Educating for Democracy: College, Inc.

06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The recent controversy over the planned expansion of NYU, which would involve a lot of "corporate enhancements" in lower Manhattan neighborhoods, and the articles about "waiting lists" that students have to endure at selective schools (as reported within the last few days (April 14-15) by the New York Times), remind me that it is time to put on my professor cap and make a few observations about my experiences in higher education.

Now that they are using the "corporate model" of education, those of you who are curious about what is really happening to colleges these days need only read Stanley Aronowitz's classic book, The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning (2001). Although the book is almost a decade old, what it reports is a disturbing trend in higher education that is continuing to accelerate today. Aronowitz explains how big universities have been using the business model for running their institutions rather than one dedicated to educational excellence. So here are a few facts:

1. Only about 35% of all those who teach in colleges are actually tenured or tenure track full-time faculty. The rest are adjuncts, graduate students and "visiting professors," a euphemism for non-tenured faculty who can never obtain the security of tenure at their host institutions.

2. The per-course compensation of the part-time staff varies, but is rarely more than $3000 a course; in many colleges, it is much lower. Therefore, in order for an adjunct to make even the minimum amount to earn enough to live above the poverty line, he or she would have to teach five to six courses a semester, at probably two or three schools, with no time left for doing their own research and little if any prospect of advancement. Additionally, having such a large portion of educators at a school who have little opportunity to participate in the intellectual life of the campus impoverishes it as well as those who teach there. Admittedly, there are adjuncts who "supplement" their spouse's income and those who have other jobs and find college teaching challenging. Nevertheless, the United States is devaluing college teachers just as surely as it is "deskilling" grade school teachers, and it is doing so at its peril.

3. Only about half of all students who enter college actually get a degree, and, as we can see from the economic downturn, there is no guarantee that once they have received a degree, they will get a decent-paying job. A study reported in the Wall Street Journal, "The Curse of the Class of 2009" (05/09/09), stated the likely prospect that college grads will be getting lower-paying jobs for the next decade. There is no reason to believe that this situation has changed.

4. There are many excellent American public and private colleges that provide good undergraduate educations, but they are not necessarily the ones with the best "reputations." My daughter went to one that is noted for its outstanding teaching as well as Ivy-league status, but there are many others where the approach to freshmen is "sink or swim." The recent spate of college student suicides at Cornell is just a symptom of the high-pressure lives that students endure at large, high-profile universities. Students are often thrown in their first years into large lecture courses with little, if any, individual guidance. Many of these students have not been adequately prepared for college-level work.

5. The model used today in many colleges and universities, according to Aronowitz's study, is a "corporate model" in which the profits become more of a consideration in making educational decisions than quality. I have heard recently of such subjects basic to a liberal arts degree as philosophy being eliminated from the school curriculum because they aren't "cost effective."

6. The continued increase in tuition is based on some factors that are beyond the control of many universities. But, there has been an explosion in college bureaucracies, which increase costs considerably. At the school I retired from only 25% of the staff are now full-time faculty while there has been a significant increase in "administration." I believe that much of this cost growth is due to the "competitive models" being used to attract students today with a great deal of marketing costs and glitzy programs, "special features" that look good to teenagers but may have little substance.

7. The costs of maintaining Division l athletic programs is, in itself, a serious issue. According to a Knight Foundation report filed last October, despite popular perceptions that high-profile sports "pay for themselves," many of these schools are now having to cut academic programs in order to be able to meet the costs of maintaining their varsity teams. Do any European or Asian universities have this problem? How "serious" are we about higher education when football and basketball coaches get higher pay than college presidents?

8. College students are being consistently "ripped off" with hidden fees added to their educational costs. To me, however, the most scandalous aspect of college education is the cost of the textbooks students are required to buy at inflated prices and can only resell at a tiny fraction of the cost. Of course, if college texts were sold at a reasonable price, a number of prominent publishing houses would have to file for bankruptcy.

9. College debt, once the students either receive their degrees or, just as likely, have nothing tangible to show for their experience, can pursue many of them for the rest of their working lives. The average student college debt is now over $20,000 and those who have gone to private schools may have more than twice as much. In "the good old days" when I went to CUNY-Queens College, tuition was free, I received an excellent education, and ended up $1000 ahead from a Regents Scholarship.

What must be done? Read Stanley Aronowitz's book if you really want to know although there are many other studies that deal with these issues. The root problem, as I see it, is that our economic system cannot produce nearly enough good-paying jobs for the students who receive college degrees and until there is a seismic shift in income distribution, the problem will only get worse. Young people should be able to get decent wages without going to college, so that those who really want to get a college-level education can do so in a society in which higher education is not the only road out of poverty. Many students are simply not suited at eighteen years old to go to college and should not be exploited in their futile effort to get a better job as a result of a degree. On the other hand, as is true of many of my students at the community college in which I am an "adjunct," those "willing learners" who are older and have more experience with the world become among the best and most enthusiastic college students I have ever taught.