Higher education as a scapegoat for neoliberal failure: Daily Bullshit, September 26, 2016

Liberal Arts

Barack Obama deserves credit for improving income-based repayment options on student loans and for his Education Department’s crackdown on for-profit colleges. But,

over the course of his tenure, President Obama would reflect, if not amplify, growing national skepticism of higher education, tempering his praise for the sector with deep concerns about college costs, bad actors swindling the disadvantaged, and an opaque system of oversight that denied students and families helpful information about what graduates could expect as a return on their investments.[1]

What Obama probably could not do, even if he had been so inclined (and I see no evidence that he ever was so inclined), was move back toward a national recognition that education is a public good in and of itself and that job training should not be the primary goal of higher education. The trouble is that this “growing national skepticism of higher education” is a self-reinforcing feedback loop: Uneducated and poorly educated people not only fail to appreciate higher education but may resent it,[2] further undermining support for higher education, leading to a spiral of funding cuts and reduced access to a truly liberal education. Such support has probably always encountered some headwinds in the U.S. and my own perception is that after nearly forty years of under-funding public universities, those headwinds have only gotten worse.

I would be less restrained in criticizing Obama’s quest for “accountability.” While the “gainful employment” rule has indeed led to a much-deserved and long-overdue crackdown on the for-profit sector, even the very word accountability, let alone any “college-ratings plan,” where “colleges should be judged in part by how much money their graduates earn,” and where such institutions are treated interchangeably like kitchen blenders, is code for the application of quantitative measures[3] to what ultimately should be a qualitative good. What Aaron Hanlon writes of the Ph.D. and research, that “by allowing the job market, and the job market only, to police our understanding of what’s rational, we’re ignoring that doctoral study is a way of accomplishing what the market typically cannot — a long-term, self-directed research project,”[4] really applies to education as a whole.

But here’s what may be most troubling: “Rather than reflect the values of the higher-education establishment, [Obama] came to mirror the anxieties of his time — a time of declining faith in institutions, including higher education, and weariness with spiraling costs and stagnant wages.”[5] Which is to say that in large part and that even for the left, higher education is being made a scapegoat for neoliberal failure.

Jack Stripling, “Obama’s Legacy: An Unlikely Hawk on Higher Ed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 25, 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Obama-s-Legacy-An-Unlikely/237885


  1. [1]Jack Stripling, “Obama’s Legacy: An Unlikely Hawk on Higher Ed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 25, 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Obama-s-Legacy-An-Unlikely/237885
  2. [2]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  3. [3]Jack Stripling, “Obama’s Legacy: An Unlikely Hawk on Higher Ed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 25, 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Obama-s-Legacy-An-Unlikely/237885
  4. [4]Aaron R. Hanlon, “Are PhD Students Irrational?” Los Angeles Review of Books, August 24, 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/phd-students-irrational/
  5. [5]Jack Stripling, “Obama’s Legacy: An Unlikely Hawk on Higher Ed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 25, 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Obama-s-Legacy-An-Unlikely/237885

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