The Rise and Demise of Neo-Liberal University: The Collapsing Business Plan of American Higher Education

The dominant business model for American higher education has collapsed, taking with it the financial integrity, academic quality, access, and independence that college and universities once enjoyed.


Since the end of World War II two business models have defined the operations of American higher education.  The first was the Dewey model that lasted until the 1970s. The second, a corporate model, flourished until the economic crash in 2008.  What the new business model for higher education will be is uncertain, but from the ashes of the status quo we see emerging one that returns to an era before World War II when only the affluent could afford college and access was limited to the privileged few.

Model I:  The Dewey University

The first post-World War II business model began with the return of military veterans after 1945 and it lasted though the matriculation of the Baby Boomers from college in the 1970s.  This was a model that produced an ever expanding number of colleges for a growing population seeking to secure a college degree.  It was a model that coincided with the height of the Cold War where public funding for state schools was regarded as part of an important effort to achieve technological and political supremacy over communism.  It also represented the expansion of more and more middle and working class students entering college.  This was higher education’s greatest moment.  It was the democraticization of college, made possible by expansion of inexpensive public universities, generous grants and scholarships, and low interest loans.


Public institutions were key to this model.  They were public in the sense that they received most if not all of their money either from tax dollars to subsidize tuition and costs or federal money in terms of research grants for faculty.  The business model then was simply-public tax dollars, federal aid, and an expanding population of often first generation students attending public institutions at low tuition in state institutions.  Let us call this the Dewey business model, named after John Dewey, whose theories on education emphasized the democratic functions of education, seeking to inculcate citizenship values though schools.

Model II: The Corporate University

Yet the Dewey model began to collapse in middle of the 1970s.  Perhaps it was the retrenchment of the SUNY and CUNY systems in New York under Governor Hugh Carey in 1976 that began the end of the democratic university.   What caused its retrenchment was the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

The fiscal crisis of the 1970s was born of numerous problems.  Inflationary pressures caused by Vietnam and the energy embargoes of the 1970s, and recessionary forces from relative declines in American economic productivity produced significant economic shocks, including to the public sector where many state and local governments edged toward bankruptcy.

Efforts to relieve declining corporate profits and productivity initiated efforts to restructure the economy, including cutting back on government services.   The response, first in England under Margaret Thatcher and then in the United States under Ronald Reagan, was an effort to retrench the state by a package that included decreases in government expenditures for social welfare programs, cutbacks on business regulations, resistance to labor rights, and tax cuts.  Collectively these proposals are referred to as Neo-liberalism and their aim was to restore profitability and autonomy to free markets with the belief that unfettered by the government that would restore productivity.

Neo-liberalism had a major impact on higher education. First beginning under President Carter and then more so under Ronald Reagan, the federal and state governments cut taxes and public expenditures.  The combination of the two meant a halt to the Dewey business model as support for public institutions decreased and federal money dried up.

From a high in the 1960s and early 70s when states and the federal government provided generous funding to expand their public systems to educate the Baby Boomers, state universities now receive only a small percentage of their money from the government.  As I pointed out in my  2005 Logos “The Corporate University in American Society” article in 1991, 74% of the funding for public universities came from states, in 2004; it was down to 64%, with state systems in Illinois, Michigan and Virginia down to 25%, 18%, and 8% respectively.  Since then, the percentages have shrunk even more, rendering state universities public institutions more in name than in funding.

Higher education under Neo-liberalism needed a new business model and it found it in the corporate university.  The corporate university is one where colleges increasingly use corporate structures and management styles to run the university.  This includes abandoning the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) shared governance model where faculty had an equal voice in the running of the school, including over curriculum, selection of department chairs, deans, and presidents, and determination of many of the other policies affecting the academy.  The corporate university replaced the shared governance model with one more typical of a business corporation.

For the corporate university, many decisions, including increasingly those affecting curriculum, are determined by a top-down pyramid style of authority.  University administration often composed not of typical academics but those with business or corporate backgrounds had pre-empted many of the decisions faculty used to make.  Under a corporate model, the trustees, increasingly composed of more business leaders than before, select, often with minimal input from the faculty, the president who, in turn, again with minimal or no faculty voice, select the deans, department heads, and other administrative personnel.

The corporate university took control of the curriculum in several ways in order to generate revenue.  The new business model found its most powerful income stream in profession education. Professional education, such as in public or business administration, or law school, became the cash cow of colleges and universities.  This was especially true with MBA programs.  Universities, including traditional ones that once only offered undergraduate programs, saw that there was an appetite for MBA programs.  The number of these programs rapidly expanded with high-priced tuition.  They were sold to applicants that the price would more than be made up in terms of future income earnings by graduates.

This business model thus used tuition from graduate professional programs to finance the rest of the university.  Students either were able to secure government or market loans or those from their educational institution to finance their training. Further, the business model relied heavily upon attracting foreign students, returning older Baby Boom students in need of additional credentials, and recent graduates part of the Baby Boomlet seeking professional degrees as a short-circuit to advancement.

This model accelerated with the emergence of the Internet, on-line classes, and was especially perfected with the propriety for-profit schools.  In the case of the expansion of on-line programs over the Web or internet, a specialist designs the curriculum for courses, sells it to the school, and then the university hires adjuncts to deliver the canned class.  Here, the costs of offering a class are reduced, the potential size of the classes are maximized, and if and when the curriculum needs to be changed to reflect new market needs or preferences, it is simple to accomplish.  Traditional schools, seeing this model flourish, began emulating it, expanding on-line programs, often with minimal investments in faculty.

A second way higher education became corporatized was in the increased funding streams from corporations.  These funding streams became necessary as a result of decreased public support funding for higher education.  One way schools have become more dependent upon private funding is simply by turning to corporate donors either to contribute directing to them, or by way of naming, that is, giving private corporations the right to donate in exchange for naming some part of a school after them.   For example, in recent years many business schools have adopted famous names of companies in return for donations or sponsorships.

Overall, the new business model relied heavily upon the expansion of pricey professional programs sold to traditional and non-traditional students who financed their education with student loans.  This model took off with the Internet, and was facilitated by a management structure and partnering that drew higher education into closer collaboration and dependence upon corporate America.

The Collapse of the Corporate University

The corporate business model worked-until 2008-when it died along with the Neo-Liberal economic policies that had nourished it since the late 1970s.  The global economic collapse produced even more pressures on the government to shrink educational expenditures.  But the high and persistent unemployment also yielded something not previously seen-the decline of students seeking more education.  The decline came for two major reasons.  First, Baby Boomer were aging out into retirement, no longer needing educational training.  With that, the Baby Boomlet had run its peak, with the American pool of potential students rapidly decreasingly.  In effect, the demand for education had dropped.

Second, traditionally MBA and other professional degrees flourished in tough economic times as individuals used their unemployment as the opportunity to get retrained.  But since 2008 that has not happened, in part because of the persistent high unemployment and rise of consumer debt.

Unlike previous post World War II recessions, the most recent one has dramatically wipe out the wealth of consumers-some $13 trillion in wealth was lost-and consumer debt has skyrocketed.  Student loan debt has also ballooned and is now greater than personal consumer debt-$829 billion compared to $826 billion as of early 2012, with estimates that it will soon top $1 trillion. The average student loan debt for a graduate of the class of 2010 exceeds $25,000.  In effect, potential students are tapped out-they have no money to finance further education, they see that companies are not hiring, and overall, find little incentive to debt finance for jobs that may not exist. The result?  A crash in applications to graduate professional programs including MBA and law schools.  From 2009 to 2010, MBA and law school applications declined by 10% for full time programs.

The corporate business model has crashed.  Even  such mainstream publications as the Economist in its August 4, 2012 issue noted the collapse of this old model. It was a bubble that burst much like the real estate one that burst in 2008.  But in actually, it was a model waiting to burst.  The corporate business model functioned as education Ponzi scheme.  Higher education paid for programs by raked in dollars from rapidly expanding professional programs and selling degrees on the promise that the high tuition costs would be worth it to students.  But as all Ponzi schemes go, they soon collapse and that is what higher education is now experiencing.

The Next Business Model?

But what is the next business model?  In a foreseeable era of high unemployment, decreasing public funding for education, and persistent consumer debt, significant retrenchment will occur along a few models.  For one, a few elite universities will continue to exist, serving elites who can afford to pay the privilege of attending them.  This model negates the democratic function of higher education that existed since World War II.

Second, expect significant collapse and merger of weaker institutions as they seek to find ways to complete for a dwindling student population and resources.  This model decreases access to higher education as the range of college and university choices decrease.

Third, while many for-profit institutions may not be able to withstand market pressures, look to see many traditional colleges and universities will have no choice but to emulate that management style.  It may not be a viable business model but given economic pressures for the future, that may be the only one that exists, rewarding a few schools that are able to provide a curriculum that is cheap enough that students want to attend. In effect, the new business model is a hyper-extension of the current model.  This may mean even more alliance with corporate America along with curriculum pressures that further de-emphasize traditional liberal arts studies in place of professional education.  One sign of that already is the movement to take professional degrees such as MBAs and now offer BBAs instead.

Fourth, the education market is ripe for non-traditional suppliers.  For example, media companies such as the Discovery Channel and Disney see delivering educational materials as an extension of their brand.  They are able to combine the power of the television and media presence with textbooks and educational materials and deliver a package of services that few if any traditional let alone for-profit schools can.  With an intense and loyal viewer-consumer, it makes sense of them to now leverage that relationship into one that taps into the student-education market.  This neo-liberal solution simply opens up education to even more exploitation and profiteering.  Look to see down the line one of the major media companies purchase a Walden or Capella University.

Likely business models for higher education are not good.  They threaten to erode the strengths that American higher education enjoyed for years, while at the same time not articulating a plan that is financially sustainable.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1