Via New Left Project, author Chris Lehman bitingly surveys the contemporary United States’ bloated, perilously off-track higher education system — from the the Ivies, which now act as “luxury goods” for the rich, to the rise of pyramid-scheme fringe colleges such as the University of Phoenix:
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, 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.