A few weeks ago I speculated on the structural aspect of neoliberalism at an economy-wide level, the way its characteristic framing of economic decision-making may have emerged from changes in the role of finance in business and the composition of high-end portfolios. My purpose was to push back against the common tendency to view neoliberalism solely as a philosophy, to be countered by other philosophies. Today I stumbled across this superb bit of reporting from the Chronicle of Higher Education that implicitly makes the same kind of argument in a different context. (Hat tip: Naked Capitalism.)
The article describes the massive expansion of non-profit online education that has occurred in recent years, with several institutions approaching 100,000 students each. Interviews with planners and administrators make it clear that the motivating force is not a philosophical rethinking of what education means or should mean; rather they are responding to the emergence of a market that someone needs to serve—if not them, someone else. More than 30 million adults in the United States have some college credits under their belt but no degree. With the labor force increasingly segmented by credentials, many of them are desperate to finish their degrees as quickly as possible. Since they are trying to make ends meet at low-wage jobs, they want programs that are as convenient and inexpensive as possible: commodity education. Everything about the new online degree providers is dictated by this situation.
Read the article for yourself. Here’s what I like about it:
It isn't weighed down by explicit value judgments. It lets readers do this for themselves.
It presents what we can call a neoliberal turn in higher education not primarily as a change in philosophy or mode of discourse, but as a reflection of changing circumstances. There's a two-way dance between the economic pressures facing students, their expectations and competences in a world in which the role of consumer has been made more determining and ubiquitous, the shift toward tuition financing, and other economic factors on the one hand, and the cognitive structures those implementing these systems use to justify and assess what they're doing on the other. If anything, the article foregrounds the arrow going from economic context to cognition, which redresses the balance somewhat (as I see it).
Also implicit is the class nature of what is taking place. The term “elite” is used to describe traditional educational models, as (alas) it should be. Those who can afford to center their daily life around attendance at a physical college or university have become a fortunate minority. (In 2017 the New York Times published a useful tool that allows you to look up the median family income of students at a wide range of schools; at the University of Washington, for instance, the median was $113,000. The source data were assembled by Opportunity Insights.) Wealthy families will continue to send their kids to places where they can get immersive, open-ended and potentially transformative experiences; the rest can shop online.
But the lines of demarcation are fuzzy. Some potential students face a choice between “elite” and commodity education, and this introduces a degree of competition between tradition and online models. Unless they have an ample supply of paying customers and a hefty endowment, institutions of higher ed will feel the pressure of the online credentialers in curriculum, student expectations, and of course price. Indeed, they already have.
Competition within the commodity education sector is also fierce, since the product is essentially standardized—a degree certificate—and geographic considerations no longer apply. Hencing branding, and all the activities that enter into it, becomes crucial. This is why Arizona State University, according to the article, has trademarked the phrase “universal learner”; it gives them a competitive edge against other outfits not permitted to describe their mission with these words. Again, the privatization of the intellectual commons is not the product of ideological zeal but everyday economic incentives—incentives that were much weaker in the past but have now been exacerbated by the organization of the commodity education sector.
It should be obvious that a driving force behind this set of developments is the decision to shift from a public to a tuition financing model in public higher ed. That decision can and should be reversed. Anyone who cares about the future of education (and culture and democracy and all that stuff) should be fully on board. At the same time, the process is also propelled by the extraordinary increase in economic inequality. As long as educational credentials play such a large role in determining the life chances of most people in our society, this consideration will push aside others in how colleges and universities are organized, what curriculum they offer and what they will ask of the students who attend them.
To sum up: the long term prospects for higher education are dim as long as current economic and institutional trends continue. While intellectual disputation of the rationale for commodity education is a worthwhile enterprise, it won’t have much impact on the ground. Changing course requires we remove tuition (and other economic barriers) as a filter for who has access to quality education, and that we drastically reduce inequalities in the labor market so students have the luxury of valuing education for more than its sorting function.