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.