Posts Tagged ‘College Education’

How neoliberalism feeds political correctness

September 14, 2016

Maximillian Alvarez, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, wrote in the current issue of The Baffler that the real driver behind “political correctness” on American university campuses is the neoliberal idea that students are customers, and that the job of the university is to give the customers what they want.

education-in-liberal-artsThe traditional idea of the university was that the professors were the custodians of knowledge, that their job was to impart knowledge and wisdom to students and that their work should be judged by their peers.

The neoliberal idea of the university is that professors are vendors and students are customers, and that the measure of a university’s success is the ability to maximize enrollment and tuition.

Alvarez wrote that the conflict over “political correctness” is a conflict over which of the university’s customers are more important—the students and parents, or the wealthy donors.  (In the case of public colleges and universities, there is a third customer—the businesses that depend on public institutions to provide vocational training.}

Here’s what Alvarez had to say:

When professors today say they fear their students, they’re really saying that they’re afraid their students’ reviews and complaints will get them fired.

What professors fear are the changing administrative policies that have pinned the fate of their job security to the same unstable consumer logic behind Yelp reviews and the reputation economy.

The image of the wise, hard-nosed professor who upends her students’ assumptions about the world, who provokes and guides heated debates in class about subjects that may offend as much as they enlighten, rests on a whole host of factors that no longer enter into the crabbed, anxiety-driven working life of the casually employed academic.

Nor do such factors typically emerge in our debates about political correctness at universities.

Three in particular are worth highlighting.

First, tenure for faculty is disappearing—and along with it the sort of job security that once made university teaching an attractive long-term career.

Now the lion’s share of college teaching jobs goes to part-time (adjunct) instructors and non-tenure-track faculty.


The fate of the arts and sciences

August 15, 2015

Everybody knows that the percentage of [college] students majoring in English has plummeted since the 1960s. 

But the percentage majoring in the physical sciences—physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy and so forth—has fallen even more, by some 60 percent.

As of 2013, only 1.5 percent of students graduated with a degree in one of these subjects, and only 1.1 percent in math.

At most colleges, the lion’s share of undergraduates major in vocational fields: business, communications, education, health.

But even at elite institutions, the most popular majors are the practical, or as [David] Brooks might say, the commercial ones: economics, biology, engineering and computer science.

It is not the humanities per se that are under attack.  It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake.

==The Neoliberal Arts by William Deresiewicz in Harper’s magazine.  Available to subscribers only.

College is unaffordable because it is necessary

August 5, 2015


When I was a college student, it was possible for a middle class family to save up enough money to pay college tuition, and it was possible to work your way through college without accumulating a burden of debt.

In that era, it also was possible for a hard-working high-school graduate to earn enough to support a family.

Now college is both unaffordable and necessary, or at least it is believed to be necessary in order to get a good job.  Education might be affordable if it wasn’t necessary, and college administrators were not in a position to charge what the traffic would bear.

As Kevin Drum of Mother Jones shows in the chart above, it does little good for the federal government to give aid to students if colleges merely raise tuition and fees accordingly.

This increased tuition and fees is not going to pay for better instruction.  More and more college teaching is being done by low-paid adjunct faculty.  Rather the revenues are going to pay administrator’s salaries and to pay for amenities intended to attract the children of the rich.

Education should be regarded as a public good, not as a article of commerce.  It should be regarded as a way to deepen knowledge and understanding, and not as a way to give certain Americans a credential that will give them a competitive advantage over other Americans.

State universities and community colleges should lower tuition so that higher education is as affordable as it once was.

And if there was a full-employment, high-wage economy, employers would hire people based on their ability to do the work rather than their credentials.  If college education was not a perceived necessity, it would be affordable.


As Federal Aid Goes Up, College Costs Rise Enough to Gobble It All Up by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.

Best Sixteen Years of My Life on Gin and Tacos.

Rape on campus, and due process of law

June 8, 2015

There’s a new documentary film out about how college administrators frequently ignore rape of students on campus.

I think there is an inherent problem with pursuing charges of rape through complaints about violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments rather than the criminal courts.

Title IX bans discrimination based on sex, on penalty of losing federal aid.  The argument is that failure to punish rapists is a form of sex discrimination.  The standard of proof violation of Title IX in an administrative proceeding is less than that required for conviction of a felony in the criminal courts.

I can understand why rape victims hesitate to complain to the police.  Rape is the only crime which, sadly, is regarded as shaming to the victim, and also is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

The problem is that college administrations are not set up to administer criminal justice and they have a conflict of interest between doing justice and protecting the good name of the college.

A trained prosecutor is the best qualified person to deal with an actual crime, and college students should be subject to the same laws as everybody else.  Keeping college rape cases out of the criminal courts is the equivalent of the “benefit of clergy” during the Middle Ages.


College for all is an economic red herring

April 9, 2015

wages-productivity-educationSource: The Atlantic.

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-06Senator Rick Santorum was right, or at least partly right.  Only a snob would think that you have to be a college graduate to be a success in life.

Now President Obama didn’t exactly say that in the 2012 campaign, not in so many words, but the focus of his policy is that high schools should make their graduates “college-ready” and that a college diploma is a key to economic success.

This is a red herring.  It is a diversion from the real economic problems, especially the erosion of the wage-earning middle class.

Thomas Geoghegan pointed out in his new book, Only One Thing Can Save Us, that when the President says lack of higher education is the cause of economic inequality, he is writing off the 68 percent of Americans age 24 to 64 who don’t have college diplomas and never will.

Suppose, he asked, that Obama and the Democrats succeed in pushing the college graduation rate up to 35 percent or even 40 percent, which would be hard to do.   Obama is still writing off the majority of working-age Americans.

The President is in effect telling high school graduates that the reason it is so hard for them to find decent-paying jobs is that they didn’t go to college.  And as for the the one in five male college graduates and one in seven women graduates whose income is less than that of the average high school graduate, it is because they attended the wrong college or majored in the wrong subject.


Is college a ticket to a middle-class income?

October 11, 2014

A liberal education is an excellent thing to have, and going to college is one good way to get it.

But college is not necessarily a ticket to a middle-class income, and massive college enrollment is not a rising tide that will lift all boats.

A higher proportion of Americans than ever before are going to college, and yet economic inequality is rising.  The more people who attend college, the less of a competitive advantage a college degree will provide.

I think that everyone who is capable of doing college work should have the opportunity to go to college, but this would not, in and of itself, create jobs nor revive the sluggish U.S. economy.

These thoughts were prompted by a couple of articles I read through links on the New York York 23rd web log.

Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor under the Clinton administration, wrote in an article reprinted in Salon, stating that in these days of crushing student loans, a college education is not necessarily of economic benefit to everyone and that there are other ways to qualify for good jobs.

Dr. Jorge L. Diaz-Herrera, president of Keuka College in upstate New York, responded in the Elmira Star-Gazette that a college degree does indeed give you an economic edge.

I think that’s a weak argument for somebody in his position.   I believe it is possible to get just as good an education at a small and lesser-known college such as Keuka College as at larger and better-known colleges and universities, but the cash value of the diploma as a credential will not be as great.


College is a ludicrous waste of money by Robert Reich for Salon.  Reich’s own headline on his blog was Back to College, the Only Gateway to the Middle Class.

College is not a ‘waste of money’ by Dr. Jorge L. Diaz-Herrera for the Elmira Star-Gazette.

Thinking Like Corporations Is Harming American Universities by Noam Chomsky.  The larger picture.

How to make public higher education free to all

February 15, 2014

Only about 10 percent of the money that’s spent on institutions of higher education actually goes to educating students, according to Robert Samuels, president of the American Federation of Teachers at the University of California.

The rest goes to athletic programs, hospitals, medical schools, industrial and government research and other programs not related to instruction.

He said that if priorities are redirected, it would be possible to provide free public higher education to all qualified students without raising taxes or increasing spending

He said there should be federal standards for universities receiving government aid, including a maximum number of large classes, a minimum percentage of full-time faculty and a requirement that at least 50 percent of state and federal aid be directed to instruction of undergraduates.  He also would take away tax breaks for college expenses and redirect that money into making college education free to all.

Without knowing the details of what he proposes. I think this is the direction in which to go.


Why can’t higher education be affordable?

August 24, 2013


When I was of college age, back in the 1950s, it was possible for middle-class American families to save  enough money to send their children through college, and for poor but ambitious students to work their way through college.   It also was possible for a hard-working person without a college education to earn a decent living.

Now a college diploma is a prerequisite for a decent job, much as a high school diploma was 60 years ago, and for many students, a college education is out of reach without taking on a burdensome level of debt.   It is a high stakes gamble.   If the college diploma is a ticket to a good job, the gamble pays off.  If it isn’t, then the borrower faces the possibility of a lifetime of debt servitude.

President Obama has proposed a plan for student debt relief, which is to give financial incentives to colleges with affordable tuition and good graduation rates.  Like his heath care form plan, it is complicated, offers opportunities to game the system and may or may not do some good in the long run.

I think the solution is for state universities to provide a good education with free or low tuition to everyone who is capable of doing college work, and for community colleges to provide free or remedial education and job training.  The federal government could provide support to enable them to afford to be able to do this.

I also think the federal government should buy up existing student debt and provide refinancing at a nominal interest rate.  This is part of the larger world debt situation:  People and nations owe more than they ever can repay and there needs to be some means of writing down this debt.


Why I’m glad I’m not a young person today

April 9, 2012

When I attended high school and college in the late 1940s and early 1950s, everybody I knew took it for granted that anybody who was willing to work could get a job of some kind, anybody with a high school diploma could get a decent job and anybody with a college diploma, even in liberal arts, could get a somewhat better job.  This probably was less true for women and for black people than it was for people like me, but it was a time of advancing prosperity for everyone.

Nowadays young people are told that it is impossible to get a decent job without a degree beyond high school.  Consequently many people are crowding into college not out of a desire for learning, but simply to get the credential that will enable them to have a decent income.   We no longer have state universities that provide an affordable education for anybody who is capable of doing college work.  So unless you’re rich, you have to go deeply into debt to get that education.  But since young people are going to college merely to get a credential, it is not necessary for the college to actually teach them anything.  A college administration that follows the corporate model need only figure out the best balance between maximizing tuition and maximizing enrollment.

From what I hear from my friends in the academic world, more and more colleges are following the corporate model.  State colleges and universities are transforming themselves from public colleges to tax-supported private colleges, with the same goal of maximizing revenue.   I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush.  Not all colleges follow the corporate model.  There are still excellent teachers in colleges whose administrations are trying to force this model.  But this is the way the tide is flowing.

Ex-Senator Rick Santorum has said that college is not for anybody.  He said that many people can do better by getting a job and improving their skills through on-the-job training.   There was a time when this was true, but it is not true today.

He is quite right to say that you don’t have to go to college to be educated.   Years ago I read a great book, The Precious Gift by a man named Cornelius Hirschberg, who never went to college but gave himself a better liberal education than most people have simply by reading classic works on the New York City subway while going to and from work.  The book is out of print, but probably is available at a good public library.

What Senator Santorum said about the advantages of getting a hands-on education by entering the world of work would have been reasonable when I was growing up, and probably was valid when he was growing up.  You could become an apprentice in a skilled trade, such as machinist, and work up to a good wage as a journeyman.  To some extent, this is still possible.  But fewer and fewer companies provide such training.   It is worthwhile only if there is a stable work force, and the employer can count on the employee to hang around long enough to provide a return on the investment in human capital.

I think the answer One thing we need is a rebirth of public higher education – affordable community colleges to provide training in work skills, affordable state colleges to provide college-level education.   But that would mean a change in the whole way we have come to think about things.   We would have to start thinking there is such a thing as the common good, and not merely individuals with no higher aim than to get competitive advantage over each other.

[Update]  Click on Manufacturing Generation Me for a perspective on the “millennial” generation, the Americans born in 1982 or later.  The writer said that many of the characteristics taken for narcissism, such as trying to make yourself a “brand” or being preoccupied with career success and monetary rewards, are merely what young Americans nowadays have to do to survive.   Hat tip to

[Afterthought]  I emphasized the wrong thing by ending the post with a comment on the need to restore affordable public higher education.   The larger problem is the combination of a precarious economy, credentialism and the corporate model of education.   Without the fear generated by an uncertain economic future, credentialism would lose its power, and young people would have the freedom to seek out what they’re best suited for.

The value of a liberal arts education

November 14, 2011

When I went to college in the 1950s, there was a debate as to whether it was better to major in the humanities, the sciences or the social sciences.  The current issue of the New York Review of Books says that nowadays all three are lumped together under the heading of “liberal arts,” and are losing ground to majors such as business or communications aimed at preparing students to work in specific fields..

A Princeton professor named Anthony Grafton reported on a test administered by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which requires students to read a set of fictional documents about a business or political problem and write a memo advising how to respond to it.  Students majoring in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics outperformed students in growing majors such as business and communications.

He didn’t say why, but I can guess.  Business and communications majors at liberal arts colleges can be just watered-down liberal arts programs—a way to keep the liberal arts alive in new packaging.  But if the students don’t really care about science and the arts, but only want to get the degree as a credential, they’re not going to learn as much.  Business and technical schools can offer excellent training for occupations, which is what students want, but that training may not offer much spillover into other fields.

I decided sometime in my sophomore year in college that I wanted to work on newspapers, but I majored in American history, not in journalism.   I thought I could pick up the nuts and bolts of newspapering on the job, while the opportunity to study history under distinguished historians was an opportunity I should not let slip away.  I have never regretted my choice.

The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein said that an educated person has sound knowledge of three things — history, mathematics and foreign languages — because they provide the basis for mastery of everything else.

By Heinlein’s standard, I am one-third educated.  I have a reasonably good knowledge of American, European and world history, but I am woefully deficient in mathematics and know no foreign or ancient languages.  I neglected math and languages in college because they were hard; I took courses I liked and was interested in.  If I had my life to live over, I would make better use of my college years.

Click on Our Universities: Why Are They Failing? for the full article.

Is higher education turning into a ripoff?

April 28, 2011

Higher education is increasingly becoming a ripoff, writes Malcolm Harris on the web log of n + 1 literary magazine.  College tuition has increased sevenfold (adjusted for inflation) since 1978, but the average quality of education has gone in the other direction.  The salaries of administrators continually increase; those who do the teaching are being asked to do more for less pay and job security.

Students are continually being told that they have no economic future if they don’t go to college, so they take on crushing loads of debt.  American college graduates owe more than $800 billion in college loans.  American college loan debt now exceeds American credit card debt, while unemployment among recent college graduates is the highest on record.

If tuition has increased astronomically and the portion of money spent on instruction and student services has fallen, if the (at very least comparative) market value of a degree has dipped and most students can no longer afford to enjoy college as a period of intellectual adventure, then at least one more thing is clear: higher education, for-profit or not, has increasingly become a scam.

via n+1.

I’ve written about this previously, but Harris told me things I hadn’t known.  Student loan debt is securitized and repackaged into something called Student Loan Asset-Backed Securities, aka SLABS, just like the subprime mortgage loans.  So you have the potential for the same kind of crash.

Another thing I hadn’t known is that, under the  Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, no education loan, even money borrowed on a credit card, cannot be discharged through bankruptcy.  Before 2005, this only applied to federal government loans.

That means a college graduate with an outstanding college loan is in a form of indentured servitude.  If the graduate defaults, he or she is in the position of a debtor’s prison inmate on a work release program.

Unless something changes, college loans are headed for the same kind of financial crash as mortgage loans.  And colleges and universities seem to be following the failed pattern of U.S. manufacturing industry, and setting themselves up for the same kind of failure.  What happens to the higher education industry when their potential students come to realize they are not getting value for money?  Will they reform, or fall into the same cycle of cutting costs and quality of product?  This is a familiar script.


What is a college degree worth, really?

November 9, 2010

Everybody from Barack Obama to Bill Gates is pushing the idea that sending more people to college is the key to our nation’s economic future.  I would never deny that education is a good thing.  I would agree, up to a point, that education is a good economic investment, but that requires a certain amount of qualification.

The latest figures show that the United States has 317,000 college-educated waiters and waitresses, 80,000 college-educated bartenders, and 18,000 college-educated parking lot attendants.  There are 8,000 waiters and waitresses and 5,000 janitors and cleaners with doctoral or equivalent degrees.  In all, 17 million American college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require education beyond high school.   When I go out with philosophy professor friends, we sometimes run into their former students waiting on tables or tending bar.

Now these college graduates may not be working as waitresses, bartenders, parking lot attendants or janitors all their lives.  It’s traditional in the United States for successful people to begin their careers in lowly jobs.  It’s still true that, on average, college graduates are better off than those with lesser schooling.  And of course education – whether classroom instruction or independent study – has a value that can’t be measured in money.

On the other hand it costs a lot more than it once did to get a college education.  The average graduate comes out of college owing tens of thousands of dollars in college loans; one in five of those loans are in default.  And among older workers, college graduates have a harder time than others breaking out of long-term unemployment.  The payoff from a college education doesn’t always equal the cost.

We don’t have a problem with structural unemployment, people unemployed because they don’t quality for the jobs available.  Rather we have the reverse, people unemployed because they are overqualified for the jobs available. [Added 11/13/10.  We hear a lot about structural unemployment, people unemployed because they underqualified.  But not only are there large numbers of people who are overqualified for the jobs they hold, there are those who are rejected for jobs because they are overqualified.]

The question is to what extent getting a college degree adds value to the economy, and to what extent it merely helps the individual in an economic arms race.  A college degree may give you a better chance than a high school graduate or dropout of getting a good job, but college degrees for everyone won’t prevent those jobs from going away.

And – just saying – the history of other countries shows that when revolutionary or fascist movements arise, they are generally led by unemployed college graduates.


Mr. Plummer and the string stretchers

February 26, 2010

Mr. Samuel Plummer (I still think of him as Mr. Plummer), who was principal of Williamsport (Md.) High School when I attended, gave a talk to a high school assembly on the benefits of education which was remembered for years.  I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember the gist of it.  It went as follows: –

If you look outside the windows of the auditorium, you’ll see men digging ditches for the new sewer main.  It is important work, and it is very hard work, in the hot sun.  If you keep on watching, you’ll see other men putting little pegs into the ground, and stretching string between the pegs, to show where the ditch is supposed to go.  Now stretching string between pegs is much easier work than digging a ditch with a shovel, but strange to say, the men who stretch the string are paid more than the men who dig the ditch.

Now what is the difference between the men who dig the ditch and the men who stretch the string? The men who stretch the string have high school diplomas. The men who dig the ditch dropped out of high school before they graduated. So it is up to you.  Do you want to be a ditch-digger or a string-stretcher? If you want to be a string-stretcher, stay in high school until you graduate.

And if you keep on watching the ditch digging, you’ll see men walking around with clip boards who are doing hardly any work at all. They are college graduates. So you can see the value of education.

Mr. Plummer probably would be gratified to know that the wage gap between college graduates, high school graduates and high-school dropouts still exists. Click on this chart or its duplicate for recent figures.  The chart shows that from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, the average real earnings (meaning pay adjusted for inflation) of people with college educations rose, while the earnings of those with lesser education fell. Since then all groups made slight gains, but the education gap remained.

The difference is that nowadays high school dropouts have a hard time finding any work at all, while high school graduates are competing with college graduates for the jobs equivalent to string stretcher. It really takes a college education to get the kind of job a high school graduate could get 60 years ago.  And while high school education is free, college education is not affordable to increasing numbers of people.

But I don’t think that more schooling for everyone will necessarily close the wage gap.  I’ll go into the reasons below.