Universities as businesses: students as cash cows

Thomas Frank wrote a great article in The Baffler of where American higher education is going.  He said a lot of things I’ve long said, but he said them better and more eloquently.

bors-youth-student-loan-debt-trophyYoung people today are told they have no possibility of ever getting a good job unless they have a college education.   But they know nothing about college, or what it has to offer.   Consequently they are helpless to prevent themselves from being cash cows for greedy college administrators, greedy textbook publishers and greedy lenders.  This isn’t true of everyone everywhere, but it is common and becoming more common.

The solution is obvious.   At least it is obvious to Thomas Frank, and to me.

College should become free or very cheap. It should be heavily subsidized by the states, and robust competition from excellent state U’s should in turn bring down the price of college across the board.  Pointless money-drains like a vast administration, a preening president, and a quasi-professional football team should all be plugged up.  Accrediting agencies should come down like a hammer on universities that use too many adjuncts and part-time teachers.  Student loan debt should be universally refinanced to carry little or no interest and should be discharge-able in bankruptcy, like any other form of debt.

But the obvious solution is highly unlikely to be adopted.

What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality.

Trustees and presidents will redouble their efforts to achieve some ineffable “excellence” they associate with tech and architecture and corporate sponsorships. There will be more standardized tests, and more desperate test-prep. The curriculum will be brought into a tighter orbit around the needs of business, just like Thomas Friedman wants it to be.

Professors will continue to plummet in status and power, replaced by adjuncts in more and more situations. An all-celebrity system, made possible by online courses or some other scheme, will finally bring about a mass faculty extinction—a cataclysm that will miraculously spare university administrations. And a quality education in the humanities will once again become a rich kid’s prerogative.

via The Baffler.

Student-Debt-CartoonPeople wonder why the U.S. economy is so slow to recover.  Young people have no money to spare because they are burdened with college debt.  Their parents have no money to spare because they are paying off underwater mortgages.  Their grandparents have no money to spare because they have no private pensions and they haven’t been able to save.   Again, this isn’t true of everyone, everywhere, but it is common and becoming more common.

People my age (I’m 76) who belittle today’s young people don’t remember how good we had it.  College tuition was affordable, working your way through college was feasible and nobody began life with a debt burden they might never pay off.

Click on Academy Fight Song for Thomas Frank’s full magnificent survey of the American higher education money machine.

Click on How the American University Was Killed, in Five Easy Steps, by the ‘Junct Rebellion for another splendid overview.

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2 Responses to “Universities as businesses: students as cash cows”

  1. Robert O Says:

    Phil, I’ve read your posts for about 3 months now and you never fail to impress me with what I perceive to be wisdom. You have about 18 years on me, but your remarks about the costs of a college education are right on. I worked my way through school, took a longer time than usual, but in the end my entire school debt was five or six thousand. I don’t hear enough criticism of the expense in public where I live, people are too passive and too hesitant to bring it up. Our local institutions are comprised of a very good JC and a hallowed and very good liberal arts school that is now running close to $50k. The median income here is under $50k, so there’s a real schism between town and gown, which that institution is working to close through outreach; and some students are inspired to stay here and make an effort to contribute to the town. But every year tuition rises, the split between the kids that come to live here for four years, and the people who haven’t recovered from a generation of rust-belt decay, gets wider. As much as people will nod in agreement that college costs are out-of-control, few will go as far as criticizing our hallowed and elite institution. You are so right, saying we had it better. If the trend continues, it will of course revert to a system in which only the already-wealthy can participate.

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  2. A Brief History of Student Loans | Revolutionary Paideia Says:

    […] Universities as businesses: student as cash cows (philebersole.wordpress.com) […]

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