Profit, HigherEd and Lessons on the Prestige Cartel

My friend Aaron Bady (who may one day learn to spell my whole name!) had the foresight to publish his excellent analysis of temporality, future fetishization, and MOOC evangelism at his online home.

He encouraged me to similarly publish my talk.

Here’s the thing: I go off script. A lot. I mean, I go way off script.

Here’s the other thing: I rewrote this talk two hours before I delivered it because doing so has become my process.

However, I resent that every enticing web link has become a portal to a video. I despise watching videos and I am always hoping for text. To Aaron’s point about fair engagement and to my own fetishization of the written word, I’m sharing a version of the talk I gave at UC Irvine on for-profit higher education.

In this talk I tried to do two things that I often try to do and one thing that I’ve not yet tried to do. I tried situate for-profit higher education in conversation with all of higher education and I tried to situate it within larger social processes. And then I tried to tell a story that did not require charts.

Here goes the text as prepared, if not exactly as how it was presented:

Profit and Prestige Cartelsthe cartel

Thank you to Catherine Liu and the Humanities Collective here at UC Irvine for having me.

Thank you to Aaron Bady for not blowing a hole in the time-space continuum when he decided to exist outside my twitter feed.

When she invited me, Catherine said, “please no charts and such!” and I think she expected resistance. What she did not know is that I grew up reciting Paul Laurence Dunbar poetry to entertain my mother’s guests, that I was an English major in undergrad and once fancied myself a slam poet. I came late to charts and such and I’m always happy to get back to my storytelling roots.

And that’s what I’d like to do today.

I’d like to talk to you about the story of for-profit colleges and then I’d like to offer a counter-narrative, as it were, the story I would tell about profit and higher education “markets”.

So let’s start with what for-profits are broadly. Everyone likes to tell me the joke about how “aren’t all colleges for profit; he he” Trust me I’ve heard that one. Yes, we all increasingly participate in profit seeking activities but the difference lies in what one can do with that profit: it’s the difference between profit-taking versus reinvestment. I would argue that profit-taking restructures the fundamental relationship between the higher education organization and how it conceives of education and how it affords education to its students.

We are told by the for-profit sector, increasingly politicians and probably saddest of all for me, education researchers, that the for-profit model of education “delivery” will disrupt, innovate, cagebust and unbundle higher education. A note here about language. I don’t have to tell you how powerful it is. Indeed, if stories are a fundamental characteristic of human consciousness and development – our ability to imagine a subjunctive future separates us from the apes as surely as do opposable thumbs – then language is the means by which we construct our humanity, our stories. When the story of profit and higher education tells us it will disrupt, innovate, cagebust, unbundle it is using the language of markets. It is telling a story of education as a tool of markets, a serf that exists at the largesse of market morality and financialization. When we use that language to resist our commodification we are limited in the possible outcomes. We are, as Graeber has  noted, restricted to talking to the king – here the almighty market – in the king’s language. Or, to borrow from Audre Lorde, I might ask if the master’s tools ever have a chance of disrupting the master’s house of profit and markets.

How did higher education become a market? That’s a story that is integral to the narrative being sold about the calcified higher education system that is so in need of disrupting and innovation. I put this before you because in CA recent legislation would have you take for granted that “something” needs to be done about public higher ed and that the only real debate left is about what should be done. I have argued that the extent to which higher education needs “something” to be done depends greatly on one’s larger perspective of history, economics, labor, and comparative education. It’s almost heretical but I do not think that “failure”, as we define it currently — on-time graduation and no interruptions in one’s course taking — understands the uniqueness of the U.S. higher education system. The flexibility of our sprawling, decentralized system actually allows “non-traditional” students frequent points of entry into higher education, making it possible for them to earn a credential, even if they do not earn it in six, ten or even twenty years. This fluidity is a rare benefit afforded the working poor in our culture and to harden the system in the name of linear progression seems to me to be the exact wrong thing to do. But that is neither here nor there today. Today, I’d like to counter the dominant narrative about for-profit higher education similarly to how I have done in other articles and how the faculty at San Jose State recently countered by asking: if for-profit ed models are the answer, what precisely is the question?

The dominant narrative, rooted in market morality – all in the pursuit of profit is right and proper – would tell us that the question is how can education better serve the needs of the labor market. That’s how you get to SB520 which is a market solution to a problem no one can prove exists as they say it exists!

Now, here’s where I”d like to pull out and tell you a different story.

I did eventually become a sociologist and as a sociologist I believe in the social as a unit of analysis. I believe in groups and patterns. Economics talks about groups but they are always imagining them as a mere collection of individuals, these roving bands of rational actors. These rational actors will make decisions within the unquestionable framework of the limits and needs of the market and those decisions will act back on systems like education. When they do not, education is broken.

Aaron talked about profit and enclosure in his talk on MOOCs and it is here that I think our talks are in conversation with one another. I have followed the trajectory of MOOCs and have marvelled at how they have so obviously learned from the uneven success of for-profit colleges that, even as their financial dominance has expanded, has not been able to wrest the mantle of legitimacy from traditional colleges. I convened a conference last year at Duke. I invited many from the for-profit sector. I was honored that several took me up on the invitation. I expected contentious debates but I was shocked to learn which debates were contentious. It was not accreditation woes or legislative challenges that fired up the for-profit leaders in the room. Instead, it was a fairly innocuous mention about credits from for-profit colleges not transferring universally into traditional college programs.

The room erupted!

One executive tossed out the term “prestige cartel” to describe the unilateral dominion of traditional colleges over the articulation process. It is a fair charge: how can traditional colleges simultaneously convict the for-profit sector for not providing institutional mobility to their students while they largely control the acceptability of credit hours earned at for-profit colleges? So, you see, I saw SB 520 here in California and laughed at its ingenuity. Rather than fight with institutions for legitimacy, MOOC owners attempted to end run them through legislative sanction. It’s really quite brilliant, if not endemic to the ideological shift that MOOCs and profit-seekers in higher education would have us make: that the authority for certifying knowledge rests not in institutions — particularly not with public institutions — but with individuals. The first step in creating a higher education “market” of a “public good”, is to shift the understanding of education from being a social good to an individual good. Markets need individuals. Markets need rational actors. MOOCs have learned.

If you’re  like me and you believe that a collection of individuals is more than just rational actors making constant cost benefit analyses then you can start to imagine a different story. In my interviews with for-profit students I try to understand the social and institutional processes that they experience as individual lives; how are they embedded in these larger constructs. They often look like me and that isn’t lost on either them or me. We sit across from each other at a table but miles away in social distance and frequently the interview is derailed as they question me about how I got here and not there; and what’s the secret. They know there is one and they are right: it’s being born lucky but who am I to tell them that luck is all we’ve been able to come with as a solution to poverty and human dignity? Time and time again my respondents tell me a story of economic insecurity, fear, and instability. They have worked for years, many younger students have seen their parents and siblings work. It was not always “good” work as we would likely imagine it but it had dignity and more importantly it existed. Just as the for-profit sector was going through its recent phase of mergers, acquisitions and corporatization that fueled the expansion we’re now in engaging our social structure was also rapidly changing. Kelleberg writes about the dissolution of good jobs – livable wages and decent working conditions. We know that there are fewer and fewer such good jobs. Internal job markets have collapsed as industry turned people into human capital and “maximized their competiveness” by hollowing out upward mobility in the labor force and reducing any corporate responsibility to workers. People experience that competition for ever scarcer resource as insecurity. And humans are not designed to live forever suspended in uncertain conditions, ever shifting underneath their feet as the dominant ideology of success and worthiness requires stable middle class respectability as a marker of decency.

So people are casting about for the means to protect themselves against that insecurity. They are looking for a way to not only afford decent housing but to buy the house in the neighborhood that feeds into the good k-12 schools that will give their own kids a better chance at a life not marred by the insecurity that keeps them up nights. They are looking for a way to be respected at work, to be respected in their communities, to locate their position in the larger social structure and to find it congruent with their ideal selves. They are looking for dignity and rest. That we have constructed the only means for achieving those things as credential hoarding can be understood as “market demand” but I would call it mass insecurity. Again, language, tools, kings and masters.

If we accept my story of profit and higher education market we get to different kinds of questions that lead to different kinds of policies. Rather than disrupting higher education because it does not serve the needs of the market we can ask the market why it does not serve the interests of human beings. Why, as corporations increasingly use their moral authority and political will to limit their tax exposure and their contribution to social institutions like k-12 schools, why is public education being refashioned to provide them the “human capital” they require to continue their abdication of the greater social good?

That’s a different question than the ones being asked right now and that’s because it’s a different kind of story. It’s a story that makes sense of not only why for-profits have expanded and why they are increasing their lobbying of political bodies but also why for-profit students are disproportionately black, Hispanic, female and first generation. Although only one in 20 students who attend degree-granting institutions attend for-profits, 1 in 10 black students, 1 in 14 Latino students, and 1 in 14 first generation college students is enrolled at a for-profit college. The shared economic and social insecurity of minorities,  women, and mothers would make their overrepresentation in for-profits make sense, yes? I mean who has more pain to respond to than poor mothers and black and brown people? And organized to respond to that social pain is an integral part of the for-profit enrollment process and organizational distinctiveness.

Now, that’s the ideological stuff, right? Let’s be practical and real. We aren’t about to upend the authority of the markets over our political system or our educational structure. I may concede that. But we can come out of our ivory towers to engage these issues. Because we have not done that well…at all. For 30 years we’ve been content to let for-profits serve people who aren’t “our kinds of students” but let me tell you something about the walls we’d build around poverty and pain? It’s always porous. You can’t wall off social and economic insecurity and treat it as tangential to your core function. All that shit – that pain that instability that insecurity that voiclessness – it always expands, always.

We can do what we do here. We can talk about it. UC does this better than we do where I’m from. But we can’t just talk to each other. We have to talk to other institutions, disciplines, people who aren’t “our kind of people”.

I think we have to accept that traditional colleges like ours have benefited from inequality. That’s biting us in the ass now because it’s being used to say we’re elitist as if we weren’t designed to do precisely what we’re doing. I mean c’mon. So let’s accept that part of our own story and say yeah we’ve got other stories too. We’ve got stories of civil unrest, courageous impolitic research that shift data that justifies different kinds of stories differently. We can still do that.

We can invite the world to see us talking about this. We can invite nutcases like me in from outside to rant about this. We can pressure our institutions to be more political. Where are we are in some of these debates? My god. White papers are one necessary way to go but we can and should do more. Where are our organizations? Do we need another conference as much as we need to fight back against the successful crusade of one nutcase senator who would defund almost all social science research: the kind that provides the data that says hey, our schools are unequal, our workplaces are gendered, we do have income inequality. Do you think we get that kind of research from the University of Phoenix or Western Governor’s University? No and they know that.

We can’t rewrite the dominant narrative but that doesn’t mean that the dominant narrative can’t be rewritten, just not by us alone. We have to engage this as central to the weaknesses of traditional higher education but those weaknesses aren’t the ones profiteers would tell us they are. We aren’t lacking in innovation or even really in access. We’re lacking in storytelling. And that’s something we can do something about.

7 thoughts on “Profit, HigherEd and Lessons on the Prestige Cartel

  1. Reblogged this on James Rovira and commented:
    Prof. Beni Balak’s thoughts on how profit is killing higher education in the U.S. Timely and important. Bottom line: “So let’s start with what for-profits are broadly. Everyone likes to tell me the joke about how “aren’t all colleges for profit; he he” Trust me I’ve heard that one. Yes, we all increasingly participate in profit seeking activities but the difference lies in what one can do with that profit: it’s the difference between profit-taking versus reinvestment.”

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