The Corporate University in American Society

David Schultz



igher education in America is being transformed by the contradictions that have historically defined and determined its existence.  Seen as an educational institution, its importance lies in empowering individuals—both within the academy and outside—to become critical and knowledgeable citizens capable of self-governance in a democracy.  Seen as a economic institution, its value lies in producing trained subservient workers for employers, and in socializing many of the costs necessary to sustain profit accumulation in a capitalist society.

Yet while for much of their existence colleges and universities have managed to hold these twin imperatives in balance, political-economic forces such as globalization, an increasingly conservative political agenda, and a tightening of public financial support for higher education have tipped the balance, resulting in the emergence of the corporate university.  As corporatized entities, American colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to emulate other market participants and operate in ways that affect their governance and structure, as well as how they generate revenue.  The result is that the new corporate university seeks to jettison many of the traditional manifestations of higher education, such as tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance, and replace them with a business model of management and more adjunct faculty who are viewed as mere employees.  The need to do this is simple—less revenue to support colleges and universities is coming from the government, thereby forcing higher education to reduce labor costs and also seek financial support from private sector investors who view the traditional mission of these schools with suspicion.

This article examines the political, economic and cultural forces driving the creation of the corporate university in American society.  It contends that American higher education—both public systems and also private schools— is driven by two demands:  First, to socialize the costs of worker training to subsidize and maximize capital accumulation; second, to provide inexpensive education to support democratic values and individual self-expression.  But recent fiscal crises have led to decreased state financial support for colleges and universities, necessitating that public schools adopt more market-like behavior.  The rise of corporate universities is a product of these crises, producing structures and policies that increasingly are hostile to workers, academic freedom, and perhaps even capital accumulation.


Higher Education’s Cultural Contradictions

Culturally or politically, colleges and universities are torn by conflicting mandates; one is to produce workers, another to produce democratic citizens.  These twin mandates can be described as the Horace Mann and John Dewey imperatives.

Horace Mann’s legacy on American education is almost forgotten, but the fact that almost every school district in the United States has a building named after him is a testament to his influence.  Best known as an advocate of universal school for all (Morgan 1936, 97), Horace Mann’s educational philosophy or program can also be read as a prescription for training children and individuals how to be obedient workers. In his Twelfth Annual Report on education, he describes the important role that education can assume in alleviating poverty (Filler 1965).  But in making this argument, Mann contends that for the most part the “labor of the world has been performed by ignorant men” and that if more individuals were educated and trained, productivity would increase (128).

For Mann: “If a savage will learn how to swim, he can fasten a dozen pounds’ weight to his back, and transport it across a narrow river . . . If he will invent an axe, or other instrument, by which to cut down a tree, he can use the tree for a float, and one of its limbs for a paddle, and can thus transport many times the former weight many times the former distance” (129).  Education will increase the wealth of a nation and the “widespread mental development” of the public, is the best way to help in help a country prosper, and by improving the productivity of the producer (131).

As if following upon Francis Bacon’s aphorism that “knowledge is power,” Mann declares that: “Every addition to true knowledge is an addition to human power” (Morgan 97).  And what better way to add to human power than to teach children that they should be “made to be industrious,” that this industry gives rise to wealth, and that they should be taught to be virtuous (115).  The virtues that Mann sought to teach children, though, were moral virtues of learning, temperance, thrift, and industry—the very Protestant virtues that Max Weber once saw as the genesis of the spirit of capitalism.  Education produces the perfect laborer for the workplace.  A good student would become a good employee.

In contrast to Horace Mann whose educational philosophy has come to be associated more with training for work, John Dewey’s view was that the purpose of schooling was growth and the preparation of individuals to become democratic citizens (Westbrook1991, 171).  Dewey contended that “a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated (Dewey 1944, 87).  A democracy replaces external authority or compulsion as the basis of obedience, substituting voluntary dispositions and interests that have been cultivated by education.  Moreover, democracy, like education, is a form of association, a communicative experience that seeks to find interactive ways to bring individuals together (Dewey 1944, 87).

Dewey described schools as mini or embryonic societies (Dewey 1974, 303).  As a social institution, one goal of education was to provide the opportunities for students to find shared or mutual interests by interaction with one another in the classroom. Dewey thus started with the premise that creation of a democratically constituted society required a specific type of education—a democratic one— that emulated the skills and dispositions that one would be expected to possess as an adult citizen.  This means first that educational is social (Westbrook 1991, 172; Dewey 1944, 10-12). Second, it is interactive.  By that, education recognizes that students are at the center of education; it aims to encourage individual growth and development of the skills and traits that individuals would need as democratic citizens.  Those skills would be best fostered not by rote but by a method that saw a continuum between the ends of education and their means, i.e., a learn-by-doing method.  If the goal of education was the fostering of a democratic society held together by the internal interests of its citizens, schools needed to be democratic experiences that emphasized in learning the very skill that they wished to produce.  If a democratic society was an interactive communicative experience, then so should be schooling.

Dewey’s democratic conception of education, while still preparing students for creative and rewarding employment, contrasts sharply with the Mann theory that education is to prepare individuals for more production line work (Westbrook 1991, 177).  Perhaps one way to clarify the distinction is between what C.B. Macpherson (1977) called the development of the skills one needs for self-development versus the powers  needed for the marketplace.  For Macpherson, a liberal-democratic society is essentially a capitalist market society torn by competing needs and ideals.  On the one hand, such a society has the potential to develop uniquely human powers critical to self-development and self-actualization.  For Macpherson, these powers see humans as social creatures, capable of being a doer, a creator, or perhaps, even as Schiller suggested, a player (Macpherson 4).  This is a view of human nature that depicts individuals as moral, rational, and aesthetic creatures. 

In contrast, the underlying market demands that humans be seen as consumers, their desires or utilities for Macpherson, are what need to be enhanced and emphasized (Macpherson 4-5).  Humans as consumers, bundles of appetites, and workers (as opposed to creators), are what a liberal-democratic (capitalist) society actually sustains.  As a result, such a society is caught in a contradiction:  A liberal-democratic society claims to develop human powers but actually needs to develop market utilities (Macpherson 17).

Using Macpherson’s distinction, Mann’s educational philosophy emphasized the utilities of the marketplace, for Dewey, the powers of the polis.  Higher education embodies these contrasting philosophies: The purpose of college is rooted in a liberal arts tradition that stresses individual growth or self-actualization, while others would de-emphasize this, preferring to see higher education as a preparation for work.  The latter would not necessarily encourage critical thinking, individuality, and the questioning of authority; instead it would seek to foster “real marketable skills” a real marketable job upon graduation.

If one sees higher education as embodying both the democratic and marketplace ideas, then it is not too difficult to see the economic forces that have pushed colleges and universities towards becoming corporatized entities.


The Fiscal Crisis of American Higher Education

To speak of a fiscal crisis facing higher education one thinks of the declining public support, especially for state universities and colleges, that has arisen in the last quarter century.  From a high in the 1960s and early 70s when states and the federal government provided generous funding to expand their public systems to educate the Baby Boomers, state universities now receive only a small percentage of their money from the government.  In 2004, the State of New York constituted only 29% of SUNY’s funding and 31% for CUNY (New York State Public Higher Education Conference Board 2004).  As of 1998, New York spent more on its prisons than on higher education (Gonnerman  1998).  In 1991, 74% of the funding for public universities came from states, in 2004, it was down to 64%, with state systems in Illinois, Michigan and Virginia down to 25%, 18%, and 8% respectively (Dillon 2005).

While these cuts do represent a fiscal crisis for colleges and universities, the real fiscal crisis goes deeper and it requires one to recognize an important but overlooked truth—Universities are necessary institutions within a capitalist society.   Contrary to claims that have depicted colleges and universities as largely autonomous from the marketplace, higher education serves capitalism and market society in several ways that move beyond or build upon Horace Mann’s theories.

First, colleges and universities socialize training costs as a way of subsidizing private profits by paying for labor costs or underwriting research and development.  In providing either explicit skills training to future workers, or simply in teaching basic communication skills, higher education, like K-12, helps to reduce labor-training costs for businesses.  In addition, by way of the research that is done in colleges and universities, the production of knowledge in higher education often leads to innovations that are valuable in the marketplace.  Hence, government funded research that takes place in the academy can be useful as either general or patentable knowledge useful to businesses.  The market can profit upon ideas generated in colleges, and businesses can draw upon a (partially) trained workforce coming out of these schools.  In either case, higher education is helping to subsidize the private profits of businesses by literally commodifying its work product (Lyotard 1984).

Second, colleges and universities socialize and reinforce market attitudes, ideology, skills, and behavior.  This training can be explicit as in MBA programs, but an educational philosophy that stresses job preparation will inculcate obedience to authority.  In addition, curricula that emphasize specific viewpoints, favoring consumerism, free trade, or management (over labor) in economics or business classes, the evils of communism, socialism, or even socialized medicine in history, sociology, political science courses, also foster attitudes necessary to reinforce the marketplace.

Finally, colleges and universities serve as a labor market safety value.  Instead of driving millions of extra workers into a job market after high school, higher education delays entrance into labor market as a way to ensure workers have jobs and stave off their unrest if unemployment gets too high.  Higher education thus helps to regulate the labor market in a capitalist society.

Accepting the argument that higher education is a capitalist institution, then the real fiscal crisis and contradictions that colleges and universities face—and their shift into a corporate mode— becomes more apparent.  This crisis is the product of how colleges and universities are necessary both to serve capitalist accumulation and democratic legitimation functions.  To make this argument James O’Connor’s Fiscal Crisis of the State  (1973) provides guidance and clarification.

For O’Connor, the “tendency for government expenditures to outrace revenues” is what he calls the fiscal crisis of the state (O’Connor 2).  The reason for this crisis is rooted in contending class interests that make demands upon the state, necessitating that the government perform two mutually contradictory functions.  The first, the accumulation function, demands that the state create the conditions that help to maximize the accumulation of private profits.  Accumulation is articulated on behalf of one class, and it involves socializing of certain investment costs (education) or research and development, or making other expenditures or purchases that increase profitability.  While the government may be pressured into increasing spending or cutting expenditures to maintain profit accumulation, this profit is not socially consumed by is retained by businesses.

While the state is pressured to support business profitability, there is a contradictory demand to make some expenses, such as for welfare, in order to maintain social harmony and peace among unemployed workers.  O’Connor sees expenditures for this purpose as fulfilling a legitimation function (O’Connor 6-7).  From capital’s perspective, legitimation expenditures are not productive; they are simply expenditures to purchase peace, much in the way the Piven and Cloward (1971) described the use of the social welfare system as a way to maintain worker discipline and quell civil unrest.  Here, if the job market is disruptive, provide more money to colleges to allow individuals to attend a university.

How can all this be applied to understanding the fiscal crisis of higher education and how it has driven the production of the corporate university?  First, higher education represents one of the contradictory points of conflict at which the legitimation and accumulation functions clash.  As noted earlier, Macpherson described the contradictions in democratic capitalism as between the development of human utilities v. powers, or roughly corresponding to the difference between Dewey’s and Mann’s educational theories, to produce citizens versus workers.  For the most part higher education quietly lived with these twin imperatives, yet when the state faces a fiscal crisis, as it has for the last generation or so, there is a simultaneous demand to reduce public outlays (taxes) to help promote accumulation, while still seeking to subsidize business training costs and make other outlays to help capital.  This occurs at the same time the state is still trying to promote legitimacy by offsetting education costs for families and students.[i] 

The first and most direct means to reconcile the contradiction is to reduce direct public expenditures to support higher education.  This could be in terms of real cuts to state universities or, alternatively, cuts in students aid to public and private schools.  Cuts could also come in by changing aid from grants to loans, or from need-based to merit-based scholarships, as schools use the lure of financial aid to buy more desirable (profitable) students (Wilkinson 2005).

A second way public expenditures can be lowered is to reduce spending and raise tuition.  Here, tuition hikes serve several purposes.  First, they offset any loss in state expenditures, thereby giving colleges an easy opportunity to recapture lost revenue by passing it on to students.  Raising tuition also rations higher education, preserving its value for those who can afford it, and restricting access to maintain a cheap labor supply.

A third way for the demands to promote accumulation is by forcing colleges and universities to be more business like.  Higher education is forced to reduce labor costs, become more efficient, seek outside revenue sources, or develop private sector partners.  Along with demands or assertions that higher education needs to be more business like, there are also ideological claims that colleges and universities are not doing enough to prepare students for work.  This might manifest itself in attacks against liberal arts curricula or programs that do not seem directly in line with promoting job skills.

Finally, the most direct route to reducing expenditures is to privatize state schools by cutting public outlays to state schools, and in some cases, such as with the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, make it fully dependent upon private money (Kirp 2003, 130, 135).  In doing this, state legislatures have forced their universities to sell research, curriculum, and services to the highest bidder, potentially compromising whatever autonomy higher education did enjoy (Newman 204, 35).

Spending cuts force schools to seek other revenue streams or tactics to make up lost money.  They are a disciplining tool, a way to force colleges and universities to become more market and business savvy.  However, unlike Bok (2003), Geiger (2004), (Kirp 2003), and Newman(2004) who all see the drive toward the commercialization of higher education as residing in factors exogenous to the university—such as spending cuts or the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 (which allowed schools to patent and sell federally funded research)—the argument here is different.  Instead, as an entity embedded in a capitalist society, higher education has traditionally been supported and nurtured as a way to facilitate accumulation, while at the same time that its democratic leaning tendencies have been tolerated.  Yet when pressures to promote accumulation become more acute, the contradiction between serving that and its democratic function force colleges and universities to more clearly manifest and pursue its market sustaining and supporting functions.  Thus, the corporate university, unlike the commercialized one, is an institution that seeks to fulfill its accumulation function by stripping itself of its democratic function and fully adopting its capitalist function by both serving the market and participating in it at the same time.  In effect, the causes of a university becoming corporatized are endogenous to higher education, not exogenous.

Seeking to resolve its contradiction by simply shedding the democratic function will not work.  Colleges and universities have enjoyed their popular support by being seen as independent and impartial (even if they were not).   Higher education, at least as it evolved since World War II, was viewed as open to all and as a gateway for individuals to improve their chance for the good life.  Higher education, thus, was seen as serving important public purposes.  But the corporate university undermines all that.  It serves the private ends of specific businesses who wish to profit from research for hire (Geiger 2004, 261).  When research or scientific inquiry is done for hire, or when the corporate university sells itself on the marketplace, it undermines the very public trust and confidence that provided its ideological support, and it also undermines it capacity to serve general business needs because instead it is a bought institution that has become privatized by and for specific corporations.

In selling its services to specific businesses, the corporate university undermines it legitimacy and its ability to fulfill its public role of serving the marketplace in general.  By becoming less dependent upon public dollars that are returned to the public domain, it precipitates a cycle of spending cuts that further undermine its own autonomy.  As public subsidies for higher education are effectively privately appropriated by private businesses, there is an increasingly greater need to cut government support for colleges and universities, thereby necessitating that they become even more market focused in their behavior


The Cultural War Against the University

The inherent contradictions of higher education in America are exacerbated by the fiscal crisis of the state.  When state revenues are squeezed, colleges and universities often pay the price by seeing their resources cut.  But as higher education is squeezed, there are also countervailing demands, often by the middle class,  to maintain education funding, provide student aid, or  otherwise  continue to provide the resources to make college affordable.  One way to ameliorate this contradiction is to provide more student loans to offset tuition increases, another is for colleges to seek outside revenue.  But a third tactic is to unleash an ideological war against the university, reigning it in because it is perceived as unsupportive of marketplace needs.  In effect, an ideological war against the university is launched.

Since at least the 1960s, there has been a hostility towards the university from the right, seeing it, students, and faculty as social and political critics of the Vietnam War.  The University is perceived by the right as a social critic of the status quo; they see higher education as captured by the left.  In some cases, as noted earlier, the university’s liberal arts curriculum is viewed as wasteful and not supporting the needs of business, or that it is hostile to the ruling ideology.

One recent manifestation of this attack is David Horowitz and conservatives who seek to discipline the perception of a left-leaning university with a Student Bill of Rights.  Flaunting claims that higher education is captured by left-leaning professors, charges of bias in the classroom have motivated Horowitz to demand that college and universities pass legislation that would give equal time to conservatives.  Similarly, the Solomon Amendment was adopted to override the decision that many law schools made to prevent military recruiters from coming on campus.  They did this because the military’s decision not to accept gays and lesbians was in conflict with school anti-discrimination policies. The Solomon Amendment withheld federal money from schools that denied access to recruiters, thereby forcing schools to choose between towing the party line of the government or adhering to its own anti-discrimination values.  Finally, the decision by Hamilton College to rescind a speaking offer to Professor Ward Churchill because of his controversial views about the 9-11 attacks, and simultaneous investigations and calls at the University of Colorado to fire him despite tenure, point to other efforts to silence and discipline the academy.

These attacks take direct aim at critics of the conservative government.  They are also part of an effort to delegitimize higher education.  If one can show that professors are abusing academic freedom, get rid of them and tenure.  Play upon popular distaste for views like those held by Churchill, or argue that the university is biased; this makes it possible to garner public support to cut state support for schools or to otherwise impose other restrictions upon colleges.  As one North Carolina state representative stated: “Why should we, as fairly moderate to conservative legislators, continue to support universities that turnout students who rail against the very policies that their parents voted us in for?” (Mattson 2005).   Thus, combining the ideological war against the university with the fiscal squeeze they face, the result is that higher education has become corporatized.


Defining the Corporate University

What is a corporate university? First it means that colleges increasingly use corporate structures and management styles to run the university.  This includes abandoning the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) shared governance model where faculty had a equal voice in the running of the school, including over curriculum, selection of department chairs, deans, and presidents, and determination of many of the other policies affecting the academy.  The corporate university replaces the shared governance model with one more typical of a business corporation.  Most decisions, including increasingly those affecting curriculum, are determined by a top-down pyramid style of authority.  University administration, often composed not of typical academics but those with business or corporate backgrounds, has pre-empted many of the decisions faculty used to make.  Under a corporate model, the trustees, increasingly composed of more business leaders than before, select, often with minimal input from the faculty, the president who, in turn, again with minimal or no faculty voice, select the deans, department heads, and other administrative personnel.

Another way higher education has adopted corporate practices is in terms of its control over curriculum and the movement away from full time tenured faculty.  The traditional university, following AAUP principles, granted tenure to professors to guarantee academic freedom.  This freedom was not simply to guarantee employment for life; it was a reward for academic achievement and to ensure that those engaged in research—be it controversial or not—would be free to explore knowledge and truth, without fear of reprisal from administrators or society.  Now, the corporate university sees tenure as an impediment to fiscal restructuring, or the needs to hire and fire faculty to meet changing marketplace needs.  Tenured professors are hard to remove, making it difficult to close down a department or program if it was no longer profitable.

Moreover, tenured professors are expensive.  On top of the initial costs associated with paying for specialized Ph.D.s, retaining them for years was costly.  Replacing them with untenured, adjunct, or contingent faculty saves a significant amount of money.  Why pay a tenured professor $50,000 to over $100,000 to teach four to six classes per year when several adjuncts can be hired at $3,000 to $5,000 per class?  Replacing tenured faculty with one of the large surplus of unemployed Ph.D.s can significantly reduce labor costs, while also breaking the strength of faculty to engage in university governance.

The corporate university has taken control of the curriculum in several ways.  First, in the case of the expansion of on-line programs over the Web or internet, a specialist designs the curriculum for courses, sells it to the school, and then the university hires adjuncts to deliver the canned class.  Here, the costs of offering a class are reduced, the potential size of the classes are maximized, and if and when the curriculum needs to be changed to reflect new market needs or preferences, it is simple to accomplish.

A second way higher education is becoming corporatized can be seen in the increased funding streams from corporations.  These funding streams became necessary as a result of decreased public support funding for higher education.  One way schools have become more dependent upon private funding is simply by turning to corporate donors either to contribute directing to them, or by way of naming, that is, giving private corporations the right to donate in exchange for naming some part of a school after them.   For example, in recent years many business schools have adopted famous names of companies in return for donations or sponsorships.

Another way schools have become more dependent upon corporations for funding is as a result of the 1980 Bayh-Dole which allowed universities to patent federally-funded research (Washburn 2005, 8-9).  Besides directly encouraging colleges and universities to patent and sell research, it also gave impetus to a host of practices where schools seek to partner with private businesses to raise revenue.  These sources include seeking private corporate sponsors for research, selling training and other services to them, or fostering joint partnerships.  The danger in all these relationships comes with a “research for hire” mandate that turns academic research into a service for the marketplace, compromising and commodifying intellectual ideas, instead of turning them over to the public domain.  Research for hire potentially threatens academic freedom, compromises the integrity and objectivity of scholarship, and forces professors to explore only what the market will bear.   University-pharmaceutical partnerships, producing proprietary research for hire, is only one example of this trend, leading to questions about what is researched, how objectively, and whose interests it serves (Bok 2003, 58-72).

A third but perhaps not the final notion of what it means to be a corporate university resides in how they are increasingly engaging in corporate and market type behavior.  The clearest example of the corporate university is the rise of for-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix and Florida Metropolitan University.  These schools, whose parent companies’ stock are publicly traded, are part of a large and growing college for profit business.  According to the Wall Street Journal, for-profits educate 1.7 million students (in 2005), or nine percent of all those attending college.  Their revenues now top $15 billion annually (Hechinger 2005). Their profitability lies in exploiting a corporate governance model, using adjunct and contingent faculty to deliver instruction, often over the Web or internet.  In effect, the clearest manifestation or sign of the rise of the corporate university is that private for-profit schools have become real market participants and actors, competing for investors, students, and revenue.

However, even traditional schools, both public and private, have become market participants also.  Years ago Saturday Night Live did a routine with a character named Father Guido Sarducci who extolled the  “Five Minute University” and the graduate program he called “Got a Minute.”  Colleges and universities seem to have taken his cue.

Professional education, such as in public or business administration,  is the new cash cow of colleges and universities.  This bodes badly for academic quality and the students who enroll in these programs, as well as for the future cohort of future managers who will lead this country.

Growth across the country in profession programs such as MBAs,, mini-MBAs, executive MBAs and the same in health care, public and non-profit administration, are fueled by several forces.

First, public and private institutions are cash-starved and under increasing pressure to generate new sources of revenue.  Second, one of the most fertile areas to find this revenue is in the growing body of older students searching for quick advanced degrees to credentialize themselves into promotions and new jobs.  Third, large numbers of Baby Boomer managers are set to retire in the next few years, creating a tremendous need to make up for lost administrative skills due to the economic restructuring and downsizing that occurred in the 80s and 90s.  Fourth, the Internet has enhanced the capacity to transcend geography, reaching many more students than would be possible through more traditional residency programs.

The convergence of these trends is producing a market-driven educational system: a pedagogy perfectly consistent with the new top-down management ethos of many schools which, coincidently, are being more and more run not by academics but by private sector-inspired personnel who see students as customers, faculty as sellers, and education as a commodity.

Overall, to be a corporate university means many things.  It includes a management structure, a set of practices or attitudes, and an adoption of human resources policies that are increasingly turning institutions of higher education into market participants who look no different than other for-profit entities.  In whatever way it manifests itself, the rise of the corporate university is a consequence of its seeking to reconcile its competing mandates of serving democracy and the marketplace, with fiscal pressures forcing the latter to negate the former.


The College as a Market Player

Responding to ideological and fiscal pressures placed upon them, colleges and universities are forced to become corporatized entities, responding to market pressures and acting like a market participant. This plays itself out in several ways that affect the curriculum and academic quality.

For example, one of the largest new markets  in the last decade for schools to generate revenue is to enter the professional training of managers.  Traditional Masters degree programs were rooted in a liberal arts curriculum and taught by tenured faculty grounded in the knowledge of the discipline or subject matter through research and other scholarly activity.  These programs were expensive, and they certainly were not revenue-generators. These new professional programs are usually taught by untenured adjunct practitioners in the field.  Eschewing the liberal arts grounding as too “academic,” emphasis is placed upon student-to-student conversations where the faculty members are facilitators who employ  “war stories from field” as a method of teaching.  The belief here is that such teaching is more in tune with impatient students who do not want any of the bookish information, just give them what they need to know to do their job.  Revenue production, not knowledge or excellence, is their goal.  Thus, there is a push to deliver an educational product ever more cheaply.

Under this type of teaching, the faculty fades in importance.  The virtue is that unlike traditional programs where there are significant sunken costs or investments in curriculum, faculty training, and tenure, market-driven programs have little up-front investment and faculty, classes, and entire programs can be changed quickly to respond to changing consumer preferences or employment trends.

Market-driven education also places schools into competition in ways different from the past where colleges sought to recruit the best and the brightest via selective admissions standards.  Now, there is pressure to water down selectivity—“If we do not accept this person some other school will”—and standards in class—“If we assign bad grades students will go elsewhere, including On-line,  and take their money with them.”  We now see a race to the academic bottom with schools willing to admit anyone regardless of grades or board scores.  Selectivity is tantamount to bad customer service.   The worst school on the Internet now sets the standard for all.

Market-driven education also produces a bifurcated marketplace.  For Ivy Leagues like Harvard and Yale, high tuition is the purchasing of a name-branded school that adds prestige or panache to a resume.  Weaker schools cannot compete by selling their name but instead market by offering the lowest price, preferring volume sales at lower prices to the high end, high priced limited volume of the name brand schools.  Yet, in neither case is academic quality being sold nor necessarily made a major selling piece, except as part of a perfunctory marketing brochure.

Market-driven education thus has turned Father Sarducci’s farce into reality.  For institutions and faculty who still see value in the liberal arts grounding of education, the preference for academic standards is depicted as increasingly elitist and antithetical to the market-driven ethos. Such a view on education is anachronistic and compromised by market-driven education.


Are Universities for Sale?  The Future of Higher Education

Universities are trapped in a contradiction.  They are under increasing pressure to reduce costs, provide more business training, and otherwise be more market friendly.  Conversely, there is a public backlash against rising tuition  which alienates middle class who want tuition affordable or capped, and there is also a business need for a publicly supported higher education system to socialize many training costs and provide disciplined employees for the labor market.  Precipitated by the fiscal crisis of the state, colleges and universities seek to reconcile their own internal contradictions, and they have responded by increasingly becoming more corporatized in their organization, management, and operating policies.  Corporatized universities no long enjoy the quasi independence or autonomy they once had; instead they are forced to become market players, commodifying education, and selling out the Deweyan promise of producing educated citizens for a democratic society.  While restoring some of the lost public funding might help to forestall the worst of this corporatization, the reality is that higher educational institutions are captured by the market place, making them too no more than a commodity up for a sale to the highest bidder.



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Zemsky, Robert, Gregory R. Wagner, and William F. Massy.  2005.  “Today’s Colleges Must Be Market Smart and Mission Centered.”  Chronicle of Higher Education (July 15), B6.


[i].    Ironically,  even American colleges and universities  are facing global competition from schools outside of the United States, such as Australia,  for students (Cohen 2005; Newman 2004, 23).


*Acknowledgment: This article is based upon comments originally given at the Socialist Scholars Conference, 2004, at Cooper Union College in New York, and at the Dialogue Left Conference, 2005, at the City University of New York.  Thanks go to all the participants and conference attendees who offered suggestions and observations on my ideas and who encouraged me to write this article.