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‘Commodification of college campuses’

The Other Side

Public universities in the U.S. are largely a relic of the past. Today, higher education is mainly a private venture, but not without consequence.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when public education gave way to the private sector, but I first noticed the shift while I was studying as an undergraduate student in the early 2000s. In 2001, I spent my first year of college at Fort Lewis, where in-state tuition and fees ran $2,521 per year. The next year, I transferred to University of Colorado Boulder, where the cost of attending was $3,206 per year. Across the next three years, tuition at CU jumped by 113%.

Today, Fort Lewis’ in-state tuition is $9,670 per year, and students at CU pay $13,624. Since 1990, tuition at CU and Fort Lewis has increased by just over 700%, which is on par with the national average. Yet, as the cost of tuition has soared over the last three decades, median wages have stagnated, thus assuring the transition of college degrees from the realm of public goods to private commodities.

But the commodification of college campuses has real consequences.

Public education correlates in a positive direction with nearly everything we care about, including equality, democracy, and physical and mental well-being. In short, as access to public education goes up, quality of life trends in the same direction. But when access to education diminishes or becomes so costly that only the elite can afford it, life tends to take a turn for the worse.

Here’s why.

In societies where higher education is privatized, intellectual autonomy begins to unravel. University campuses were designed to provide scholars with the time, space and freedom to explore new ways of thinking while mentoring the next generation of scholars, intellectuals and professionals. This is why professors are awarded tenure, which provides insulation from social and political critics, and thus, gives researchers the space they need to invent solutions to our most pressing problems.

And the system works. Things like X-rays, the internet, insulin, rocket fuel, seat belts and Pap smears were developed alongside researchers at major public universities in the U.S. Such inventions depend on public support, and the freedom to chase one theory after another, regardless of the results.

At public universities, professors drive research agendas and intellectual curiosity defines course offerings. But as education ticks private, questions of marketability take over research agendas, and the whim of students’ interests begins to play a larger role in which courses are offered, and which courses are cut. For example, more and more professors, including me and my colleagues at Fort Lewis, are instructed to teach to “industry,” while offering courses that are “popular.” The message is clear: Teach what the market demands or cease to exist.

And within an education model, where student tuition determines whether the doors remain open, such messages are merely a means of short-term survival. But in the long run, I sense that market solutions will undermine much more than college campuses – they will crack the very foundations of our nation’s democratic mores. In fact, I sense they already have.

Market-driven education has a place in our society, especially amid vocational schools, where electricians, plumbers, site managers and linemen study. But on college campuses, degrees are as much about the content you learn as the way you come to think.

For example, I aim to help students explore meaningful questions about life, while developing the skills they need to solve them. In my experience, the cultivation of genuine curiosity is equally as important as statistics, trigonometry, writing or chemistry. But in a world where markets alone drive education, free thinking is stifled, if not extinguished altogether. And in time, we will all pay the cost.

Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.