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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.

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Colleges that enroll the hardest-to-graduate students could be penalized for their students’ demographics. Nationwide, six-year graduation rates are already low—21 percent at public institutions, 51 percent at private schools. Reasons for this are legion, with money playing a prominent role. It’s well established, though, that students of color and of modest means are more likely to drop out. Punishing schools that enroll a greater share of these students, instead of providing greater supports, will compound the problem, hurting schools and students both.

Proponents of the President’s plan might retort that low-income “access” to higher education is an active ingredient in the ratings. But if K-12 education reforms are any guide, colleges will seek to maximize favorable populations before pursuing equitable recruitment. RTTT awarded points to states that added charter schools, but it specified that charters must maintain enrollments “similar to local district student populations, especially relative to high-need students.”

The first wish was granted: charter schools have proliferated wildly. Despite nods to inclusion, though, RTTT hasn’t kept charters from enrolling disproportionately few students with special needs. A recent class-action lawsuit targeted charter schools in New Orleans over uneven enrollment and harsh discipline practices for students with disabilities. In New York, charters enroll about two-thirds the district average of students with special needs. Recent studies have found that a separate stratum of charter schools can exacerbate segregation by race and class within districts.

Given the choice between graduating high proportions of low-income students and screening out needier applicants, colleges will be tempted to pursue the latter. “It’s a common phenomenon in higher education,” writes ProPublica reporter Marian Wang. “Students with less money relegated to institutions with less money.”

5) Privileging “value” in the university.

Obama used the word “value” eight times in his speech to convey his idea of what students ought to demand of higher education—value not in the sense of a moral disposition, but in the “Value Meal” sense. The ratings plan will “help students compare the value offered by colleges and encourage colleges to improve.”

But the president disregarded the staggering number of university classes taught not by tenured, tweed-clad professors but grad students and adjuncts in second-hand cardigans. A prevailing obsession with “value” in higher education would presumably hone in on instructor quality, but unlike RTTT, the administration’s new plan wastes no ink distinguishing between effective and ineffective instructors.

Teachers unions didn’t immediately sense an existential threat from RTTT’s emphases on evaluation and alternate routes to certification such as Teach for America. But in Tennessee, the first big winner of RTTT riches, cause for concern soon arose. Recent legislation has diminished teacher pay, eliminates incentives to pursue further degrees, and ties evaluations to test data.

Faculty advocates so far have been less credulous. But colleges are already veritable market-leaders in capitalizing on cheap labor and minimizing the experience required to be an instructor. Nationally, untenured or contingent faculty members teach a majority of courses in colleges and universities. According to the American Federation of Teachers, adjuncts teach 49 percent of all undergraduate classes. But this total doesn’t include graduate students, who teach 16 to 32 percent of classes at research universities.16

Even in the hallowed halls of Harvard, 57 percent of instructors are adjuncts.

The 75 percent of university instructors who aren’t tenured earn about a third of what their tenured colleagues make. So as the “ proletarianization of higher education” advances, we hear stories like that of the near-destitute, 83-year-old adjunct at Duquesne who had a heart attack on the lawn in front of her decaying house. She didn’t have health insurance, and her salary barely topped $10,000.