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6 Ways Neoliberal Education Reform May Be Destroying a College Near You

Higher ed is on the verge of falling victim to the same neoliberal ideology as K-12.

This past August at the State University of New York, Buffalo, President Obama made a familiar offer: “major new reforms,” this time in higher education, “that will shake up the current system.” The New York Times described it as a plan “to shame universities into holding down prices.”

Obama’s remarks were an overture to what will become a major campaign to transform higher education through three measures: instituting a ratings system and performance funding for federal student aid; encouraging technological innovation and competition; and mitigating student debt.

If the plan sounds familiar, it’s because they've played this tune before.

Obama’s college initiative borrows its mindset and policy measures largely from Race to the Top (RTTT), the 2010 federal education bill in which states competed for grants available to those that implemented several reforms: linking standardized test results with rewards and sanctions for teachers and schools, enacting Common Core academic standards, raising state charter school limits, and generally revamping huge swaths of their school systems.

Like RTTT, the plan relies on a set of neoliberal beliefs about the economic role of educational institutions and the compliant nature of those who attend and staff them. This ideology has blossomed in policy circles. Even in 2011 Bill Gates was wondering, “Is there any criteria under which state funding would favor those that have the higher graduation rates over the ones that don't?”

But as Obama seeks to bring this perks-and-penalties model into higher education, RTTT’s detractors are multiplying. A devastating recent analysis by policy group Bigger, Broader Approach to Education concluded, “At a basic level, there is a disconnect between factors that drive achievement gaps and the policy tools RTTT promotes to close them.”

Still, Congress is warming up for another whack at the Higher Education Act, and its current proposals seem molded from the same clay as RTTT. The combination of punitive accountability measures, fledgling technological ventures and deregulation stands poised to alter higher education as drastically it has K-12 education. Yet their affinities have yet to be teased out.

Here are six ways neoliberal education reform is creeping onto the college landscape.

1) Misdiagnosing the root problems.

While peddling the massive reforms of Race to the Top, the administration convinced America of an ailment called “failing schools.” Arne Duncan warned that our students were “treading water” in international assessments. He lamented, “Too many administrators are unwilling to close failing schools.” At the center of this morass were “ ineffective teachers,” coddled by tenure and free from all accountability.

Mismanagement and poor teaching do exist, but the performance of US students is less a function of poor schools than unprecedented poverty. Analyses of international test data show that the one-in-five American students raised in poverty depress our otherwise admirable test scores. The OECD’s most recent report noted, “Socio-economic disadvantage translates more directly into poor educational performance in the United States than in other countries.” The fault lines of inequality and poverty define the landscape of educational achievement.

These inequalities pervade higher education as well. A charmed sliver of the undergraduate population attends elite colleges and graduates at passable rates. Meanwhile, masses of students attend middling schools, graduate occasionally, and struggle to turn their degrees into gainful employment.

Tuition has risen at twice the rate of inflation while undergraduate instruction has become the province of adjunct professors and grad students. Student debt averaging $35,000 shackles the typical college graduate.

To be sure, something is rotten in the state of higher education. But cost is the symptom, not the disease. Obama sells his plan largely on the premise that tuition costs have risen beyond reasonable limits, so colleges need to be rapped on the knuckles to mitigate them. But why exactly have costs risen?