Talking about U.S. Higher Education in the U.S. is challenging. We have a federal system, for example, and just about every state has it own peculiar system. It’ tempting, then, to start drawing lines, just to make discussion manageable. In that sense, Senator Harkin’s recent report on for-profit education (“Senate Committee Report on For-Profit Colleges Condemns Costs and Practices“) can be forgiven for leaving out the public universities.
There are some dramatic problems with the strategy, however, insofar as the public universities can hide behind it. The more we vilify the for-profits as corporate ne’er-do-wells, the more we risk creating the false impression that the public universities are paradigms of education and service. Worse, we create the impression that there is an absolute distinction between private business practises and the practises of public universities.
We want to think that a state university is more like a group of firefighters than Apple Computer. The distinction is more figurative than real. Public universities are run on the same dysfunctional business principles that have shaped the economy at large. Harkin’s report also emphasizes that all for-profit schools depend on public money. In effect, the for-profits are public institutions; perhaps more so than many state universities.
Any public or private university has to be placed on the same (market) spectrum. Harkin’s report, then, should be seen as pointing the way towards a reform of the entire system, private or otherwise. Two areas deserve special attention, one emphasized in the report and one neglected. One problem in unregulated capitalism is that money flows towards administration and marketing (and lobbying). Harkin’s report rightly argues that this has to be curtailed.
The Affordable Care Act requires that 80% of corporate health insurance budgets is spent “on quality health care, not administrative costs … CEO salaries and marketing.” I prefer Medicare for all, but a similar rule in higher education makes sense. Let’s start with 80% and then push for 8%5 or 90% a few years later. The “marketing” program, of course, has to be defined to include university sports programs.
Harkin’s notes the high level of adjunct teachers– up to 90%- in the private sector. The private universities have accelerated a long-standing trend. As Harkin’s report emphasizes, the for profits experience in online education illustrates the importance of student support services. That, in turn, emphasizes the need for a system dominated by full-time teachers protected by tenure. We can start at 50 or 60% but our goal should be 90% full timers.
We can’t serve our students if we are always looking over our shoulders, worried that we might lose our jobs either to administrators seeking to cut costs or to disgruntled consumers, aka our students. We can’t offer the help our students need, either, help that more and more research suggests is doubly necessary in an online setting, unless our working conditions are humane. That won’t happen until we start draining the administrative pool.