Higher Ed and Capitalism: The Best of Frenemies

05/26/2015 07:38 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

The announcement that the University of North Carolina system is cutting 46 degree programs comes as no real surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to higher education. It's of a piece with political rants over the cost of college, musings about the worth of professors, gall about administrative bloat, and lament over the death of the liberal arts. Higher education has had its heyday, and is now in the midst of a long, slow decline -- or at the very least, a traumatic upheaval.

One particular statement from a UNC board member, though, is especially jarring to those of us who are still naïve enough to believe in higher education as a good in and of itself. "We're capitalists," said Steven Long, "and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand."

As the beneficiary of both public high school and private institutions, I do not wish to dismiss the importance of markets to education. Excellent public education depends upon a healthy tax base, which in turn depends on a strong economy. Markets, when well regulated, on the whole do a better job of creating strong economies than the two alternative systems - theft or gift, both of which quash incentives to productivity. (I hasten to add, however, that taxation and theft are not necessarily the same thing, since citizens expect to get something for their taxes.) Well-funded education tends to be much better than under-funded education, so anything that produces funds for education is welcome. Thus, capitalism can be a friend to education in so far as it helps pay for it.

What the business-minded people who now populate most college and university boards fail to understand, however, is that not-for-profit education - while it may potentially thrive under a capitalist system - is not inherently "capitalist" in that it is not defined by the pursuit of profits. It is, rather, defined by the pursuit of human beings who are better than they would have been without education. Students, to speak capitalist language, could be called the products of a university rather than the customers; if there is any customer in the mix, it is society at large. But even to use the terms "product" and "customer" is already to have lost the argument. Capitalism is the enemy of education when it colonizes its logic, replacing the motivating values of genuine learning and personal growth with the values of radical individualism and material gain.

American higher education has been, indeed still is, globally admired for its excellence. That excellence was enabled both by healthy markets that provided a healthy tax base, and by civic-minded Americans who believed that their neighbors' well-being (at least those neighbors who looked like them) would ultimately benefit their own. But somewhere along the way, a majority of American voters apparently decided, against all data to the contrary, that taxation was essentially stealing from the deserving rich to help the undeserving poor.

Public goods have thus been thrown on the fire of individual rights, which will burn everything in its path if not aggressively checked by an alternate principle. Civic-mindedness and healthy markets, which could go hand in hand if we wanted them to, are now divisive partisan issues. We are forced to pick sides. In the world of education, as in the world of markets, this has resulted in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. A particular version of the capitalist mindset has wormed its way into positions of educational power and will not give up until it has gutted all the sappy humanitarian stuff ("waste" and "inefficiency") from what capitalists think really matters: economic growth.

If there is any comfort to be had, it is that this condition is not a necessary one. Congress could change everything in a very short amount of time if they cared, or dared, to do so. The only question is how bad things have to get, and for whom, before they can get better again.