College president Dick Merriman thinks talking about “the business of education” sets the wrong expectations:

This college exists as a philanthropy because thousands of people, many of whom you and I will never know, have built it over the past 125 years. They built it for your benefit, knowing they would never meet you.

The college’s facilities, our endowment for scholarships, our mission—all of these have been built, and protected and sustained, for your benefit. They were built so you can gain a college education, find and pursue your passion, and commit yourselves to living a valuable life. In short, this college exists so you can become a better person and, in turn, help make the world a better place.

I serve on advisory boards for two universities, and find the demarcation between philanthropy and enterprise to be a constant (if sometimes silent) issue.

An athletic program is both a huge expense and a profit center — but to what degree does it contribute to the educational mission? Better marketing can boost applications, but will it result in a better outcome for students?

I went to film school at USC, a traditional non-profit university. I had access to experts and equipment and highly-motivated peers. But as a graduate student, I can’t honestly say that I needed the rest of the university. I didn’t need a quad and a student government and dormitories. The full, four-year experience was invaluable as an undergrad at Drake. It’s where I figured out a lot about my interests. But by the time I arrived in Los Angeles, I knew enough about what I wanted that I didn’t need historic buildings and school mascots.

Many film programs are unabashedly for-profit ventures, unaffiliated with a traditional university. They truly are businesses, not philanthropies. And maybe that’s okay. If a class promises to teach you advanced Avid editing for $900, that can be a business-customer transaction. I took a Final Cut Pro class through UCLA Extension and certainly never thought about a grade or diploma.

The danger is conflating this kind of specialized training with the mission of traditional colleges and universities, which I’d argue is to turn out well-educated citizens, regardless of their major. In both cases, you’re paying to learn, but a traditional university has different and higher expectations of its students. Merriman:

[Y]ou are permitted to change your mind and change your plans here. What you are not permitted to do here is waste our time. Because we have made an investment in you. Because we chose you to receive a fabulous gift. All we ask of you is that you honestly make your best effort to capitalize on this opportunity.