Higher Education, Inc

Most Americans believe that a university education is a ticket to equality, opportunity, and democratic participation.

But as a nation we’ve never adequately addressed the question of how to fund it. In other countries, where education is seen as a public good, tuition and related costs remain relatively low and stable. But in the United States, our ambivalence toward publicly financing higher education has resulted in skyrocketing costs. For many observers, as well as students and their parents, the current state of education is one of crisis: crisis of access, affordability and attrition.

Ten years ago, in the pages of the Harvard Education Review, Henry Giroux argued that neoliberalism poses the most dangerous threat to higher education. To what extent has neoliberalism become the guiding ideology of educational “reform”? For this special issue we asked contributors to reflect on the current state of higher education as a public good. Is “Higher Education, Inc.” an accurate characterization of where we’re headed? And if so, what are the implications of this?

“Academic capitalism” is an anchor concept for comprehending trends in contemporary higher education. As Steve G. Hoffman points out in Jargon, the chase for dollars is a hallmark of contemporary public research universities. These institutions of higher learning increasingly engage in market-like activities to generate external funding in a fiercely competitive environment.

What forms of management and organization are likely to prevail in these market driven environments? In Viewpoints, five education experts discuss whether the goals of higher education are being eroded by creeping corporatization—capitalism’s favored system of management. Johann Neem and Brenda Forster both ask: what happens when we outsource teaching and faculty governance? Richard Vedder argues for the economic efficiency of outsourcing the multiple interests of contemporary universities, and Tressie McMillan Cottom and Sara Goldrick-Rab caution that privatized education comes with hidden costs. Sheila Slaughter reminds us that before corporatization, university research funding came primarily from federal dollars and reflected government interests; the modern university has always been a multiplex of competing constituents.

In the recent presidential conventions, both Democrats and Republicans sounded the call for educational reform, but neither party had much to say about how reform might come about. Instead, they offered sentimental anecdotes about individual achievement against the odds. Their bully pulpit message was that higher education is the ticket to personal success and national superiority. But obtaining a degree is the individual’s responsibility—and depends solely on drive and ambition.

Our feature articles explore questions of who is being served, and who is left out, in the “multiversities” that now comprise institutions of higher education. Andrew Ross takes on the specter of mounting student debt, calling current lending practices “predatory” and questioning whether we are creating a nation of indentured students—students who are forced into debt in order to gain employment at livable wages. His critique of corporate lending practices extends to faculty and administrators, who don’t seem to be paying attention to one of the most serious threats to education as we know it.

In Pedagogies, Helen Moore describes the fragmented lives of faculty, cautioning us that our obsession with rankings and prestige blind us to the externalities of market pressures and facilitate the transfer of governance from faculty to professional administrators. Echoing Ross, she admonishes us for not paying attention.

In our featured interview, education activist and sociologist Pedro Noguera reminds us that education is a “big picture” issue. The sociological perspective is especially useful in grasping this big picture and providing a map of where we’re going. Taken together, this issue of Contexts shows how neoliberalism, with its attendant systems of market capitalism and corporate management, is steering higher education. But does it have to be this way? We think not. With this special issue we invite you to pay attention, get educated, and begin pushing back. Perhaps it’s time to (re)occupy higher education.