American higher education: One more big business

Andy Nash Contributor
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Our colleges and universities shape the intellectual infrastructure that influences the way we craft national policy, report and read the news, and understand our history and values. They dangle the promise of lifelong earning potential, but couple it with the prospect of suffocating debt. They drive the lion’s share of empirical research conducted in this country — from military to medical — but at a mind-boggling cost.

In an ever-expanding effort to cull the massive sums needed to sustain this apparatus, they have plunged headlong into a bidding war to attract thousands of tuition-paying students, competing not with academic credentials or faculty reputations, but with glitz, glamour, perks and amenities. For many of today’s universities, marketing and branding are far more important than mathematics and biology.

In fact, modern academia represents a corporate culture not unlike that of the private sector, those “big corporations” that are so often made convenient scapegoats of the intelligentsia that live and work behind universities’ ivy-covered walls. Universities have much in common with the private actors that we are frequently told require greater scrutiny and oversight.

So in that spirit, I have teamed up with a few like-minded critics of the status quo to launch Inside Academia, a weekly online interview series where I will sit down with the cutting-edge opinion leaders who are challenging conventional wisdom in the world of higher education.

For our inaugural look behind the Ivory Curtain, we were joined by Dr. Marty Nemko. Dr. Nemko, an adviser, career counselor, talk radio show host, and prolific blogger, talked about the concepts laid out in his controversial article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “America’s Most Overrated Product: The Bachelor’s Degree.”

“They lie” was Nemko’s response when I asked him about universities’ claims that a lack of sufficient public support is causing tuition to increase. Universities, he explained, are among the most powerful lobbies in America and they’ve managed to lobby for great increases in federal aid. And every time they are successful in lobbying for more financial aid, students are able to get more money, which allows universities to raise tuition.

“They are a business — higher ed must be a viewed as a business. Like any other business, what they are all about is making more money to do what they want to do, which in the case of universities primarily is to expand their bureaucracies and/or to do more research — 99% of which is of very, very little value. And most times universities know up front — and the funders know — it’s going to be of very little value,” said Marty.

If you ask most people, it may initially seem counter-intuitive to expect that increased public sector support fuels tuition increases rather than keeps them in check. But that assumes that the universities are judiciously and wisely spending their finite resources on the education and needs of their tuition-paying undergraduates — education of a quality presumably commensurate with the costs.

Tuition partly covers everything from administrative overhead on research and mortgages on building expansions (often for research facilities), to the maintenance, upkeep and new hires for such facilities. And as Marty explained, much of that research is arcane and abstruse.

College tuition has been going up in the last several decades at a rate far exceeding the rate of inflation. The government has insured and expanded financial aid, partly in the form of loans, to allow more students to attend college. And colleges have successfully lobbied to make student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy courts. However, the value of the education that students are paying for, and for what many are going into considerable debt for, Marty argues, is a “bad deal for everybody in terms of value received for the money and time involved.”

Andy Nash is host of InsideAcademia.tv, a weekly web video interview show on the future of learning in America. Follow on Twitter or subscribe on YouTube.