If U.S. higher education is in crisis, as a spate of recent books and articles would have it, then it’s a strange crisis. Outside the anti-intellectual Right, and even inside it when its writers forget themselves, we hear that advanced degrees are more important than ever. We need higher education as an escape from the increasingly unsafe safety net and the declining prospects faced by less-educated Americans. And we need it as a nationalist project to fend off economic competitors. By most accepted measures, elite universities and colleges—other than the public flagships, that is—are providing better services and a higher quality education than ever before.

But there is something deeply wrong, even in these “thriving” schools. Perhaps no word better captures it than “corporatization”—and perhaps no phenomena better represent it than the insane debt loads students are now taking on and the worsening treatment of graduate students, junior faculty, and non-faculty staff at the hands of a ballooning administrative stratum. The same trends are visible in many public schools, which also suffer from plummeting state funding, due to interrelated ideological and budgetary reasons that predate but were exacerbated by the post-crash recession. With the decline in public provision has come the rise of corporate for-profits. Recent Senate investigations reveal these schools to be even more sinister than leftists had imagined.

If crisis is just another wor...

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