When School is a Factory

David Trend

For 20 years, I have been teaching large arts and humanities general education courses at the University of California, Irvine. These 400-student classes are part of the undergraduate “breadth requirements” common in most colleges and universities, and hence draw enrollments from across the academic disciplines. At UC Irvine, this means that most of the class comprises science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors. Aside from an orientation to more practical fields, I’ve noticed a clear shift in student attitudes in recent years –– a heightened preoccupation with grades and rankings, combined with growing anxieties about future earnings. Many of my colleagues see this as well, often disparaging students more concerned with GPA metrics than learning itself, while increasingly behaving more like consumers of educational commodities. I take a more sanguine view.

Bear in mind that many of today’s college students grew up during the Great Recession, when families of all incomes had money worries. With scant knowledge of a world before 9/11, it’s little wonder that polls show millennials expecting lower earnings than their parents, seeing the United States on a downward spiral, and believing the two-party system as fatally flawed.[i] Rising income inequality doesn’t help matters, especially at UC Irvine where 6 in 10 students get financial aid and half are the first in their families earning a college degree.[ii] Because of this, Irvine has been cited by the New York Times as the country’s leading “upward mobility engine” –– making the campus a national model of what public higher education can do.[iii] But it’s still not a cake-walk for degree seekers. As at most public universities in America, the majority of Irvine’s full-time students also work at jobs to make ends meet.[iv]

Higher education translates into higher wages.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, people with four-year degrees earn roughly twice that of high school graduates.[v]  Given these financial pressures, it’s no surprise that college education is seen as a commodity. Almost all of the students I encounter are serious, hardworking, and focused. They want rational outcomes, high grades, and clear metrics.  Most of all, they are driven to succeed –– in a nation where struggle is expected and competition has been called the “state religion.” In the minds of many there is a Darwinian inevitability to contest in life, so much so that it is often seen as a natural instinct. This is manifest in a culture valorizing personal achievement, aggression, and America First –– values reinforced in the ideologies of business, entertainment, celebrity, sports, and militarism.

But educators have long observed that competition can be dangerous when pushed too far –– for the simple reason that a system producing “winners” always yields a larger pool of “losers.” Alfie Kohn wrote in his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Why We Lose our Race to Win) that Americans are caught in a vicious circle in which individual anxieties and structural conditions reinforce each other. Children are conditioned for a world of presumed scarcity, based on the following contradictory ontology: “If I must defeat you in order to get what I want, then what I want must be scarce,” Kohn stated, explaining that when “competition sets itself as the goal, which is to win, scarcity is therefore created out of nothing.”[vi]

Kohn argues that the real lesson instilled by competition is personal inadequacy. Wins tend to be short-lived moments of self-satisfaction derived from external evaluation, implying that one’s character rises in proportion to number of those beaten. The transitory character of such winning means that any gain is fragile and contingent on the outcome of the next contest, setting off a repeating cycle, until one ultimately fails. The external character of the evaluation also can make young people feel they are not in control of happens to them, as researcher Carole Ames has noted. Ironically, the very sense of autonomy that competition purports to instill is diminished by the anxieties that go along with it.  Feelings of agency can become weakened even among successful students, but it takes a greater toll on those who fail. This tends to produce lower achievement in both groups, along with a plethora of esteem-related problems.[vii]

Internalized competition is but one side of the equation. For the better part of a decade, professors and students alike have bemoaned the growing “corporatization” of universities, as bottom line administrative thinking has encroached on high-minded idealism. Complaints have come from across the U.S. about skyrocketing tuitions, huge lecture courses, and growing numbers of low-wage occasional lecturers. Exacerbated by recessionary belt-tightening, a new philosophy taken over higher education––with numbers and budgets increasingly driving curriculum and research priorities. Humanities departments shrink as business programs grow, partly in response to student career worries. All of this has paralleled a continuing movement toward “accountability” in public education––with K-12 teachers finding themselves obliged to “teach-to-the-test” or risk losing their jobs. Competition for grades in science and math has superseded such “frills” as art education for most of the nation’s kids.

“When Universities Try to Behave like Business, Education Suffers,” read a recent headline in the Los Angeles Times.[viii] “For most of U.S. history, it was understood that universities, whether public or private, operated under a model distinct from business,” the paper reported. But a shift took place in the 1980s and 1990s, as American culture became enthralled with marketplace values. “Until then, the private sector wasn’t the model for the public sector,” the Times reported, adding, “Now the prestige of the private sectors requires imitation by the private sectors.”  Students seem to be losing out in this new environment. “They’re not only saddled with an increasing share of the direct costs of their education,” the Times stated, “but are offered a narrower curriculum as universities cut back on supposedly unprofitable humanities and social science courses in favor of science, engineering and technology programs expected to attract profitable grants and the prospects of great riches from patentable inventions.”

The effect of corporatization on academic labor has been devastating. In 1975, over 70 percent of instruction was done by full-time professors –– experts in their fields and committed to careers as professors. Today that ratio has reversed –– with 70 percent of teaching delivered by adjunct faculty (non-tenure track) –– with minimal experience, no job security, and often less commitment to the institution itself. Most adjunct instructors work multiple jobs to subsist –– with over 50 percent earning less than $35,000 per year and 80 percent getting no health insurance.[ix] Universities increasingly see adjunct teaching as a less valued enterprise than the highly compensated “research” mission of full-time faculty.  This isn’t just bad news for job-hungry young PhDs and MFAs. A recent study from the University of Southern California has shown that “students who take more classes from contingent faculty have lower graduation rates and are less likely to transfer” from two-year to four-year institutions.[x] Forbes Magazine similarly reported that, “such faculty are less student-centered in their teaching, have less contact with students outside of class, and spend less time preparing for classes.”[xi]

Instructional declines and labor abuses are but a few symptoms of university corporatization. And this problematic trend is hardly a secret. Recently, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) –– the nation’s largest organization of college educators –– published an analysis of the shift from higher education as a “public investment” to the rising “private enterprise” model. “These changes reflect the neoliberal faith that free markets would restore productivity,” the document stated.[xii]  But the AAUP asserts that privatization has had the opposite effect. With rising costs and narrowing academic options, colleges and universities have seen a steady decline in student applications –– even though the overall population of high school graduates has grown. Pressures to avoid debt and to begin earning are some of the reasons, with low-income students attending traditional colleges at 10 percent lower rates than a decade ago.[xiii]

Concerns about corporatized higher education go back a century, evidenced in Thorstein Veblen’s 1917 The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men. Even then, professors across country worried about eroding educational values and a tightening of bureaucratic management.  Veblen saw universities losing their status as a protected preserves for “the cultivation and care of the community’s highest aspirations and ideals,” operating in the “apprehension of what is right and good,” and “controlled by no consideration of expediency beyond its own work.” With an eerie prescience, Veblen warned of the incursion of a rising business rationality in which “the men of affairs have taken over the direction of the pursuit of knowledge” while effecting a “surveillance of the academic work exercised through control of the budget.” [xiv]

Corporatization intensified with the creative destruction of the 1970s and 1980s. No less a publication than Time Magazine expressed concern over this in a feature entitled “How Universities Turned into Corporations.” Time described this as a period when “policymakers began to view higher education more as a private good (benefiting individual students) then as a public good (helping the nation prosper by creating better educated citizens).” [xv] Others would join in noting the social consequences of this shift. In his well-known 1977 Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, Paul Willis documented how education came to reproduce class stratification rather than equalization. Examining vocational “tracking” in Britain, Learning to Labour drew comparisons between school and the workplace, likening teachers to job supervisors who paid students with grades rather than money. “There is no obvious physical coercion” in such a disciplinary model, but rather what appears to be a “degree of self-direction,” Willis wrote.[xvi] Not that the students were oblivious to any of this, with many opting to push back. One of Learning to Labour’s key insights was its documentation of what later would be termed student “resistance,” often manifest in oppositional attitudes, disengagement, and even intentional failure at school.

For his book School is a Factory, Alan Sekula went into California community colleges, interviewing and photographing students in vocational training programs. Accompanying one set of images, Sekula wrote:

Three welding students pose for a portrait. They hope to graduate into jobs with metal fabrication shops in the area. Their instructors act like bosses, supervising the action from a glassed-in office. This apprenticeship program, like public education on generally, is supported by taxes that fall heavily on working people and only lightly on corporations. Spared the cost of on-the-job training, local industry profits from the arrangement. Social planners also like the idea that vocational courses keep unemployed young people off the streets and dampen discontent.[xvii]

As a former Creative Arts dean at one of California’s leading community colleges, I don’t mind admitting that what Sekula wrote certainly is partly true. But such public two-year schools also serve other purposes. For many low-income students, community colleges offer a viable entry-point into higher education, especially if they intend later transfer to a four-year school –– which four in ten of students indeed do. The problem is with the remaining 60 percent –– often underprepared by prior schooling and not able to afford further study even at state-funded universities –– who see vocational programs or immediate work as their only options. [xviii]

The educational stakes are only rising in today’s “knowledge economy” –– an expression referencing both the decline in traditional manufacturing jobs and the rising role of expertise in a competitive job market. As with any highly-desired consumer product, laws of supply-and-demand are putting new pressures on knowledge and pushing prices up. A recent report from the Council of State Governments entitled “America’s Knowledge Economy,” urgently warned public officials that “short-term” tendencies to reduce education funding only cripple “long-term” economic growth and prosperity.[xix] The business press is beginning to voice similar concerns. “Education costs have soared over the past few decades leaving many potential students out in the cold,” stated Forbes Magazine. [xx]Citing statics from the College Board, Forbes reported that costs of higher education have risen an average of 5.2 percent every year since 1994 –– or more than double the rate of inflation.  Annual tuition and fees for in-state students at a public university now stands at $39,508, with out-of-state students paying $97,690, By comparison, private universities cost an average of $135,010. Add the costs of housing, books, and supplies and the price tag is even higher.

Student debt has become the new normal –– in keeping with changing attitudes toward credit itself. Generations ago, the idea of being in debt or “falling behind with bills” was seen as a moral or social ill. But things have changed with the rise of consumer credit and the aggressive marketing of companies like Visa and MasterCard. Breaking national records every year for the past two decades, total indebtedness for higher education now stands at $1.31 trillion. Outstanding loans have more than doubled since 2009 according to Bloomberg News, observing that, “No form of household debt has increased by as much since then.”[xxi] And the toll of the loans is terrifying––with one quarter of those owing now in default or at least 90 days late on their required payments. Making matters worse, student loans have been excluded from bankruptcy protection since 1998 –– thus condemning the current generation to a lifelong obligation unknown to their parents. Obama administration financial experts worried about the long term consequences of this, predicting that the loans could soon slow the U.S. economy. Even President Trump has likened the debt to an “anchor” holding down young Americans –– although his administration continues cutting federal programs to help student borrowers. Low-income students suffer the most –– as they enter the workforce with less freedom to choose employment and more pressure to look for the biggest paycheck.

As schools have gotten costlier, pressures have grown to get the best value. Last year, UCLA broke national records for undergraduate applications, with over 124,000 students seeking admission for a freshman class of 9,200 –– translating to a 7.2 % rate. Similar (but less extreme) patterns are occurring across the country, pushing selectivity at prestigious public universities closer to Ivy league schools like Cornell (12.5% acceptance rate), Dartmouth (10.4%), and Yale (6.9%).[xxii] Students begin shopping for colleges as early as junior high, while struggling to optimize their chances through advanced classes and extracurricular activities. Nearly 50 percent of students see a high school counselor due to stress over this, according the American Psychological Association.[xxiii] “Burn-out before college” is a rising phenomenon.

Meanwhile, business has boomed for SAT and ACT prep courses –– much to the consternation of testing services.   College Board President David Coleman thinks companies that offer SAT prep services are “predators who prey on the anxieties of parents and children and provide no real educational benefit.”[xxiv] Education experts have long argued that test prep providers exist not only because such high-stakes testing has failed students and colleges. They say the SAT and ACT provide poor measures of real academic achievement ––and actually indicate nothing more clearly than family income. The two largest prep course providers, Kaplan and Princeton Review, charge $699 for a basic course, although some families pay as much as $1,000 per hour for private tutors or free-lance college admission consultants. All of this has further stratified the college admissions process, while piling on costs before students even leave home.

In a relatively recent shift, students unsuccessful in the application process increasingly now choose for-profit colleges or vocational training programs, which, at least in theory, extend democratic access to education with enrollment limited only by one’s willingness to pay. Nationwide chains like Heald College, Devry University, and University of Phoenix promote themselves as guaranteed career pathways, often appealing to students hungry for jobs as office assistants or technical workers. According to U.S. News & World Report, such schools account for 42 percent of postsecondary enrollment growth in the past decade, despite two huge drawbacks: “For-profits are expensive,” costing and average $15,130 per year as opposed to $3,264 at community colleges and $8,893 at four-year public state colleges. “For-profit graduates struggle to find employment,” finding work at 22 percent less than conventional colleges, and they default on loans at higher rates due the combination of greater borrowing and lower employment. [xxv] Also, these commercialized colleges market themselves heavily to vulnerable populations, particularly the economically disadvantaged. Veterans with government education stipends also are targeted frequently. At the height of their popularity in 2010, for-profits gobbled up one quarter of federal financial aid –– for a total of $32-billion.[xxvi]

The predatory practices of for-profits now seem to be backfiring. In recent years, investigations by the federal officials and States Attorneys Generals have revealed unscrupulous business practices by for-profit colleges (particularly those that are run by large, publicly-traded companies), for what the National Association for College Admissions and Counselling calls “deceptive, aggressive and manipulative tactics to enroll as many students as possible, without regard for their potential for success or ability to afford tuition, in an effort to maximize profits.”[xxvii] In 2015, three of the nation’s largest for-profit chains –– Career Education Corporation, Education Management Corporation, and Corinthian Colleges –– announced the shut downs of dozens of campuses, as the University of Phoenix reported a 50 percent drop in enrollments.[xxviii] The following year, for-profit giant ITT Technical closed all of its 137 schools in 39 states following federal charges of fraud related to student recruitment, enrollment, dropout rates, grade inflation, loans, and reported job placement.[xxix]

Put all of this together and it’s easy to see why my UC Irvine students are a little on edge. College degrees are now more expensive, competitive, and keyed to earnings than at any point in American history –– so much so that many young people are buckling under the pressure. Universities seem unable to do very much to help because they themselves are a big part of the problem. Hence, amid an ever-tightening web of “financialized subjectivity,” the current generation finds itself bound by the logic of capital within the very institutions of higher education that might be instilling values of humanistic wisdom and unbounded inquiry. Neoliberal culture promises them freedom and upward mobility, while supplanting other ways of looking at knowledge, work, or life itself. None of this bodes well for the current generation of college age young people, much less the climate of experiment, risk-taking, and “creativity” so vital to innovation and new ideas.

[i] Samantha Smith, “Millennials less confident about nations’ future, but so were their parents, grandparents when young,” Pew Research Center(Feb. 16, 2016) http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/16/millennials-less-confident-about-nations-future-but-so-were-their-parents-grandparents-when-young/ (accessed Apr. 5, 2017).

[ii] “UC Irvine Praised for Student support,” Orange County Register (Mar. 29, 2016) http://www.ocregister.com/articles/students-709861-uci-schools.html (accessed Apr. 5, 2017).

[iii] David Leonard, “California’s Upward Mobility machine,” New York Times (Sep. 16, 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/17/upshot/californias-university-system-an-upward-mobility-machine.html  (accessed Apr. 5, 2017).

[iv] Stacy Rapcon, “More college students are working while studying,” CNBC.com (Oct. 29, 2015) http://www.cnbc.com/2015/10/29/more-college-students-are-working-while-studying.html (accessed Apr. 5, 2017)

[v] “How Much More of College Graduates Earn than Non-College Graduates?” Study.com (2017) http://study.com/articles/How_Much_More_Do_College_Graduates_Earn_Than_Non-College_Graduates.html (Accessed Apr. 5, 2017).

[vi] Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Why We Lose our Race to Win) (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1986) p. 4.

[vii] Carole Ames, “Children’s Achievement Attributions and Self-Reinforcement: Effects of Self-Concept and Competitive Reward Structure,”Journal of Educational Psychology 70 (1978).

[viii] Michael Hiltzik, “When universities try to behave like business, education suffers,” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 3, 2016) http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-university-business-20160602-snap-story.html (accessed Apr. 14, 2017).

[ix] Dan Edmunds, “Nearly three-quarters of American professors are contingent faculty. That’s a problem for students,” Forbes Magazine (May 28, 2015) https://www.forbes.com/sites/noodleeducation/2015/05/28/more-than-half-of-college-faculty-are-adjuncts-should-you-care/#6efb36f41600 (accessed Apr. 13, 2017).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] David Schultz, “The Rise and Coming Demise of the Corporate University,” AAUP (Sep. 15, 2016) https://www.aaup.org/article/rise-and-coming-demise-corporate-university#.V89ErWVltlo (accessed Sep. 6, 2016).

[xiii] Alai Wong, “Where are All the High-School Grads Going” The Atlantic (Jan. 11, 2016) http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/where-are-all-the-high-school-grads-going/423285/  (accessed Sep. 5, 2016).

[xiv] Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (1917) (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2015) pp. 75, 88.

[xv] Andrew Rossi, “How American Universities Turned into Corporations,” Time (May 21, 2014) http://time.com/108311/how-american-universities-are-ripping-off-your-education/ (accessed Apr. 18, 2017).

[xvi] Paul Willis, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (New York; Columbia, 1977) p. 1.

[xvii] Alan Sekula, School is a Factory (Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, 1983) p. 2013.

[xviii] Grace Chen, “Will Community College Tuition Increases Outpace Inflation Rates?” Community College Review (Aug. 26, 2016) https://www.communitycollegereview.com/blog/will-community-college-tuition-increases-outpace-inflation-rates (accessed Apr. 6, 2017).

[xix] “America’s Knowledge Economy: A State-by-State Review,” Council of State Governments  (2017) http://www.csg.org/programs/knowledgeeconomy/Elsevier_Report_2015.pdf (accessed Apr. 14, 2017).

[xx] Mike Patton, “The Cost of College: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” Forbes Magazine (Nov. 19, 2015) https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikepatton/2015/11/19/the-cost-of-college-yesterday-today-and-tomorrow/#51708786060c (accessed Apr. 9, 2017).

[xxi] Shaien Nasirpour, “President Trump has called student debt an ‘anchor’ weighting down young Americans.” Bloomberg News (Feb. 17, 2017) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-02-17/student-debt-in-america-has-hit-a-new-record (accessed Apr. 9. 2017).

[xxii] Abby Jackson, “Ivy League admission letters just went out––here are the acceptance rates for the class of 2021,” Business Insider (Apr. 1, 2018) http://www.businessinsider.com/ivy-league-harvard-yale-princeton-acceptance-rates-class-of-2021-2017-3  (accessed Apr. 22, 2018).

[xxiii] Samantha Olsen, “High School Students Are Stressed Out about College: the Reality of Burning Out Before College,
Medical Daily (Aug. 12, 2015) http://www.medicaldaily.com/high-school-students-are-stressed-out-about-college-admissions-reality-burning-out-347476 (accessed Apr. 22, 2017).

[xxiv] James S. Murphy, “The SAT-Prep Industry Isn’t Going Anywhere,” The Atlantic (Mar. 4, 2014) https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/03/the-sat-prep-industry-isnt-going-anywhere/284430/ (accessed Apr. 9, 2017).

[xxv] Susannah Snider, “3 Must-Know Facts About For-Profit Colleges, Student Debt,” U.S. News & World Report (Oct. 1, 2014) http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/2014/10/01/3-facts-for-students-to-know-about-for-profit-colleges-and-student-debt (accessed Sep. 6, 2016).

[xxvi] Patricia Cohen, “ITT Educational Services Closes Campuses,” New York Times (Sep. 6, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/07/business/itt-educational-services-closes-its-campuses.html?_r=0 (accessed Sept. 8, 2016).

[xxvii] “For-Profit Colleges, National Association for College Admissions and Counseling (2015) http://www.nacacnet.org/issues-action/LegislativeNews/Pages/For-Profit-Colleges.aspx (accessed Sep. 5, 2016)

[xxviii] Paul Fain, “Vanishing Profit, and Campuses,” Inside Higher Education (May 7, 2015) https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/05/07/profit-chains-announce-new-wave-closures-and-sell-offs (accessed Sept. 7, 2016).

[xxix] “ITT Educational Services Closes Campuses.”

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