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.

Share
Single Page

More from Christopher Beha:

Commentary May 22, 2015, 1:10 pm

Part of the Problem

Jonathan Chait’s flawed attack on David Bromwich’s critique of Barack Obama’s presidency

Commentary May 4, 2015, 12:53 pm

A Legitimate Distinction

In defense of the PEN America Center’s decision to give Charlie Hebdo its Freedom of Expression Courage Award

From the February 2015 issue

How Much Damage Can It Do?

On the intellectual element in modern fiction

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2015

Dressed to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Wrong Prescription?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Travel Day

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fugue State

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One Day Less

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Avian Voices·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The mockingbird’s bath is an orgy of thrashing and writhing about. When he has finished, one of the innocents alights on the rim of the basin and looks with disbelief at the thimble of water remaining.”
Illustration by Eric Hanson
[Browsings]
Before the War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’m worried that what the Houthis did to push Yemen into a civil conflict in September 2014, the Saudis may end up doing again when they end their campaign by eliminating the Houthis.”
Photograph by Alex Potter
Article
The Speakeasy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In order to understand how Marty’s could survive as an institution, I returned a year after my first visit to spend a week at what was sure to be the world’s bleakest comedy club.”
Photograph by Mike Slack
Post
The Lost Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I had first encountered some of these volumes—A Swiftly Tilting Planet, The Giver—as a child, and during adolescence, they registered as postcards from a homeland recently abandoned.”
Photograph by the author
Article
Wrong Prescription?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whatever the slogans suggested, the A.C.A. was never meant to include everyone.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery

Estimated cost of the environmental damage caused each year by the world’s 3,000 largest companies:

$2,200,000,000,000

Two thirds of U.S. teenagers experience uncontrollable rage.

Beekeepers began extracting 1 million honeybees living beneath the siding of a house in New York State.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today