Welcome to Neoliberal U.

August 29, 2013

Trish Kahle looks at the reality behind the Obama administration's rhetoric of reform.

HIGHER EDUCATION in the U.S. is in crisis. With more than $1 trillion in outstanding student debt, college costs that continue to skyrocket and a still weak job market, many are starting to ask questions about what the future of higher education is going to look like.

Last week, in a two-day bus tour across the Northeast, President Obama laid out his vision in a plan that bears a striking resemblance to the administration's Race to the Top program, the public school policy that tied school funding to test scores. "It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results," Obama said.

The program centers around a "rating system" that will "encourage colleges to do more with less." Federal funding for public institutions, which currently stands at approximately $70 billion annually, would be tied the institution's ranking.

The plan would also negatively impact individual students. First, as David Feldman, chair of the economics department at William and Mary College, noted, a national ratings system that ties federal funding to test scores will likely cause institutions to discriminate against some students if the institution feels accepting them might damage their rating--the same way that charter schools can turn away students who might hurt test scores.

Obama speaks on college affordability at SUNY Binghamton
Obama speaks on college affordability at SUNY Binghamton (White House)

Such discrimination would reflect the racism and class inequality that run rampant in American society, and as a result, even more students of color and working-class students would be shut out of the higher education system.

Obama also hinted that students would be held to stricter performance standards or larger class loads. "We're going to have to ask more of students who are receiving federal aid as well," he said.

Now, more than a decade into the assault against public education and more than five years into the financial crisis that has devastated workers across the U.S., the sharpest attacks yet on the higher education system seem to be on the horizon. The warning signs have been present for years. Already, skyrocketing college costs have led to bloated growth of administration overheads without translating into increased instruction and other resources for students and academic workers.

Now, higher education is being "restructured," and it's taking myriad forms: Massive reorganization of academic work has trapped many as permanent adjuncts, making little better than poverty wages. University administrations are seeking to bust graduate employee unions and unionization drives. University services are being privatized at the same time that budget cuts fall disproportionately on programs in the humanities, social sciences, arts and cultural studies programs that students struck, occupied and marched for in the 1960s and 1970s.

OBAMA'S NEW plan represents the next step in this restructuring, a step that will accelerate processes that have already been put in motion.

Higher ed "reformers" talk in the same obfuscating language that so-called "reformers" of public schools use. They talk about things like "job readiness," "fast tracking into the workforce" and "flexible scheduling." What do these terms actually mean in practice?

When politicians talk about focusing on job readiness, they aren't talking about an enriching education with diverse subject matter, time to engage in critical thinking, or participation in political, cultural, and intellectual life outside the classroom in a campus setting. They're talking about skills-based classes that provide the training and certification that used to be provided on the job, offloading the costs of worker training from corporations and putting it on the backs of students, and through the creation of a student debt crisis, on the back of the working class as a whole.

Fast-track degrees and flexible scheduling have provided a means to aid in this transition. Fast-track degrees mean that students only need to take a predetermined set of classes directly related to their field, allowing students to complete a bachelor's degree in as little as two years, compared to a traditional four- or five-year degree. Flexible scheduling, where students only attend "alternative schedule" classes, often goes hand in hand with the fast-track degrees.

These programs are introduced to offer students "choice" and to appeal to working adults who want to finish a degree. The result is that working students and "non-traditional" age students are segregated from wealthier (and whiter) students who get to participate in campus life, extracurricular activities and enriching classes outside of their chosen field of study.

Obama's plan would further this trend, formalize and glorify it. And we can be certain that if schools are being rated by "effectiveness" and "value-added," then increasing standardization--including standardized testing--won't be far behind. We can be sure that not only the erosion of tenure will continue at its frightening pace, but that new faculty evaluations tied to value-added rankings will follow as well. It's a nightmare episode of Extreme Neoliberal Makeover: Higher Ed Edition. We've seen this before, and we only need look to the K-12 public education system to see how the season ends.

As soon as Obama announced his plans, Education Secretary and corporate deformer Arne Duncan jumped in to lay the groundwork for the demonization of public university faculty, the same way he tried to demonize public school teachers. "We want to see good actors be rewarded," he said.

But as people invested in the future of higher education as something more than a finishing school for worker drones, we must push back against the idea that education can be defined only as a testable skill set. We must stand in solidarity with the K-12 educators, parents, and students, who have begun to stand up and demand a quality, enriching education system that values students and teachers, and works to realize their human potential.

We must stand with them on the picket line, support them in their school boycotts, occupy the Board of Education with them. That's where we will learn our lessons about how to organize and fight to abolish student debt, make college free for all students, and win an enriching and fulfilling curriculum for all students.

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