Commentary — October 3, 2011, 9:40 am

Notes on the For-profit University Trough

Christopher R. Beha is an associate editor of Harper’s Magazine. His last article for the magazine, “Supernumerary,” appeared in the March 2011 issue. His first novel will be published next year by Tin House Books.

While researching my report on the country’s largest for-profit university, the University of Phoenix (“Leveling the Field,” October 2011), I heard a common refrain from the school’s educators and administrators: “America can’t reach Obama’s educational goals without institutions like Phoenix.” By “Obama’s goals,” they meant the administration’s aim to regain the global lead in educational attainment by 2020. About 40 percent of American adults have college degrees; Russia leads the world at 55 percent. Passing Russia within a decade would mean adding 40,000,000 new graduates to the U.S. system. Phoenix’s representatives are almost certainly right that this goal can’t be met without a robust for-profit education industry. If you accept the premise that maxing out educational attainment is the best way to rectify inequality, economic instability, and the vulnerability of America’s poor, then you must more or less accept the importance of Phoenix and its “proprietary” peers.

After looking closely at Phoenix and the demand it exists to meet, however, I came away doubting the premise. Instead, I concluded that our treatment of education as a social panacea is not only incorrect but harmful. Not long after finishing my essay, I came across Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach Our Way Out of Inequality, a new book by John Marsh, a professor of English at Penn State. Marsh’s book eloquently dismantles the notion that “we can teach and learn our way out of poverty and inequality”—an idea, Marsh points out, that took root in the Progressive Era a century ago. (Prior to then, support for public education was rarely linked with economics.) It has persisted since then, fed by statistics on the growing “college premium”—the income differential between college graduates and non-college graduates—to the point that it now seems natural to believe degree attainment is the solution to poverty and inequality.

Education does provide many individuals with a pathway out of poverty, but educating a workforce doesn’t change what jobs are available to society as a whole. As Marsh writes, our economy produces more jobs that do not require degrees than jobs that do, and “a college degree will not make those jobs pay any more than the pittance they already do.” Barring radical changes in our economy, the vast majority of those extra 40,000,000 college graduates Obama hopes to produce in the next decade will end up in jobs that don’t require degrees, and don’t pay.

However economically misguided the emphasis on education may be, it seems benign enough. But Marsh believes—as the double-entendre of his title suggests—that this relentless focus allows us to ignore entrenched class differences and the root causes of inequality in America. He argues that we have confused cause and effect: that if we instead combat poverty and inequality, great educational attainment will follow.

If Marsh is right—and I think he is—that in broad social terms good educational outcomes follow from equality and not the other way around, then the current prominence of Phoenix and other for-profit schools paints an even sadder picture than Phoenix’s critics might have thought. A society that can’t increase its roll of college graduates without sending billions of dollars in grants and loans to proprietary schools has problems that will not be fixed by the classroom.

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More from Christopher Beha:

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