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:

From the Vault February 7, 2014, 3:15 pm

John R. Tunis’s “The Olympic Games” (1928)

Is it worth carrying on with the Olympic Games?

From the December 2013 issue

Does Mailer Matter?

The Young Writer and the last literary celebrity

Six Questions May 24, 2013, 8:00 am

The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village

Anna Badkhen on life in rural Afghanistan and the friction between violence and beauty

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
Where Israel and Palestine can go from here, Washington D.C.’s enduring legacy of racial strife, Edward O. Wilson on free will, and more
Criticism
"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
Israel and Palestine·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If Israel believes it needs to make a wall eight meters high between us and them, let them have it eighty meters high. Under one condition: It has to be on the international border.”
Photograph (detail) © Ali Jadallah / APA Images / ZUMA Wire
Article
On Free Will·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Philosophers have labored for more than two thousand years to explain consciousness. Innocent of biology, however, they have for the most part gotten nowhere.”
Collage (detail) by Frederick Sommer
Post
Astra Taylor on The People’s Platform·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Taking back power and culture in the digital age
“There’s a pervasive and ill-advised faith that technology will promote competition if left to its own devices.”
Photograph © Deborah Degraffenried

Chances that an applicant to a U.S. police force in 1992 was found to be “overly aggressive” on psychological tests:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today