The corporate university is being undone by the very forces that created it. The defining characteristic of higher education in the last forty years has been its corporatization, which has transformed the university from an educational community with shared governance into a top-down bureaucracy that is increasingly managed and operated like a traditional profit-seeking corporation.
David points out that–at least since World War II– there have been two very distinct “business models” that have characterized American higher education. The first model was based on public investment in education, and it lasted until the 1970s. “The second, a corporate model, flourished until the economic crash in 2008.”
Public institutions were central to the first model.
The business model was simple: tax dollars, federal aid, and an expanding population of often first-generation students attending state institutions at low tuition. Let us call this the Dewey model,after John Dewey, whose theories emphasized the democratic functions of education.
Beginning with the 1980s, support for all public institutions and programs–including but not limited to universities– began to diminish, and a near-religious belief in the power of markets to cure everything that ails us replaced it.
The corporate university took control of the curriculum in order to generate revenue. The new business model found its most powerful income stream in professional education, including programs in public or business administration and law school, which became the cash cow of colleges and universities. This was especially true with MBA programs, which rapidly multiplied. These programs were sold to applicants with the claim that the high tuition would be more than offset by future earnings.
This business model in part used tuition from professional programs to finance the rest of the university. Students in these programs were able to secure loans to finance their training. The model relied heavily on attracting foreign students, returning baby boomers in need of additional credentials, and recent “baby boomlet” graduates seeking professional degrees as a shortcut to professional advancement.
The consequences of this shift are all around us: ballooning student debt loads, the emphasis on narrow job/professional training and the corresponding neglect of the liberal arts curricula that taught students how to think, the ever-growing dependence on poorly-paid (okay, exploited) adjunct faculty, and the rise of for-profit institutions that promise quick credentialing without the inconvenience of an actual education, among others.
David pulls no punches: as he says, the corporate business model is an education Ponzi scheme, and like all Ponzi schemes, it is falling apart.
Those of us who care about education, who fear the consequences for self-governance of a credentialed but uneducated population, need to figure out how to go about restoring the university’s civic and intellectual mission.