The ongoing commodification of education


You get a degree, and you get a degree, and you get a degree! Everyone gets a degree! All you have to do is show up and, incidentally, cough up for a continuously increasing tuition.

Nathaniel Bork was recently fired from his philosophy position at Aurora community college. There are two things going on here. One is that he was an adjunct, like the majority of instructors at Aurora, so he had virtually no power or authority, and was easily firable — there are damn few protections for temporary instructors, and that’s exactly the way the administrators like it.

The other problems is that those administrators on high have fewer concerns about the quality of an education, and are more concerned with the number of tuition-paying bodies shuffled through their doors, and also listen too carefully to those tuition-payers who want the guaranteed outcome of a certificate at the end of their “education”. They created some program optimistically called “Gateway to Success”, where “success” was defined as getting a degree rather than learning something.

Just days before Bork was terminated, he says, he drafted an email to the state’s Higher Learning Commission, complaining about Aurora’s new Gateway to Success initiative. The goal of the program was to increase pass rates in these gatekeeper courses but, Bork said, in reality, he’d been asked to cut 20 percent of his introductory philosophy course content; require fewer writing assignments, with a new maximum of eight pages per semester; offer small-group activities every other class session; and make works by women and minority thinkers about 30 percent of the course.

Bork said he was told to keep teaching this way until 80 percent of all student demographic groups were passing the course, which in his view violated the spirit of Colorado law on guaranteed transfer courses to a four-year institution.

I approve of the idea of insisting on more diversity in the course material — a philosophy course would benefit from having more perspectives represented. Small group activities, also fine, since philosophy students should be able to communicate with each other and share ideas. But the rest…that’s simply dumbing down the course. Only 8 written pages total per semester? My impression of philosophers is that they can produce that much text while comatose and drunk after lunch.

I’m at a university with almost no temporary faculty, and talking to them you get a completely different set of concerns. We all want to increase the amount of learning students do — I’m actually talking to my discipline this afternoon about bumping up student math exposure and focusing a little more on quantitative biology, for example. Our goal isn’t to make it easier to graduate, but to make sure our students know the material well enough to succeed in a biology career.

So maybe it’s really one problem, the reliance on faculty the administration considers expendable and a reasonable sacrifice to enrollment goals. Problem solved by giving Nathaniel Bork and his colleagues tenure track positions, instead of firing them.

That might cause some other problems, I admit. Those might be solved by state governments investing in education to a degree they deserve.


  1. cartomancer says

    Am I right in thinking a semester in an American university is a six-month period as the word’s origin would imply?

    If so… wow. Eight pages of writing in a Humanities course over half a year. Just… wow. When I was an undergraduate I was generally producing essays of that length every week.

  2. says

    A semester is typically 15 weeks of instruction, so a little shorter than you estimate. In most of my science courses, I expect a 10-15 page lab report (and sometimes 2) by the end of the semester.

    When I was studying history as an undergraduate, I had to churn out that much every two weeks. Ditto in my literature courses. I don’t understand how the profs found time to grade all that, but they did.

  3. says

    It will probably be no consolation if I tell you that this isn’t just a problem in US colleges.
    I’, the last person to go “kids these days”. They’re not the problem. The problem are the adults who raise them and create the conditions under which they grow and learn. Many of those “soft” approaches will create adults who completely overestimate their own knowledge and abilities and underestimate the consequences that will await them in real life.
    For example, we just learned that as middle and high school teachers we’re not allowed to give a student 0 points for an assignment they hand in considerably late.
    Now, giving them 0 points in a school assignment would be a soft consequence. There’s always another one, right? And they would learn that their behaviour has consequences.
    But no, we mustn’t do that. Instead we raise young people who think it’s OK to hand in things late.
    In many colleges that may lead to them failing a class, which is a hard consequence and the kid will be totally bewildered because why is the same behaviour that was OK for the last years suddenly bad?

  4. Ed Seedhouse says

    Well, why not just eliminate colleges and “high” school and channel everyone into “practical” coursed so they can serve as proper good and loyal servants to the Aristoc…, er “Rich People”.

  5. says

    As a person who use to teach introduction to philosophy I have to say the 30% requirment for women and minority authored works would be extremely hard to hit in such a way that 1) the students would like the course, 2) actually prepare the students for the discipline and 3) function at giving an overview to what philsophers actually do. The best way of doing this would be to select a major work, The Groundwork, the Republic, Leviathan, Mediatations etc. and then make sure all the commntary articles were written by women and/or POC. It’s not really possible to teach only major works (as one should) and hit that requirement in an introduction to philosophy class. Beginning students will be turned off by Anscombe’s Intention.

    I’m great with requiring at least one work by a woman and one be a minority author; but roughly a third of the class needs to fit that restriction? I’d pull my hair out to get it done.

  6. magistramarla says

    Nothing new to me. We were forced to dumb down our classes when I was teaching on the high school level. It makes sense that the dumbing down has now reached the next level of education.

  7. ck, the Irate Lump says

    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk- wrote:

    Many of those “soft” approaches will create adults who completely overestimate their own knowledge and abilities and underestimate the consequences that will await them in real life.

    Oh, yay! The participation award argument rears its head. Sorry, but I don’t buy that for an instant.

    I suggest looking at the job market instead. Any job that doesn’t involve either extremely low wages or extremely high physical labour requires a college degree. This results in plenty of would-be students going to college not because they want to get an education, but becayse they want to get a job. For example, here’s a listing for an administrative assistant job in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada that demands a college degree. What would the successful applicant use their college education for in this position? Probably nothing. It doesn’t even stipulate what kind of degree the applicant should have.

    Business started using degrees as an easy sorting method to get rid of lower/working class candidates that might require more work to educate into the position. I don’t have a fix for this, but taking away the participation awards (or marking students more harshly in school) isn’t going to fix this. Maybe you’ll get them to hand in their papers more promptly, but they’re still going to treat their education as a product because they’re paying for it like it’s a product, and businesses that hire for the jobs people want are treating it like a product.

    People who aren’t looking for a college education shouldn’t feel compelled to get a college education. There’s plenty of good reasons to get a college education, but “I need it to get job in [industry]” shouldn’t be the primary one.

  8. ck, the Irate Lump says

    And perhaps another reason why marking harshly might not have the effects desired: High school dropout rates have been declining for quite some time now. The dropout rate was 15% in 1972 (with over 1 in 3 Hispanic and over 1 in 5 Black students dropping out), and didn’t fall under 10% until 2005. As of 2014, it sits at 6.5% with substantial gains for Hispanic (down to 10.6%) and Black (7.3%) students. While I have nothing by anecdotal evidence to back this up, but I’ve heard of plenty of people who dropped out of high school because they feared they would fail the grade. It stands to reason that the dropout rates may easily spike back up by harshly grading students again.

    Them good ole days weren’t so good.

  9. imaginggeek says

    I applaud your efforts to get more math into your program – I’ve been barking up that tree for a while with little success. So many biology/biomed based careers (commercial and academic) are dependant on bioinformatics, statistics, data mining, etc, that we really are not doing our jobs if each and every bio/biomed student isn’t getting some training in these areas. If you’re successful, please post about your strategy for moving that forward.

  10. says


    Oh, yay! The participation award argument rears its head. Sorry, but I don’t buy that for an instant.

    That’s not what I’ve been saying. I was talking about students who clearly DON’T participate to the required extent. In most areas the mediocre person who works with dedication will easily outperform the theoretically outstanding person who thinks that rules are for others. Sure, there’s always somebody who wins that way, but they’re one in a million.

  11. jrkrideau says

    @ 7 ck, the Irate Lump

    For example, here’s a listing for an administrative assistant job in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada that demands a college degree.

    No it does not, it ask for a college diploma or univerity degree. I think we are running into a translation problem from Canadian English to US English

    The qualifications demanded: “A Bilingual and experienced Administrative Assistant with a college diploma or university degree. “

    In Canada we typically make a distincion between colleges that are more practical training oriented and which “usually” award a diploma and a university that awards various degrees from a batchelor of whatever up to a Ph.D.

    For an example, one may get a college diploma as an engineeering technician or technologist but one gets an engineering degree from a University.

  12. chris61 says

    @7 Just to add to @11 that a college diploma in Canada generally requires 1-2 years.

  13. ck, the Irate Lump says

    jrkrideau wrote:

    No it does not, it ask for a college diploma or univerity degree. I think we are running into a translation problem from Canadian English to US English

    Fine, but it’s still not asking for specific qualifications, but rather just proof that you’ve done something before entering the work force. A diploma as an engineering technician isn’t really useful for that position (except in the off chance that the agency posted that ad to place people at an engineering firm), but the posting makes no distinction between training that would be useful for the job versus irrelevant training.

    The fact I got some specifics wrong about the educational requirements for that job doesn’t change the fact that the employer didn’t care enough to specify which kinds of degrees or diplomas they wanted. They’re just using them as a crude filter to weed out candidates.

  14. nathanieltagg says

    Although I agree in principle about diverse viewpoints, I invite you to consider being required to present 30 percent diverse content in an intro science course. It would destroy it.

    I teach a lot of intro physics… we barely get to things discovered at the end of the 19th century (electromagnetism and optics). There are few diverse voices in there. I wish there were more! (I’m looking for resources to allow me to do more drop-in references, but it’s hard).

    But that shows the problem with prescriptive top-down programming.