Money for Nothing

Reporting on comments by New Jersey governor Chris Christie in Iowa on Thursday, Casey Quinlan writes: “Christie said students shouldn’t expect to receive a degree that will significantly improve their earnings for nothing.” Christie also said:

But it’s also the story of how our system is supposed to work – a system where we all need to take personal responsibility to grasp the opportunities of higher education, but also one where we can get a leg up when we need it.

There’s obviously a bit of confusion here, in how Christie (and many American politicians, these days) view the process of education. They have internalized the idea that there is nothing more than a transaction involved in education but also argue that it is something one has to take advantage of on one’s own. Yet they always return to the idea of education as simply an investment:

Christie also mentioned income share agreements, which allow students to essentially issue stock in themselves. It allows people to invest in college students, or to “own human capital contracts,” which means that an investor could pay a portion of the student’s tuition to attend college in exchange for that student giving the investor a certain percentage of their income for so many years.

Christie and so many others have unquestioningly accepted the idea of education as simply another free-market commodity, something one can buy or sell–the vision that led to Corinthian Colleges or the Axact corporation, both of which preyed on naive individuals hoping that they could buy an education and, by extension, a profitable career.

This acceptance, as anyone who has actually worked in education knows, is as inaccurate as it is pernicious. When students, as does happen, tell their instructors that they deserve grades of A because they are paying the tuition themselves, we should hear the alarm. When students take out loans because they believe a particular degree is going to augment their earnings, we should disabuse them of the idea that it is the degree, not the effort, that leads to success.

Education is not a commercial transaction but a personal process of knowledge acquisition through directed inquiry and supported work. Until we get back to this, front and center, in our national discussions of education, we are going to continue to see nonsense such as Christie’s suggestion and fraud such as that so often perpetuated by “for profit” institutions of higher education.


“2.9.11ChrisChristieTownHallByLuigiNovi10” by Luigi Novi. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

11 thoughts on “Money for Nothing

  1. I think if American students and their parents fully “internalized” the idea that a college education is not ” an investment” but rather “a personal process of knowledge acquisition through directed inquiry and supported work,” many of them might well decide (for many different but still valid and sensible reasons) that going to college is not as important and necessary as everyone says and thinks it is.

    Indeed, college faculty may want to be careful for what they wish for here. If American students and their parents began taking such a radical view, and actually began acting on it, traditional college applications would start dropping; marginal schools would start failing; trade schools would start being recognized as sensible alternatives for large numbers of high school graduates; and increasing numbers of traditionally-trained college professors (including many tenured professors) would start finding themselves out of a job.

    The answer, of course, is that a college education is BOTH an “investment” and a “process.” (And it doesn’t sound to me like Governor Christie is confused about that at all.)

    Whether college faculty members like it or not, their institutions (like all other human institutions) are, in the end, subject to market forces, even if many of them find that distasteful.

  2. An education is not an investment in the free-market sense–and should not be so seen. That’s my point.

    The idea that everything must be “subject to market forces” is simply another neoliberal myth. Certainly, there’s no necessity there. Other models can be both effective and sustainable..

    Certainly, we don’t need all education to be of the sort traditionally envisioned for our colleges and universities but I don’t think anyone really says it is universally necessary.

        • Sorry, but you don’t get to accuse me of something I didn’t do.

          What “new conditions” have I added (or “redefined”) in our exchange?

          (Don’t feel you need to respond, though. I can already sense I’m wasting my time here.)

          • The lyceum is nothing if not proven sustainable (its influence continues to be significant, several thousand years later, and more). You are changing the meaning, narrowing it to reflect only a physical location.

          • You’re right – when the stars are aligned and the right ingredients come together, what happens on college and university campuses today can indeed rise to the level of what happened at the Lyceum thousands of years ago. I’m not arguing about that.

            I believe what is causing us to talk past one another in this exchange is that when I say educational institutions (like all human institutions) are subject to market forces, you’re hearing “educational institutions are only about commercial transactions” and “education is simply a commodity that is bought and sold in order to make money.”

            I said neither of those things, and neither did Governor Christie.

            Educational institutions at their best – whether for “profit” or “non-profit” – are (and should be) about trying to replicate and extend what happened in the Lyceum. But that doesn’t change the fact that they will also always be subject to market forces as they move forward in time (i.e., they will always be subject to keeping themselves sufficiently economically attractive to the society that supports them) so that they can keep paying their bills and continue as “going concerns.”

            (In other words, even for the Lyceum, there is no such thing as a free lunch.)

            And that means there is nothing wrong with reasonable people proposing new funding, support, and structural mechanisms that might help ensure that “the Lyceum” will survive and persist into the future.

            That’s all Governor Christie was trying to do – and you seem to want to crucify him for it.

  3. Again, there is no reason that educational institutions should be subject to market forces. That’s the acceptance of the myth of the market that has become pervasive over the past quarter century but it is not a necessity. And the implication of what Christie said is most certainly that, at heart, education is a commodity.

    For most of their existence in Western societies, educational institutions have not had to keep themselves “economically attractive” and there is no fundamental or necessary reason we should be fostering the conceit that they should. Making funding the centerpiece of education, in fact, undermines sustainability–all one needs to do is look at the shifts in corporate dominance (and even existence) to see that sustainability itself is no centerpiece of the marketplace.

    Also, the impact of the continual quest for funding is such that it undermines the quest for “the lyceum.” It becomes, instead, the quest for money… which is what has happened to us, even if you cannot see it.

  4. I don’t know what you mean by “the myth of the market.”

    Are you arguing that markets don’t exist? (Which would be strange,since the evidence is everywhere that they do.)

    Or are you arguing that markets don’t “need” to exist – that there are other ways to organize things that will work just fine -.e.g., let the state control and run everything – and that’s how we can have a gloriously free and unencumbered Lyceum that doesn’t have to worry about its economic attractiveness or sustainability.

    If that’s what you have in mind, you might want to read the interview with the president of Hillsdale College in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, which provides all kinds of interesting perspectives on what it takes to preserve the Lyceum.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.