This is the introduction to the latest issue of "anthropologies," a collaborative online project that seeks to bring more anthropology and social science to wider audiences.  This issue discusses the "neoliberalization" of academia--and some associated problems in higher ed today.

I recently watched a piece on PBS's Frontline called "College,Inc." It's all about for-profit universities. And, considering how things are going in many of our colleges here in the US, I couldn't help but wonder if this is a glimpse of things to come for our educational system. For-profit institutions are, after all, the "fastest-growing sector in higher education" (Delbanco 2012).

The Frontline piece is mainly about for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix and Devry and others of that nature (like Grand Canyon University). In theory, the basic mantra of for-profits sounds pretty reasonable, if not outright noble: They claim to serve all of the people who, for some reason or another, cannot get themselves into the traditional university/college system. In practice, however, the for-profit system is laden with all sorts of problems, discrepancies, and false promises. One of the main issues being the foregrounding of marketing and recruiting over education (this is explained pretty well by Frontline). When constant growth and enrollments become the primary goal, obviously education is going to suffer. And when it comes to many of these universities, it has.

Institutions like the University of Phoenix are basically run like a corporation. If we're wondering where the neoliberalization of the universities is taking us, this is a good place to get a good glimpse of the future. On the plus side, this means that they are able to make quicker decisions, focus on innovation, and achieve a sort of nimbleness that we won't usually find in the traditional university systems (with their thick bureaucracies). But the downside of running a university like a corporation is, well, that you're running it like a corporation. This means that making money is the ultimate goal, despite the fact that education is supposed to be the primary mission.

They key part of that sentence is "supposed to be." Education you ask?  What?  Sorry, the for-profit folks can't hear you over the barrage of noise coming from their overworked (and very friendly) telephone recruiters.

Here's a basic rundown of some of the characteristics of for-profit education. First, they are not held back by the brick and mortar mentality of traditional universities. These universities still have buildings and campuses, but not in the way that many four year universities are set up. Many of the University of Phoenix campuses, for example, are conveniently located near major freeways. Second, there is no tenure system. If teachers aren't performing, they aren't going to get another contract. Third, the administration makes a lot of money (this was openly admitted on Frontline). Fourth, tuition at these universities is VERY expensive (about twice what students pay at traditional universities). Fifth, from a business and marketing perspective, these universities are incredibly successful. They are making money, no doubt about that. And finally, as is clearly stated on Frontline, the Federal financial aid system is the "lifeblood" of these universities, and accreditation is key to getting those funds.

The problem? Well, the problem is that all of the marketing and moneymaking does not necessarily translate to a good education, and this has lead to numerous lawsuits, including this one. And more recently, this one.

Many of these for-profit universities make a lot of promises, and, despite all of the glitz, aren't really fulfilling them. Well, not to the students who pay them for education, but I am sure the shareholders aren't complaining. These institutions might be the epitome of the neoliberalization of education, in which all value hinges upon finance and money, rather than education. But the troubling practices are surely not limited to the for-profits of the world: similar philosophies are clearly finding their way into more "traditional" universities, especially since the economic meltdown of 2008-09. Traditional universities are certainly "for-profit" in their own right, depending on who you ask.  

I suppose University of Phoenix and its ilk give us a nice picture of what life will be like if and when we continue to head all the way down the neoliberal path. At least we know where we're going...to a place laden with tremendous debt, empty degrees, and plenty of litigation. Oh, and lots of profit, for some. So there's one option: we can take the university system full bore down the for-profit, privatized trail blazed so willingly by the U of Phoenix folks. We'll be in the hands of administrators like the former director of the University of Phoenix who, when asked about the purpose of education, said:

I'm happy that there are places in the world where people sit down and think.  We need that.  But that's very expensive.  And not everybody can do that.  So for the vast majority of folks who don't get that privilege, then I think it's a business [cited in Delbanco 2012 and the Frontline episode].
And there you have it.  The choice is ours.  What side will you pick?


For this issue we have contributions from Francine Barone, Erin Taylor, Keith Hart, Tazin Karim, Patrick Bigger & Victor Kappeler, and Greg Downey.*  I think Francine sums up the underlying theme of the issue quite well in her essay when she writes: "There are a few competing perspectives, but mostly everyone is on the same page: A lot of things suck in our professional lives and we should really figure out a way to do something about it."  Nailed it.

Please read, pass this around, comment, and find your own way to keep the conversation going.  That's a good first step toward eradicating the "suck" from academia.


*I also added a review of Andrew Delbanco's book "College," here.


Delbanco, Andrew.  2012.  College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be.  Princeton University Press.  Kindle e-book version.

Originally posted to ethnografix on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 07:51 PM PST.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and SciTech.

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