Could Higher Ed Usher in a New Economy?

My research interests have turned toward the relationship between higher education and neoliberal economics. I’m particularly interested in the ways neoliberal ideologies affect higher ed marketing, student wellness, and academic labor practices. Put quickly, neoliberalism is a collection of economic and social policies that favor transferring economic control to private entities and away from public ones. It’s the theory behind corporate-owned jails, charter schools, and for-profit colleges. At its core, neoliberalism contends that humans are competitive animals first and foremost, and that any strictures on that competitiveness — like, say, government regulations that come with public funding — weakens the effectiveness of markets. The theory came to being in the late 19th century but it took a global foothold in the 1980s and 90s.

Neoliberalism has essentially been naturalized — that is, we barely notice it as an ideology. One effect of its policies is to have turned individual wants and needs into the primary drivers of economic action, thus squashing the notion of community that exists outside the valuation process. I would argue that the emphases on competition, privatization, and self advancement drive our students — regardless of economic background — to anxiety, loneliness, and depression, all of which reduce their learning.

I think our students deserve a new conversation about economics and education, one that identifies cornerstone public goods and services and consider how best to support them. We need to help students redefine and sharpen the distinction between consumer goods and public goods, between products and services that are valued and bought for personal use and those that are valued and financed for public benefit. We need a deeper and more nuanced national conversation about what these public goods should be and of how they benefit us all even when we don’t take direct advantage of them.

We certainly can’t go back to the demand-side economics that drove our post-war boom — the manufacturing sector is smaller now, and our economy relies on sectors that can be narrow and fleeting. But we can’t stay where we are, not without tearing asunder our social and political systems. Higher ed can start a conversation about a potential third way, a conversation I want to begin by first examining the effects of neoliberalism on college curricula and business practices.

UVa, Students, and Zombie Consumers

According to this piece from Inside Higher Ed, the UVa board passed around the earlier IHE article I blogged about a few weeks back: the one on Wesleyan University’s move away from need-blind financial aid. By itself, that article doesn’t say much about the current state of things at UVa, but in the context of the other articles shared by the board, it helps bring into focus just what the BoV seems to be aiming for. In short, these things include:

  • A move into large-scale on-line education
  • An increase in the number of students able to pay the entire tuition without loans or grants (we can also call this a decrease in the discount rate)
  • Greater emphasis on majors related to business and health care
  • Decreased support for the humanities

I’m no fan of any of these ideas, but I’ll let other, more articulate folks explain the dangers inherent in each. I will say that I’ve seen at least one of these ideas at work in every school I’ve taught at, and in each case the blowback and complications were more difficult than anyone in charge seemed to have predicted.

What concerns me most about the events at UVa is what they say about the evolving relationship between students and institutions of higher education. I’m no romantic about higher ed. For example, I’m not all that bothered by the student-as-customer metaphor. They are, to a certain extent, customers, as in: they are paying for something (an education) that exists in a marketplace defined by competition. The problem with this metaphor is in the customer part. Our economy and culture have made “customer” synonymous with “consumer.” A customer is an actual human being who makes (somewhat) rational choices about what to purchase and who establishes some kind of mutually fulfilling relationship with the retailer. A consumer is a statistic, a data point for economists. When we conflate the terms, we zombie-fy customers, imagining them as mindless eaters looking only for the nearest food source.

Less negatively: customers fuel local economies; consumers present national trends.

The actions — or at least the reading list — of the UVa BoV seem to suggest that they see students as a mass of consumers rather than a community of customers. They see the economy of higher education from a neo-liberal, globalized perspective rather than from a local one. They see the university as a feeding stop for the horde rather than a sanctuary for reflection.

UVa is not alone. What does the rise of for-profit, on-line universities tell us if not that catering to the roaming horde is good for bottom lines? What does the increasing demand on public institutions to respond to the “needs of businesses” tell us if not that beneficiaries of horde-like consuming have gained a lot of power in our society?

What’s evolving in the student-institution relationship isn’t the identification of students as customers. It’s the dehumanizing of students into consumers. Large-scale on-line initiatives and job-training curricular look on the surface to respond to the needs and desires of students. But just a bit deeper we see how such efforts are also attempts to streamline the process by which hordes of people can be sorted, evaluated, and placed — all while paying high fees for the privilege.