Choosing Between Competing Visions for Education Reform

A financial crisis has befallen higher education. It’s something I’ve warned about in previous columns, and this problem should come as no shock to CounterPunch readers. Total student loan debt in the U.S. is now over $1 trillion, and the average debt per student as of 2014 (for the first time ever) exceeds $30,000. Debt-to-income repayment plans, where students pay back no more than 10-15 percent of their income into loans, were the federal government’s “solution” to the loan crisis. Still, the prospect of debt-bondage will haunt recent college grads for decades to come. These loans represent yet another tax on the American public in an era of stagnating to declining household income.

Considering how high the stakes are in the financing of higher ed, one must take care to evaluate competing “solutions” for how to address the crisis we face. Competing visions for higher education are being articulated, some far more thoughtful, humane, and progressive than others. Take for example, a recent book written by Henry Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (2014), compared to another recent book, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students (2013), by Jeffrey Selingo. The authors of both books spotlight one of the major problems with higher education today – escalating and unsustainable costs. These costs have occurred for a variety of reasons that I’ve discussed in previous columns, including the growth of administrative bloat across higher ed, the “race to the top” mentality seen in schools competing for students (which has encouraged an explosion in binge spending on on-campus amenities and services), and perhaps most important, dramatic cuts in state aid to public universities that have led to huge increases in tuition rates.

I want to start with Giroux’s book, as I think it is much more grounded in a realistic understanding of the problems afflicting higher education today. Giroux is a professor and cultural critic, teaching at McMaster University in Canada. He has written countless books on issues such as critical pedagogy, neoliberalism, the media, and mass politics. As a college professor, Giroux has a first-hand, on the ground understanding of the recent trends that have influenced the college experience in the last few decades. Giroux warns that modern higher education has “disinvested in critical education,” which has led to a system of “learning” that is increasingly defined by “cultural illiteracy.” Undeniably, we’ve seen a corporatization of higher education in recent years, as administrators and schools seek to “compete” with each other for students, while placing downward pressure on faculty wages, and in favor of increasingly bloated administrative salaries. Much the same trend has taken place in the private sector, with executive salaries skyrocketing amidst working Americans’ stagnating pay.

One major complaint in Giroux’s book is the rise of a “neoliberal culture of idiocy” in the United States. Individuals are increasingly “indifferent to others” under “the logic of extreme individualism.” The “breakdown of critical education,” as seen in higher education’s increased obsession with prestige (at the expense of promoting critical thought), is dangerous because it feeds into an instrumental view of education. Under this framework, students view higher education as a place that “trains” you to “get a job.” By applying an almost exclusively vocational mindset, we lose track of what education ultimately can and should be about – teaching Americans to become well-informed, critical, and active citizens. Students should come out of higher education wanting to make the world a better place and seeking to participate in accomplishing that goal through collective action, rather than simply seeing a college degree as a means to an end and as a way of “punching your ticket” into the middle class. Sadly, far too many students I know (and have known) view education in purely instrumental terms.

Giroux expresses animosity toward “insular discourses that accompany specialized scholarship.” Such discourses increasingly define academic research and publishing. Intellectual masturbation is the order of the day throughout much of higher ed, with academics committed to esoteric research projects with little practical utility, using unnecessarily arcane academic jargon that only a few professors will be able to read or understand, or even want to understand. In the push for prestige, “critical thought, knowledge, dialogue, and dissent are increasingly perceived with suspicion by the new corporate university that now defines faculty as entrepreneurs, students as customers, and education as a mode of training.” Under neoliberalism, Giroux warns, “schools have been transformed into a private right rather than a public good. Students are being educated to be consumers rather than thoughtful, critical citizens.”

I agree with Giroux that higher education needs more public intellectuals – people who are interested in using their privileged positions as educators to promote a critical public discourse as applied to political, economic, and cultural issues. Educators also need to translate critical thought into the classroom. Giroux reminds progressives that “assuming the role of public intellectual suggests being a provocateur in the classroom; it means asking hard questions, listening carefully to what students have to say, and pushing teaching against the grain.” Sadly, most professors avoid doing this for fear of negative student evaluations and for fear of being seen as “biased” in seeking to promote critical thought.

A major focus of Giroux’s work is discussing ways in which citizens and academics can challenge the neoliberal turn in higher ed. I give him credit for focusing on proactive responses to the neoliberal turn, as seen in the rise of student and public protest movements with Occupy Wall Street (2011) and the Quebec student uprising (2012). These movements “protest[ed] the current of neoliberal regimes” in the U.S. and Canada, most specifically focusing on growing income and wealth inequality in both countries, and on skyrocketing tuition costs. Tens of thousands of activists from both countries rose up to protest growing tuition costs; in the Quebec province, thousands boycotted classes and organized demonstrations, “passionately rejected the neoliberal view of higher education as an economic investment unapologetically designed to turn students into consumers.” Students across University of California campuses in the U.S. also gained public visibility during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests by demonstrating against unsustainable growth in college costs. These movements were clearly angry about the long-term rising cost of education across both countries, and have sought to change the narrative regarding what priorities should drive higher education in the future.

Giroux’s Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education stands in strong contrast to Jeffrey Selingo’s College Unbound. Selingo is a prominent public speaker on the issue of higher education and its problems. He is recognized to be an important voice in the debate over education reform, meaning that his work should be taken quite seriously as a representation of the vision for education reform that is increasingly prominent in the U.S. among administrators, political officials, public intellectuals, and private foundations/charities. Selingo’s works appear in major newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, and he’s served as a long-time editor for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Active on the national lecture circuit, Selingo’s personal prominence is symbolic of the broader prominence of neoliberal reform proposals in modern America.

To its credit, Selingo’s book often demonstrates a sufficient grasp of many of the problems in higher ed. Unfortunately, its “solutions” to these problems are worse than the problems themselves. Selingo offers a litany of legitimate complaints, spotlighting the problems of growing grade inflation, increasing costs of higher education, the unsustainable and costly amenities explosion on college campuses, and the decline of state funding for higher educational institutions. The major issue with College Unbound is that the path forward in which Selingo offers is basically more of the same when it comes to further institutionalizing the neoliberal order and its commitment to destroying any lingering public function for higher education.

Selingo speaks sympathetically of the “online revolution” in the U.S., as seen in the rise of massive open online course offerings (MOOCs) as part of a larger process of “disruption” in higher education that will open up educational opportunities to larger numbers of people, at a lower cost. These MOOC courses were pioneered in the last half-decade by a few Stanford professors (Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig), who developed a computer science course on artificial intelligence, enrolling more than one hundred thousand students online. MOOC courses are not officially counted for credit at major educational opportunities, although Selingo thinks that such courses could be applied to more limited educational certificates, which he believes should be more valued by employers over traditional two and four year associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. MOOCs, he claims, provide a means for achieving “an elite education for free” by “dispersing the lecture hall” to participants outside traditional brick and mortar schools.

The problem with idealizing MOOCs is that it’s delusional to think that this model is going to play a significant role in solving the crisis in financing higher education. It’s realistically impossible to provide quality instruction of any meaningful kind with classes of this sort. It is simply not feasible to grade written work, spend time with each student, or work with at-risk students when you are trying to serve thousands of people in a single class. Rather, the “grading” that occurs (to the extent that one could call it that) is based on standardized testing and computer-based evaluations. Forget about in-class, in-person interactions (which are vital to learning), or about improving critical thinking skills through writing. None of those things are possible with MOOCs. One can add to that the inherent limits of online courses the inability to serve at-need students (and what student isn’t in need of instructor help, when you think about it?). Online courses in general have long been known to be tailored to students who are already highly motivated and skilled enough to complete course requirements without teacher assistance. To the extent that they “work,” it is in serving a narrow niche market – students who are already highly motivated and capable (as well as strapped for time and unable to meet on campus), and able to complete most-all academic tasks without instructor assistance.

Contrary to Selingo’s promises, MOOCs are not a viable educational institution, and they are not the answer (or even part of the answer) for how to make higher education affordable again. The reported completion rate for these courses (which have at times reached as many as 160,000 registrants, depending on the class and institution examined) is a miniscule seven percent, as reported by Inside Higher Education. This astronomical failure rate led the originators of MOOCs (Thrun and Norvig) to abandon them altogether. As Thrun explained in an interview with Fast Company Magazine in early 2014, the goal of MOOCs was “to give people a profound education – to teach them something substantial. But the data [course outcomes] was at odds with this idea.” Thrun’s complaints center on the less than 10 percent pass-rate for his courses, and the startling finding that just five of every 100 students were deemed to have sufficiently learned the course content in question.

Any sort of sizable shift toward MOOCs raises another simple question: how would professors get paid if content is offered online for free? If MOOCs were to help solve the crisis in higher education, such course offerings would have to be offered on a mass level to make much difference in terms of cutting educational costs. Most tenure track professors and adjuncts in higher education are already paid a pittance at most schools for their work. It’s difficult to envision how professors would go along with getting paid even less, especially with how awful remuneration rates have become in higher ed. In my field (political science), the typical starting range salary for a newly-hired professor at the typical state university or liberal arts college is between $45,000 to $50,000 – a meager amount considering these faculty spent between 10 to 15 years getting a PhD, foregoing more than a decade of income while in school, and accruing tens of thousands in student loan debt (usually significantly more than other types of workers who graduate with four year degrees). By point of comparison, the average assistant manager at a Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Target, Kohls, or Home Depot earns a salary of $49,000 to $59,000 a year. The average janitor at Harvard gets paid about $53,000 a year.

Selingo believes that universities, colleges, and employers should move toward recognizing limited educational certifications that are geared toward the workplace and employer-based needs. He would like to see the creation of “digital badges which would allow people to demonstrate skills and knowledge to prospective employers without necessarily having a degree.” Higher educational institutions would obviously be instrumental in supplying the training needed to achieve these badges. Such a system, although it could provide some value when it comes to vocationally-based degrees, is ultimately problematic if it seeks to replace traditional two and four year degrees. The “badge option” is largely a non-starter because it abandons the entire notion of a civically-based higher educational experience. Students should attend schools, not simply to learn skills for occupations, but in order to become better educated, more empathetic to others around them, and to transform into more well-rounded citizens. These functions cannot be achieved by stripping down degrees into “badges” and selling out higher education to the lowest common denominator of training students to aid companies in seeking profits. Professors shouldn’t put the profit concerns of private corporations (and the skills these companies seek) at the forefront of a quality, liberal arts based education. I’d be a fool to say that preparing students for the workplace isn’t an important part of higher education, but as Giroux rightly argues, learning needs to be about far more than instrumental occupation goals.

For full disclosure purposes, I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with Henry Giroux over the years via email correspondence, although I never actually met him. My support for his book is rooted in our agreement, pedagogically and ideologically speaking, about the future trajectory of higher education and the need for foundational, radical change. I also have had contact with Jeffrey Selingo (in person), as I had the opportunity to speak with him after he gave a talk at a Midwestern community college based in Illinois. Selingo seemed like a nice enough fellow from the conversation I had with him, although I fundamentally disagree with his “vision” for education reform.

When I spoke with Selingo about the higher education funding crisis, I brought up the issue of reprioritizing public funding from states. I asked, “If higher education is in so much trouble economically and because of skyrocketing tuitions, why not simply value education more by putting more taxpayer money into it and restoring previously cut state revenues?” Selingo’s answer left me disappointed. His basic position was that higher education has morphed from being valued as a public good – when the state funded it and promoted the idea of education as civic literacy – to being a private good – one in which individual students seek degrees to make them more competitive in the national workplace. Selingo didn’t have a moral or philosophical problem with this definition of higher education as an exclusively private good. Needless to say, I completely reject this instrumentalist view of education. Much of the problem with higher education today (in terms of growing unaffordability) was caused by treating higher education as a private, rather than a public good. If degrees are a private good, then why should the public pay for them? The transformation of higher ed into a private good was accomplished through the informal privatization of schools, as the responsibility for funding them was shifted from states directly to students. That the neoliberal privatization agenda was the cause of, rather than the solution to higher education’s funding problems, but Selingo seemed unwilling or unable to recognize this basic point.

After stripping out all the clichéd talk about “disrupting” the current educational system and making college “unbound” from traditional ways of looking at higher ed, Selingo’s book fundamentally supports a continuation of the current neoliberal agenda. This path is one that leads to intellectual and moral bankruptcy. It represents a gutting of the principles that traditionally drove public higher educational institutions before their demise. I prefer the optimism and hope of Giroux’s work. While it recognizes the gravity of the problems that afflict colleges and universities, at least it dares to offer the notion that the problems are not beyond fixing – and fixing in a way that promotes civic minded engagement, public goods, and critical thought. These are all values that Americans should aspire to inside and outside the walls of the ivory tower.

Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago.  He has taught U.S. and global politics at numerous colleges and universities, and written numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2009), When Media Goes to War (2010), Crashing the Tea Party (2011), and The Rise of the Tea Party (2011).  He can be reached at:











Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.