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Higher Education: Capitalism At Its Most Despicable

College graduation celebrations may look much the same on the surface, but a deeper look reveals an unparalleled crisis in higher education. (Photo: Nazareth College/flickr/cc)


Rating capitalist despicability is a daunting task with Big Pharma and High Finance in the running, but Higher Ed's betrayal of a century-old trust with young Americans vaults it toward the top of the list.

Since 1862 public colleges had been expected to serve primarily as a means for the American people to achieve an inexpensive college education, and to benefit from academic research. The 1980 Bayh-Dole Act changed it all. It freed public universities from releasing new research discoveries to the public, allowing them instead to patent the results and make licensing deals with private companies. The University of California, anticipating big agri-business subsidies, took full advantage in 2013, siding with Monsanto in a lawsuit against a farmer who was accused of stealing the company's seed. The farmer lost. And universities became more deeply entrenched in the capitalist world.

There are other reasons for the continuing degradation of higher education:

The Rise of the All-Administrative University

That's the title of a 2011 book by Benjamin Ginsberg, who noted that administrators nearly doubled their numbers in twenty years while increasing their staff by 240 percent. That staff includes deanlets and deputies, provosts and vice-provosts, directors of community and communications and diversity and development, and various assistants and assistants to the assistants.

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The National Center for Education Statistics reported that "For every $1 spent on instruction, $1.82 is spent on non-instructional things such as 'academic support, student services, institutional support, public service' and a catch-all category called 'other.'"

As administrators grew at ten times the rate of tenured faculty positions, much of the redirected money has gone for amenities like recreations centers, dining halls, and athletic centers. At New York University, condos and vacation homes were part of the package for administrators and business faculty. The city areas around elite tax-exempt universities are often filled with potholes and boarded-up houses due to the lack of property tax income.

The Coming of the "All-Adjunct" University

The state of higher-ed teaching in America: Years of study by trusting young scholars who end up with academic positions that pay as much as entry-level fast food jobs.

Adjuncts made up less than 1/4 of instructional staff in 1969, but now make up over 3/4 of instructors. They make a median wage of about $2,700 per course, with little or no benefits.

Many adjunct teachers are on food stamps. Some are homeless. Yet over 90 percent of adjuncts responding to a House Democrats survey had advanced degrees.


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Tuition Shock: 12 Times More Than Your Parents Paid

We older Americans can remember working summer jobs to pay our tuition.

Tuition has increased by over 1,000 percent since 1978 as revenue-deprived states have slashed higher education funding. The Consumer Price Index, according to The Economist, went from 100 to 400 since 1978, while tuition went from 100 to 1200.

Today's Jobs: Food Stamps on the Side

We older Americans can also remember graduating debt-free into our choice of jobs.

Today's hard-working students come out of college with tens of thousands in loans, unskilled jobs, garnished wages, and no legal way to declare bankruptcy.

Older, established, and largely white male America has taken the greater part of our nation's wealth while scamming college kids with dreams of success in an unregulated high-tech sharing economy. Especially cheated are Black and Hispanic graduates, who have actually seen their wealth fall faster than less-educated Blacks and Hispanics.

But the reality is that almost half of recent college graduates are underemployed, working at the level of high-school graduates, after taking a 19 percent pay cut in the two years after the recession.

College Sports as Modern Minstrel Shows

According to a 2013 University of Pennsylvania study, Black men were less than 3% of full-time undergrad students from 2007 to 2010, but made up 57% of football teams and 64% of basketball teams. A University of Washington Law Review had concluded a few years earlier that the athlete-university relationship is "not primarily academic, but is, instead, undeniably commercial." Yet the National Labor Relations Board just ruled against Northwestern University football players who demanded union representation.

Meanwhile the big universities rake in the money, largely tax-free, from broadcast rights, luxury suites, seat donations, and advertising, and even more money from taxpayers in the form of stadium subsidies. All the hundreds of millions of dollars have allowed universities to increase head football coach salaries at a rate 20 times that of college professors.

Winner-take-all capitalism has taken over higher education. The winners are in the administrative offices.

Paul Buchheit

Paul Buchheit

screen_shot_2017-01-23_at_8.39.57_am.pngPaul Buchheit is an advocate for social and economic justice, and the author of numerous papers on economic inequality and cognitive science. He was recently named one of 300 Living Peace and Justice Leaders and Models. He is the author of "Disposable Americans: Extreme Capitalism and the Case for a Guaranteed Income" (2017). Contact email: paul (at)

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