Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Profit and Purity

I’ve started reading one of those lefty-authored, bemoan-the-corporatization-of-higher-ed anthologies that became a genre a few years ago, and it got me thinking. The organizing conceit is that higher education was once a shining city on a hill, democratic, meritocratic, and open to all, but that corporate values have destroyed it.

It’s almost difficult to describe on how many levels this diagnosis is wrong.

The liberal arts college I attended in the 80’s (if you know higher ed, you’ve heard of it), one of those places routinely held up as an ideal of what liberal arts education looks like, was entirely consumed by a culture appreciative (worshipful?) of wealth. No, there was no ‘business’ major per se, but there didn’t need to be; the most common jobs, post-graduation, were in investment banking. Those who didn’t go directly to work instead went to grad school, med school, or law school, effectively postponing the vocational part of their education until after college. They didn’t forego it, they just postponed it.

At the respected research university where I got my doctorate, the liberal arts undergrads could be pretty easily divided into two camps: the prelaw and the lack-of-any-better-ideas. Since most undergraduate liberal arts courses taught there were 1. huge, and 2. built with utter indifference to the realities of student learning, less-driven students found the liberal arts courses much easier to fake their way through than others. The truly driven aimed at post-college professional education; the rest just wanted to get a degree with a minimum of work. (This probably also explains how the students could accept adjunct-ification with equanimity. If they don’t particularly care about content anyway, and college is really about sex and beer anyway, then who cares how the teacher gets paid?) How either of these embodies the purity of learning-for-learning’s-sake is beyond me.

At the proprietary school at which I worked before, there was no liberal arts major, but there were courses in the liberal arts disciplines. The techies took history, English, etc., partly to please accreditors and state regulators, but also as part of their professional preparation. Employers consistently complained about the rudimentary communication skills of our graduates; we jiggered and re-jiggered the gen ed courses specifically to (try to) improve those skills. Given a surfeit of help desk applicants, why not take the one who can actually write clearly?

At my current school, the ‘liberal arts’ major is the largest major. It is built, explicitly and without apology, for transfer. We do gen ed so upper-tier schools don’t have to.

The proprietary sector offers serious challenges to traditional higher ed, and is vulnerable to the critique that it’s much more dependent on public sector financial aid than is generally acknowledged. (Strip them of Title IV money, and the entire sector would vanish within six months.) But to pretend that the proprietaries descended like locusts on what was, until then, a pristine field is just silly.

So why does this genre (the academic jeremiad?) flourish?

Part of it, I think, has to do with the rise of adjunct positions and the loss of tenure-track positions. Newly-minted Ph.D.’s who can’t find full-time work are at a loss to explain why, and ‘corporatization’ seems as good an explanation as any. Part of it probably has to do with the justifying myths that graduate programs inculcate in their students, the better to justify the low pay and shabby treatment most grad students will encounter. Part of it has to do with the undeniable increase in the number and visibility of proprietary colleges. Part of it has to do with hamfisted or simply obtuse rhetoric from certain academic administrators. Finally, a good deal of it probably comes out of the (correct) recognition that nonprofits are subject to greater cost pressures than in the past, and that managers now have to watch budgets much more carefully (aggressively?) than they did a generation ago. If you want to call that corporate, I guess you can, but it doesn’t really clarify what’s actually happening.

Elite institutions can offer whatever they want, not necessarily because they’re purer, but because their students have the means for additional (professional) education after the degree. Job preparation is just as real; it’s just later.

To me, the relevant distinction isn’t so much ‘corporate’ vs. ‘pure,’ but ‘training’ vs. ‘education.’ Education can (and usually will) include some amount of training, but it’s broader in the sense that it’s about building skills that go beyond a single context. To my mind, it’s at least theoretically possible to have real education in a for-profit setting (and it’s obviously possible to have training in a non-profit).

The real issue for traditional academics (of which, at heart, I am one) is proving our value to a culture that doesn’t, in any sense of the term, buy it. The short-term budget fix of going all-adjunct-all-the-time is a disaster, I argue, because it implicitly concedes the broader cultural prejudice that says that the content of what we teach doesn’t matter anyway. If we concede that point, we shouldn’t be shocked to see a cost-driven race to the bottom.

Right now, the for-profits compete on convenience and employability. Traditional higher ed, if it wants to regain lost ground, has to find a language for competing on quality. If a for-profit decides to try to compete on quality, I say, bring it on. (This happens in other areas of the market all the time; the word ‘upscale’ entered the language to capture the idea of charging more for an allegedly better product.) As long as the concept of quality (as opposed to ‘prestige’) remains merely implicit, it will be difficult to explain to a cost-conscious public why it should pony up even more money to hire faculty at $40k rather than adjuncts who total less than half that.

Thought experiment: some farsighted entrepreneur puts up a wad of cash to assemble a well-paid, highly-credentialed liberal arts faculty, and charges big money for tuition. (Let’s call it Mercedes U.) Mercedes U. is hard to get into, with rigorous academic standards, but it makes its money by selling quality. Would we object to ‘corporatization’ then? I wouldn’t. If the very thought seems outlandish, ask yourself why.