Post-Neoliberal Higher Education Policy

The Obama Administration made at least two major contributions to higher education policy. It cracked down on some for-profit colleges, taking on a consumer protection role largely missing from the Bush years. Donald Trump is unlikely to continue that initiative, and may roll it back.

Obama also encouraged income-based repayment (IBR) of student loans. It appears that “the repayment plan proposed by candidate Trump is not too far from the current repayment plans already in existence”–but few know exactly how the policy will play out once a new set of think tankers and lobbyists take over the Department of Education (DOE).

I surveyed higher education finance policy in 2015, in a piece for the Atlantic. I felt at the time that the Sanders plan was by far the best, and that Clinton’s plan could lead incrementally to a better higher ed landscape. However, over the summer I co-authored a longer article on the foundations of higher ed policy with Luke Herrine, Legal Coordinator of the Debt Collective. Herrine does both scholarly and advocacy work. In a project organizing for-profit college students to obtain debt discharges, he saw some of the worst bureaucratic failures of the current DOE.

The same concerns I’ve expressed about health policy also dog education policy. Extreme complexity and baroque targeting of aid make it hard to sustain political support. Just as private insurers have done as much to undermine as to implement the ACA, the servicers at the core of DOE’s student loan management have serially failed the students they are supposed to help.

Students are not the only ones to be failed by the DOE. All too often, its top officials seemed to see educators as legacy ballast, rather than allies in the fight for a more educated and productive society. A managerial and disciplinary ethos pervaded DOE, combining skepticism about traditional institutions with fervent hopes for the future of MOOCs and online courses, and bitter disappointment at the grift of extant disrupters like the ITT & Corinthians. The constant drumbeat of concern about cutting college costs almost never acknowledged the exploitation of adjuncts–just as the administration’s technocratic obsession with cutting health care costs fit uneasily, if at all, with the reality of underpaid home health aides and overstressed doctors and nurses.

Rating systems for hospitals and universities also provoked backlash. Encouraging competition for optimized “scorecards” can lead to gaming of the system, or worse. Leading Democrats’ approach has reflected an empty model of “education as salary booster,” based on crude economic theories of human capital. No wonder one leading fixer could propose replacing the DOE with a “Department of Talent.” Leaders treat education as a black box–whatever works to boost GDP ought to be encouraged.

So far, even this measure has been flawed. As Will Davies’ work has shown, it’s very easy to manipulate figures relating to utilitarian aggregates like GDP, consumer welfare, or income. There is little appreciation of the long-term economic value of college. But there is an even deeper problem. Without a sense of “education” existing for its own sake, as an intrinsic good, Democratic continuation of many Bush-era subsidy policies effectively invited a mob of pretenders to set themselves up as “colleges.” In health care, robust state licensing laws, as well as state and federal fraud and abuse laws, can check opportunism. But in education, the “human capital” theory has distorted the broader mission of real, non-profit universities, while opening the door to predatory for-profits. It’s the foundation of neoliberal pathologies in higher education today. As Herrine and I argue:

We need a vision of what college is for, of what investment in each other means. We also need to commit to vision of certain goods as intrinsic—not simply stepping stones to other opportunities.

A first step toward this vision will be a re-valuing of civic education. As Princeton political theory professor Danielle S. Allen has observed, for far too long, a “vocational paradigm” has displaced the humanities and social sciences in the American education system. Allen’s perspective thoughtfully balances the recent enthusiasm in official Washington for a renaissance in vocational training. At the very least, we should ensure that courses in ethics and social implications of technology complement the STEM surge now sweeping the US. More aspirationally, we might value secondary and post-secondary educational institutions as spaces with a tripartite aim: exposing students to the “best that has been thought and said,” giving them opportunities to explore ways of improving their lives and communities, and equipping them with a base of skills applicable in a wide variety of fields.

One thing is certain: in an era of accelerating neoliberalism, few institutions aside from the largest for-profit corporations will long survive in their present form, without explicit and thoughtful governance guarding their present mission and financing. For-profit colleges may be failing now, but their practices of cut-rate instruction and bare-bones vocationalism are an irresistible model for administrators bereft of higher goals than “workforce development.” The citizenry is more than a workforce, and treating it as such is more a prelude to stunting than development.

Ironically enough, the academy is partially to blame for its own slow strangulation by business logic. The rawest neoliberalism—an ethic of shareholder value maximization above all other community or other obligations for corporations—emerged from business schools. As Rakesh Khurana’s From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession chronicles, this commensurating utilitarianism flattened the rich range of business goals into simple numbers: share price in the equity market and, secondarily, price of bonds on the debt market. The higher the share or bond price (with the latter signalling low borrowing costs), the better the firm was doing.

When politicians say universities need to “run like a business,” they almost invariably mean that they should churn out graduates with a view to some optimized trade-off between cost of education (input) and expected future earnings (output). But this (very bad) idea came from one compromised division of universities themselves. Ample evidence from more enlightened inquiry now confirms that this convenient untruth is empowering a vampiric cabal of grifters to masquerade as universities, without investing in their core aims of research, community service, and distinterested inquiry. A Gresham’s Law of educational competition holds: bad colleges drive out the good.

The larger task now is to further articulate—and then translate into policy—what makes higher education an intrinsically worthy aim. The shift from a politico-ethical to a business logic in higher education did not occur by accident or through some unguided process of discovery. Neoliberals had a vision, built a political project, and carried it out through the creation of institutions, of fields of study, of political constituencies. Today’s common sense was hard won. If we are to achieve a version of higher education that supports a democratic rather than an oligarchic society, we must shift common sense back. The first step is committing to a shared vision. Preserving the best of the research university, and the independent inquiry it safeguards, should be at the core of that ideal.

The election of 2016 was not just about political failure. The GOP sweep reflected serious Democratic policy failures over the past 8 years. One of the greatest of the these policy failures was in higher education, where both regulators and Democrat-aligned think tanks pursued education “innovation” whose main effect was to encourage fly-by-night operators to take advantage of unsuspecting students. It is not enough to belatedly pursue the worst of these institutions with borrower-defense rulemakings or gainful employment guidelines. Rather, post-neoliberal education policy should value universities just as much for the intrinsic value of their research and service, as for their role in preparing a workforce. Without that foundational commitment, the center of progressive education policy cannot hold.

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