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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 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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Comment Preferences

  •  They are leeches sucking off the taxpayer dime (6+ / 0-)

    and taking advantage of the private profit role written into the federal student loan system.  All those enormous administration salaries, and profitability even beyond paying for those salaries... all made possible by our federal government's financial aid system.

    And they are shamelessly hypocritical about this.  I'm sure that their presidents and directors bitch and moan about "government intrusion" and about "liberal professors" and about unions and federal mandates and God knows what else.  But they sure do love them some government financial aid.

    That's one more thing to add to my long list of small problems. --my son, age 10

    by concernedamerican on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 08:10:00 PM PST

  •  Thanks for your diary. Were there supposed to be (4+ / 0-)

    links in the sentences, "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." (what one? I'd like to see :D)

  •  Thanks for this important diary (3+ / 0-)

    tipped, rec'd, and followed for future diaries on the topic of corporate education in Higher Ed.

    Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

    by mahakali overdrive on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 09:26:16 PM PST

  •  Yes more social science and liberal arts in (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ethnografix, northsylvania, Bronx59

    our culture would be a very good thing. Nice approach you and your colleagues are taking.

    Some of the smartest engineers I have known were those with Liberal Arts backgrounds/foundations.

    Thanks so much.

    Science is hell bent on consensus. Dr. Michael Crichton said “Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing to do with consensus... which is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right,”

    by Regina in a Sears Kit House on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 09:36:56 PM PST

    •  thanks for your comment (2+ / 0-)

      Well, I AM biased since I come from the social sciences!  But I agree with you...and that's the point that Andrew Delbanco makes in his book about College.  Basically, the idea here is that the social sciences & humanities are a needed balance to the so-called "hard" sciences.

      I always find it pretty interesting when certain folks make the argument to cut social science and liberal arts programs...I don't think they take the time to consider where that leads us.  But then, some of the folks making those kinds of claims are fairly reactionary, so "thinking" isn't necessarily part of the equation!

      Thanks again for your comment and checking this out.

      •  When AT&T was still a regulated monopoly, MA (4+ / 0-)

        Bell, most of the marketing/technical (as opposed to sales) people were out of social sciences and humanities disciplines.

        They had a culture that valued critical thinking and problem solving which they felt came from those arenas. They also felt that a person with good skills could be taught the technical portion of what they needed, and in most cases they were right.

        They were my target employer at the time, but were breaking up within a couple of years of my entry into the communications field.

        One of our marketing guys was a forensic anthropologist who was called in on dug up human remains. He was an AT&T marketing person, basically civilian, but used frequently on cold cases. Fascinating conversations.

        Thanks again.

        Science is hell bent on consensus. Dr. Michael Crichton said “Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing to do with consensus... which is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right,”

        by Regina in a Sears Kit House on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 10:53:06 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I'm worried that traditional liberal arts (5+ / 0-)

    colleges and university are becoming more and more like these for-profit institutions . . . including a retreat from the liberal arts, move toward a thick and well-paid administrative layer, and toward non-tenure-line faculty who work for peanuts . . . etc.  I don't know what colleges will look like in fifty years, but I suspect very different.  Not that Yale or Harvard will change, but most schools . . . egads.  

    Thanks for raising this.  A good diary.

    •  i think you are right on the mark (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      peachcreek, northsylvania pointing this out.  Many "traditional" colleges are indeed making these kinds of changes, and starting to look a little too much like the U of Phoenix crowd.  The "for-profit" label applies there as well, especially when we talk about the rise of that admin layer you talk about.  This is a real problem.  Not to mention the fact that some 70 percent of faculty is non-tenure these days.  Not a good sign.  You're right that big schools and Harvard and Yale are pretty insulated from a lot of this...but ya, things are not looking good for many of the rest.  Another reason to pay attention to everything that's going on, unless we want to lose what we have (or had, I suppose).

      Thanks for your comment and for checking this out.

    •  You are so right! My university - small, private, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      liberal arts - recently split the campus into a business school and the 150 yo liberal arts school.  The students at the business school no longer have to take the core LA courses.  

      So, from my pov, we'll have a school for people who want a job and one for people who want an education.    

      This was done in the name of "progress."  For which you should read "profit."  Ten years ago we got a new president who came from a business background, not academia.   The first thing he started was a push to "brand" the university.  Like a candy bar.  

      No one gets tenure anymore.  While we used to brag about our ratio of PhDs/students (most of the small -15 student - classes were actually taught by PhDs), that is no longer possible.  All the new hires for the past 5 years have been adjuncts.  I only teach summer field school now but I keep in touch year round.  It is not a happy campus.        

      "May the forces of evil become confused on the way to your house." - George Carlin

      by Most Awesome Nana on Fri Jan 18, 2013 at 10:12:56 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent diary. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I have a lot of respect for the soc/anthro crowd. I recently got a MA in arts policy, a degree that had only a minuscule amount to do with my previous art degrees. I had to do a lot of catch up work on sociology and learned a lot more than I had bargained for. My son's girlfriend is getting a sociology masters so I realise how much more I still don't know.
    One of the things that struck me in conversation with her is that when certain things like for profit universities or arts management degrees arise at certain times, the general population becomes easier to control. Linear thinking in progressively narrower specialties seems to be the norm currently. Students become less willing to take classes outside their major, and even less willing to do even a basic level of work to become proficient. People who think like that tend to ignore events and trends outside their field and are much easier to program toward certain ways of thinking because they are not trained to see the context in which they function.

    "We are monkeys with money and guns". Tom Waits

    by northsylvania on Fri Jan 18, 2013 at 03:34:01 AM PST

  •  I know someone who got a doctorate from the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bronx59, terrypinder

    University of Phoenix.  

    She is a single mom raising 2 kids.  Her dissertation was On being a Single Mother and Raising Children in Twenty First Century America.

    The research must have been a terrible stretch.

    Thank you for the continuing series.  Sometimes we get so caught up in the monster headline subjects, we forget the backstory of how we got here.  Anthropology can illuminate that story.      

    "May the forces of evil become confused on the way to your house." - George Carlin

    by Most Awesome Nana on Fri Jan 18, 2013 at 10:21:08 AM PST

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