Begin with the idea of economics as the science of scarcity. The price of a commodity is largely dependent on its relative scarcity. Economic value increases when a commodity becomes scarce, and a commodity that is not scarce will become scarce if it is distributed widely and used up indiscriminately. Scarcity is basic to the world view of economics—so much so that the language of economics speaks as though scarcity and value are inseparable.
The things that matter most in education, though, do not fit this paradigm. They are not scarce, and yet they are extremely valuable—indeed they are among the most valuable in human life. They do not become scarce by being shared. Instead, they expand and grow the more they are shared.
One of these things is knowledge. Knowledge has never been exhausted by spreading it to more and more people. Today, it is more abundant than at any time in the past, and it reproduces more prolifically as it is shared. Moreover, technology has made it possible to store knowledge efficiently and to access it cheaply. No wonder that the economic paradigm is having difficulty capturing and domesticating it into a well-behaved economic commodity.
This is disconcerting for institutions that think of themselves primarily as providers of information. If the knowledge is out there, freely accessible, why then should anyone pay large sums of money to a knowledge gatekeeper—let alone go into debt? Today, the confrontation between free technological access and proprietary gate-keeping is leading to turmoil about new models of delivery in higher education.
But the idea that a college or university is a purveyor of information is a misplaced economic metaphor. Education is not information transfer. The educated college graduate is not simply the same person who matriculated four years earlier with more information or new skills. The educated graduate is a different person—one who has developed the innate human capacity for learning, to the point of controlling it. The educated graduate is an independent learner, able to seek out answers to whatever questions arise, and able to direct his or her own learning in accordance with the challenges that life presents in the circumstances of his or her own life.
The maturation of the student—not information transfer—is the real purpose of colleges and universities. Of course, information transfer occurs during this process. One cannot become a master of one’s own learning without learning something. But information transfer is a corollary of the maturation process, not its primary purpose. This is why assessment procedures that depend too much on quantitative measures of information transfer miss the mark. It is entirely possible for an institution to focus successfully on scoring high in rankings for information transfer while simultaneously failing to promote the maturation process that leads to independent learning.