Higher Learning

by Chris Lehman

New Left Project presents an exclusive excerpt from Chris Lehman's book, “Rich People Things”. In this extract, he explains how the American higher education system works.

First published: 01 March, 2011 | Category: Education

This is an exclusive excerpt from Chris Lehman’s book, Rich People Things, an acerbic examination of how the other 0.1% live. In this extract, he explains how American higher education works. Given the admiration for the American system evident in British higher education policy trends, and often openly expressed by Vice Chancellors of British universities, it is worth paying attention to.


There’s no firmer dogma in American social mythology than the idea that a university credential is an ironclad guarantee of upward mobility. And it is true that, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center, adult children in the bottom quintile of household income increase their chances of reaching the top quintile from 5 to 19 percent by graduating college, while nearly half in the same bottom quintile who don’t get a college degree just stay there.1

Yet the gaudier rise from the bottom to top occludes a bigger, and far less uplifting, picture. While poorer students may realize larger economic gains as a result of graduating college, not many of them get there in the first place. Students from the bottom two quintiles who placed in the middle third of math achievement scores enrolled at universities at a rate of 33 to 37 percent, compared to 47 to 59 percent for the same middling math kids in the top two quintiles. Meanwhile, university-level performance among student income groups follows strongly delineated lines of privilege; even high-performing students in the bottom half of the income scale fall behind - by 15 to 16 percentage points - the showings of their high-performing counterparts from the top quintile.

These figures only reinforce what anyone who’s spent any time within a four-year university can see in virtually no time flat: Far from widening the path of economic opportunity, most of our prestige institutions of higher learning function as engines of economic discrimination. The trends, as the Pew report notes, are easily summarized: “Higher enrollment by students from families with higher income; higher enrollment by students with higher test scores; and at each given level of test scores, students from families with higher incomes had higher percentages of enrollment than students from lower-income families.”2

Nor is the reason for this study in social stagnation any great mystery. For more than two decades, the cost of higher education has been increasing at a clip well over the rate of inflation - most years, more than double the inflation rate. As a result, postsecondary tuition is the priciest social good on offer in the American scene, having risen 439 percent, once adjusted for financial aid, from 1982 to 2008, according to a Money magazine analysis of federal inflation numbers.3 That’s more than four times the consumer price index over the same period, and nearly double the rate of increase in a medical system so notoriously rigged with artificial cost hikes and third-party payola that even Congress was moved to reform it.

There’s been so similar public outcry over the tuition system, which seems to glory in creating perverse incentives. Most high-end and Ivy League schools spent the 1990s and early aughts pursuing a senseless binge in luxury spending so as to draw a wider pool of high-testing applicants - not because they had so many vacant spots to fill, mind you, but because wooing bigger applicant pools permitted them to reject more applicants and to continue burnishing their reputation for exclusivity in the applicant market. In 2008, when lawmakers finally got wise to the scam and threatened to revoke the ridiculous tax exemptions enjoyed by massively endowed institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, most of these Ivied preserves of privilege hurriedly announced expanded aid programs for students from families earning $120,000 a year or less.

By then, however, the tuition market had become so absurdly distorted and top heavy that this miniature and belated land rush in Ivy League aid wound up creating yet more pressure on major state universities. These schools had already begun evolving into “public Ivies” in the 1990s as more high-earning families got priced out of the skyrocketing Skull-and-Bones end of the market. As Money’s Penelope Wang noted, “at the University of California, Berkeley… a family earning $90,000 would get little or no aid, so they’d have to pay the total cost of nearly $25,000. At Harvard, they’d now pay less than $9,000.”4

Which would be great news, if most aid-qualifying students wielded Harvard-level test scores, alumni recommendations, high school GPAs, or other forms of lavishly appointed “social capital” - said in our civic lore to make individual achievement at the college level a sure thing. But with financial aid serving as the main arbiter of a post-secondary destiny, the lower orders face yet another battery of perverse barriers to entry. Federal Pell Grants, the most direct need-based outlays of tuition aid, declined in 2005, for the first time in six years. 

A Clinton-era set of cuts to the programs in favor of “targeted middle class tax credits” for college students had already badly skewed the aid market away from students in the lower quintile. And these absolute declines occurred during the height of the great tuition binge - so that, as the National College Board notes, the proportion of tuition and room-and-board expenses that could be met by an average Pell Grant declined from 42 percent in the 2001­02 academic year to 33 percent in 2005­06 - and that figure marks nearly a 50 percent drop from the 60 percent of expenses the average Pell Grant covered in 1985.

This aid squeeze, in turn, tends to ensure that the average lower-to middle-class college student, should she be fortunate enough to graduate, enters the workforce under a crushing burden of debt. In 2008, graduating students left school with an average of $20,000 in student loan debt - a gruesome prospect for the liberal arts grad, in particular, who earns an average yearly income of $33,000. And while Congress recently revamped the federal student loan program, most major loan providers have been swamped by recent scandals alleging artificial schemes to balloon student debt by sweetheart kickback deals with school loan officials, extending terms of “forbearance” to prolong the life of loans and the liabilities of borrowers. One of the most egregious off enders is the former government-service-enterprise lender Sallie Mae, which now appears to have the inside line on managing the bulk of loans under the “reformed” federal scheme.5

A cynic might well argue that, given the cartelized and crony-ized state of the rest of our economic life, being saddled with a mound of unscrupulously contracted debt might well be the best initiation into adult American life a young worker could expect—and that therefore our university leaders are indeed splendidly hitting their mark as the mentors of a new generation of workers. But that mordant thought overlooks a larger point—as, indeed, does the whole obsessive focus on education as a manufactory of economic opportunity. American public education was not intended to serve as a means of investment, or as a guarantor of enhanced life opportunities, in the first place.

Rather, the idea of Horace Mann’s original “common school” movement was to educate Americans to be democratic citizens - not only to master the narrower civic curricula necessary to understand and execute the fundamental demands of citizenship and political judgment, but also to grasp and honor the value of education as a social practice in its own right. As Mann conceived it, public education was to be the principal means of refining the raw social sensibilities of the frontier—and that quality, paradoxically enough, would be a great social leveler by uniting common-school students behind the ideal life of the nation, as opposed to the tribal grievances of caste. “The spread of education, by enlarging the cultivated class or caste, will open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand,” he wrote, “and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.”6

Clearly, our own education system, so skewed toward top-heavy privilege and so dogmatically bound by the functionalist demand that it bolster the economic standing of its students, has failed both of these missions. The content of most curricula, even at the college level, rarely bothers any longer with the conceit of using the rare margin of leisure culturally programmed into the adolescent experience to bring students in contact with philosophic, literary, or spiritual traditions that would permit “the social feelings to expand.”

Indeed, overall enrollment in the humanities at American colleges have been declining steadily over the past four decades. As William M. Chace noted in the American Scholar, university graduates majoring in the humanities—history, English, foreign languages, literature, and philosophy—have declined nearly by half from 1970 to 2005, from 30 percent to just under 16 percent of awarded bachelor degrees. Business enrollment, meanwhile, increased by the same proportion, from 14 to 22 percent of degrees awarded over the same span.7 To compete in these conditions of slumping demand, humanities departments now routinely acquire the protective coloration of their preprofessional disciplines, employing crass, functionalist pitches for a just-in-time, customized learning experience to would-be majors. Rather than professing to widen access to the rigors of learning, humanities departments now typically stress what their curricula can do for the harried, debt-ridden customer-student, conditioned in the culture at large to have all needs met in fastidiously narrow-casted fashion.

The Harvard English department, Chace notes, junked its standard undergraduate survey for English literature in 2008 in favor of what the department calls “affinity groups.” So instead of encountering a shared and evolving “canon” (to employ the witless epithet of the nineties culture wars), Harvard students select from four high-concept clusters of voguish noun formations: “Arrivals” (i.e., influences exerted on English literature from cultures outside of it); “Poets” (an instructor-based selection of writers); “Diffusions” (the reverse of “Arrivals” - a selection of works reflecting English writing’s thrust outward into the world); and “Shakespeares” (the plural form reflecting the bard’s contemporaries - while also presumably intended to take down the notion of the great dead white male another conceptual-cum-ideological notch or two). The idea, explained the department’s director of undergraduate studies, Daniel Donoghue, “was to start with a completely clean slate.”8 Apparently Donoghue and his novelty-addled colleagues never paused to reflect that “a completely clean slate” is pretty much the antithesis of teaching English literature - or indeed, of literature or teaching of any kind.

As elite humanities departments hustle for the attention of an ever-distractible overclass clientele, they’re unwittingly following the canons of just-in-time pedagogy that have long been the rule in the more squalid and downscale end of the tuition market. The only difference is that these franchised outlets of the privatized higher-education future offer a product that’s far less beneficial to students’ self-esteem—or to their long-term economic standing.

Indeed, most of the recent enrollment growth in higher education has been in so-called proprietary institutions - multi-campus for-profit schools such as DeVry University and the University of Phoenix. These institutions deliberately exist in the shadowy frontier beyond the purview of the regulatory and accreditation authorities that oversee most conventional four-year schools so as to keep providing the most cheaply assembled product at the highest sustainable margin of profit.

It hardly need be added that they have obliterated any lingering Mann-style conceit of a university education serving any higher social good. The publicly traded schools embrace a curriculum tailored exclusively to the needs of corporate employers. In the words of its billionaire founder, John Sperling, the University of Phoenix is itself
“a corporation, not a social entity. Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop [students’] value systems or go in for that `expand their minds’ bullshit.”9

This unsentimental view has permitted Sperling’s institution to become the largest university in the country, claiming an enrollment of more than 420,000 students with a faculty of more than 20,000 instructors. Yet by so aggressively mimicking the ethos of the corporation, the school has also adapted the cost-cutting model of mass-production to the marketing of academic credentials. More than 95 percent of the school’s teachers are part-time, and none are tenured. It’s perhaps needless to add that they aren’t unionized either.

Students are encouraged to form their own self-administered “learning teams” to further drive down the expense associated with teachers’ influence. Indeed, in 2006, under lobbying pressure of Phoenix’s parent company, the Apollo Group, federal regulators dropped the going “50 percent rule,” which had instituted an already laughably inadequate baseline requirement for aid so as to ensure that enrolled students received in-person instruction for half of their accredited time in school.

This was a major victory, since the University of Phoenix is also the biggest recipient of such aid in the perverse federal funding market for universities - another key to its corner-cutting business model. And for all the rhetorical stress that Sperling and other officials place on market results, the school graduates just 16 percent of its students, according to Department of Education statistics—well below the national average of 55 percent for public and private universities.

The idea is clearly to herd as many people into Phoenix programs as possible, charge inflated tuition rates, and leave them to ford through an indifferently conceived and executed curriculum largely on their own. A 2003 Department of Education investigation found that the university had broken the law by providing recruiters with cash incentives - kickbacks, in essence - to enroll unqualified students. The recruiters would mislead students about the scarcity of enrollment space in classes and campuses, lie to them about the amount of financial aid they would receive, and falsely claim that their Phoenix credits would be readily transferable to other four-year institutions. Nor has the public exposure of such abuses produced any significant change in Phoenix’s recruiting methods. In 2009, the Apollo Group paid $67.5 million to settle a whistleblower suit that echoed most of the substantive claims highlighted in the Education Department’s report, according to a report by ProPublica and NPR’s Marketplace.10

These abuses are widespread throughout the burgeoning for-profit university sector. Two Government Accounting Office inspectors posed as unqualified would-be enrollees at one such school - the inspectors’ report didn’t specify which one, since the investigation was still ongoing at the time of its release. They both deliberately set out to fail the school’s entrance exam. Administration officials read answers out loud to them, and when that technique didn’t produce the desired effect (they were trying to fail, remember), the solicitous bureaucrats proceeded to cross out wrong answers and substitute the correct ones.

This manic emphasis on getting warm bodies through the door is simply a reflection of the for-profit university’s quest for maximally profitable economies of scale. In 2008, the $3.2 billion in federal money the University of Phoenix received accounted for 86 percent of its total revenue.11 What ultimately becomes of the poor slobs holding the notes on federal education loans is their own affair, once they’ve been processed at the front end, and the University of Phoenix takes its cut. According to federal figures, the loan default rate among graduates from proprietary schools is 11 percent - almost twice the over-all 6 percent default rate among four-year graduates.

Those sobering loan figures, combined with the school’s low graduation rates, indicate that the operation is less an institution of higher learning than an Amway-style pyramid scheme. As long as recruiters are hustling new students through the front door and processing their federal aid forms, the low overhead associated with a casualized teaching corps and a footloose-to-virtual campus - the school typically sublets classroom space in office buildings, thereby sparing itself the heavy costs of maintaining libraries or physical plants - keeps the profit margins high. Indeed, even in a weak economy, the Apollo Group has exceeded its recent quarterly profit expectations, as the chronic shortage of decent-paying jobs has sent more students back into vocationally minded college programs.12

So the once-noble dream of a universal higher learning has been transformed, as have so many other social goods in America, into a brutally class-segmented market. The big money still goes into the elite Eastern Seaboard schools—and students at those institutions get customized, grade-inflated, kid glove treatment in lavishly appointed campuses and physical plants. Meanwhile, at the under-regulated frontier reaches of the college market, students are thrown largely back on their own resources—and systematically lied to by recruiters - mainly to furnish market subsidies in the form of federal aid to benefit a group of private investors. These shareholders evince no particular interest in educational quality, let alone the benefits that a liberal arts curriculum might bestow on a democratic citizenry. Indeed, it would be utterly irrational for them to cling to such notions, since doing so would only increase the company’s production costs while dramatically narrowing its consumer base.

During a 2009 hearing of the House Education and Labor committee on abusive recruiting and loan practices at proprietary schools, California Democratic Representative George Miller said, “We’re developing a process here that looks a lot like subprime student loans. Knowing that these people don’t have the capacity to pay it back, knowing that they may not have the ability to benefit from this education, we go ahead and extend them the credit.”13 If anything, that puts things too diplomatically. There will always be more honor in being foreclosed upon than in getting mind-fucked.

“Rich People Things” by Chris Lehmann is published by Or Books. It can be purchased exclusively through the Or Books website: http://www.orbooks.com/our-books/richpeople/

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?