little common ground with Transformatives, except for their mutual dislike of the Multiversity (albeit for different reasons). Vocationals hold the Multiversity’s continual drive to expand enrollments, increase revenues, and to increase its position as gatekeepers to employment in contempt. Because they scoff at an exalted view of academia, Vocationals are often regarded with dread by Transformatives.

These perspectives are further defined by their attitudes toward several concepts: general education, budgeting, college enrollment, and American nationality and western civilization versus multiculturalism and globalism.


General Education

The varying attitudes toward general education—the non-major core curriculum—are illustrative of the deep divisions between these four factions.

Traditionalists focus intensely on general education, perhaps as much or more than on major degree programs. They believe there is a core of knowledge that is essential for all educated people to know. General education, with an emphasis on the humanities, is viewed as a vehicle to continue the conventional Western education going back many centuries that has sought to elevate morals as well as the intellect.

The Transformative perspective also views general education favorably. Yet its vision differs greatly from the Traditionalists’ in what it hopes general education will accomplish and its methods for doing so. Transformatives reject the notion that there is a concise core that all should know. Instead, general education is prized for exposing students to a wide variety of knowledge and ideas beyond their prior range of experience; the liberal arts component of general education is valued for creating a habit of critical thinking.

Critics of the Transformative view suggest that an overly broad general education produces incoherence rather than intellectual curiosity, and even liberal critics wonder if “critical thinking” has become nothing more than a habit of being critical, rather than arguing from a well-reasoned, coherent perspective.

The Multiversity is ambivalent about general education. On one hand, general education is valued by policymakers and employers for imparting tangible soft skills, such as writing and critical thinking, that will prepare graduates for the workplace. Yet, it seems that the Multiversity does not regard general education as important enough to craft precise standards. There is not a lot of wiggle room when it comes to requirements for majors such as electrical engineering or pre-med, yet almost anything goes in general education programs created by Multiversity administrators.

The Vocational perspective has little use for general education; many students whose sole intent is to gain employment see it as a waste of time or an annoying set of hurdles to be passed over while expending as little effort as possible. The same goes for those Vocationals in the general population who favor low-cost, low-frills education.



One aspect of general education programs that is very revealing of the divisions concerns questions of citizenship and national unity. Developing a common culture through the study of the traditions and ideas of Western history and our nation’s foundational documents is central to the Traditional perspective. Furthermore, they see that core as a politically unifying force that, if properly designed, binds Americans together as one people.

Transformatives also perceive general education as a way to inculcate citizenship values in students. However, they favor doing so not to unify Americans into one patriotic culture, but to produce a collective skepticism about America’s past. They prefer to instill values of citizenship, not by studying our foundational documents and political theory, but through activities such as “civic engagement,” which can mean volunteer work or getting involved in political movements.

Promoting American nationality and knowledge of Western civilization are not even considerations in either the Vocational or Multiversity perspectives; instead, many in both camps believe that we are entering a world in which national boundaries will be torn down economically and intellectually.



When it comes to budgets, the Multiversity assumes that bigger is better. Advocates favor increased state spending, believing that “investing in higher education” will improve economic development. They wish to raise faculty salaries in order to attract more talent. There is a tendency toward aggrandizement: more buildings, more research, more amenities, more students. Multiversity advocates place the university near the center of society, engaging with every facet of life. And that costs money.

For the most part, Transformatives agree with the Multiversity about budgets; since they regard academia as America’s intellectual and moral center, money should flow there. There is never enough money spent for education (particularly for salaries). And, although they may not care much about economic matters, Transformatives often cite academia’s potential for developing the economy as justification for increased public spending on higher education.

For the most part, Transformatives agree with the Multiversity about budgets; since they regard academia as America’s intellectual and moral center, money should flow there.

However, Transformatives are also wary of corporate money and influence, as well as spending on athletics. They wish to eliminate or greatly diminish tuition for low-income and middle-income students, leaving the government as the major source of revenue.

Vocationals do not see higher education as an end in itself but as a means. The end is a promising career, and they wish to spend as little time and money as possible attaining that end. Note, again, there is a difference between a “philosophical” Vocational and the great mass of students who are going to school to get a job. Many of those students are more aligned with the Multiversity; if they must go to school to get a good job, they wish the journey to be as pleasant as possible—with lots of spending on sports, activities, amenities, and so on.

Both Traditionalists and Vocationals believe that college is unnecessarily expensive, and they would prefer more focus on the goals of education (of course, those goals are not the same for both perspectives). Both groups are against mission creep, aggrandizement, and other sources of unnecessary spending, and favor dismantling many non-academic facets, such as athletics and social justice staffing.



Traditionalists regard higher education as an elite institution, in which only those with the drive and aptitude to perform high-level intellectual work should attend. Attendance by those who will almost assuredly drop out is considered counterproductive for not only those students but for the school and society as well.

Transformatives favor increases in college attendance; they often advocate for free college for everybody. It is not hard to understand why; if you wish to transform society, the more people who pass through your programs, the more you are likely to influence. They are particularly keen on increasing attendance among “under-represented” demographic groups. Furthermore, the idea that success in college is a difficult undertaking that only a limited percentage of the population can accomplish violates their egalitarian principles.

The Multiversity is also pro-enrollment, albeit for economic reasons. They hold fast to the belief that, since in very general terms, college graduates earn more than others, having more college graduates will promote economic growth.

Vocationals tend to believe several disjointed concepts about enrollment. One is that college is largely unnecessary for most entry-level professional jobs; rather, graduation is a “signaling” device to employers that one has the qualities they desire in new hires. At the same time, they wish college to be extremely accessible to all. They especially favor innovations that offer great flexibility: online courses, stackable credits, skill certification programs, and competency testing.


Final Word

To understand a policy and its eventual effects, it’s best to understand the reasoning that undergirds the policy and who stands to benefit from it. The four perspectives above reflect the four current major factions in higher education—based upon their reasoning, not on the politics of their adherents.

Of course, the four perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Individuals can apply different types of reasoning to different problems; for example, it is not uncommon for somebody to hold the Traditionalist view on one issue, Vocational on another, and Multiversity on a third. Or to divide his or her allegiances between the Multiversity and the Transformative perspectives.

Even so, without such a framework to help in analysis, confusion can reign. It can be extremely helpful, when faced with a puzzling policy proposal, to recognize how it fits into a particular paradigm, or how it forwards a particular agenda.

Hopefully, the above model will prove as helpful to others as it has to myself.

Jay Schalin is director of policy analysis at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.