On August 22, President Obama gave a speech outlining a series of proposals designed to deal with the crisis in higher education. The contours of this crisis are painfully obvious to any parent with college-aged or near college-aged children. Both tuition and room and board costs have skyrocketed.

Tuition and Room and Board Costs (select schools)
Tuition Out of State Tuition (if applicable) Room and Board Total (tuition + room and board) [out of state + room and board]
Johns Hopkins $45,470 $13,832 $59,302
U of MD (College Park) $8,909 $27,288 $9,893 ($18,801) [$37,181]
U of MI (Ann Arbor) $13,142 $40,392 $9,996 ($26,240) [$53,490]
Howard University $11,441 $15,341 $26,782

I chose two state schools (Michigan, Maryland) one private school (Hopkins) and one historically black university (Howard). Over four years the parents of a student enrolled at the relatively inexpensive state schools (at in-state rates) can expect to pay at least $80,000. And in the case of Hopkins, parents can expect to pay a whopping $240,000. Financial aid counselors at my previous employer (Washington University in St. Louis–tuition + room and board=$52,412) used to counsel parents to take second mortgages on their homes to pay for their kids. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hopkins used to suggest the same thing, but I doubt either take this approach now given the economy. To put these costs in perspective, in my first Fall semester as an undergraduate student, University of Michigan tuition was only $2,600–and most of that was covered by grants, leaving my parents a very small bill. Multiply that by four and the total tuition costs represents around 20% of the value of a nice Detroit area middle class home.

Now? Four years of in-state tuition is almost half the cost of a middle-class home. Four years of out-of-state tuition is probably 100% of the cost of a middle class home. And unlike the eighties when a poor to middle-class parent/student could expect grants to cover a significant portion of the bill, with the severe reduction in Pell Grant resources, that parent/student can now expect to foot the entire bill.

If you believe that schools like Michigan and Hopkins shouldn’t be available to everyone, or if you believe that it is our personal responsibility (as parents or as students) to be responsible for our own education, then perhaps this isn’t a bad deal. But when you combine this data with the employment data, and the fact that loans have supplanted grants as the primary financial means, it’s clear that this puts college education far out of reach of even middle class students and parents unless someone goes into debt they cannot possibly pay back.

Obama recognizes this.

What does he suggest in response?

A draft of the proposal, obtained by The New York Times and likely to cause some consternation among colleges, shows a plan to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend. The ratings would compare colleges against their peer institutions. If the plan can win Congressional approval, the idea is to base federal financial aid to students attending the colleges partly on those rankings.

The proposal hasn’t been fully rolled out yet, but from this tidbit it reads as if Obama’s taking elements of No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top and applying it to college education. By forcing colleges to compete for federal resources based on their ability to adhere to a set of rigid cost-related metrics, Obama believes colleges will gradually bring their costs more in line with “the market”. Colleges are no different than businesses under this logic.

This is a very straightforward case of the relationship between crisis and neoliberalism. The various policies and ideas associated with neoliberalism often “naturally” become institutionalized common sense without the status quo in a given institution becoming so disrupted by the contemporary condition that “something must be done”. That “something” in this case just so happens to be a set of policies that further transforms college education into a consumptive good provided in a competitive “market” rather than a political right that is provided by the public.

We know what the end result of this policy is going to be. There are going to be very clear “winners” and very clear “losers”. Some colleges are going to be able to bring their costs in line with “the market” and in so doing still provide a good value for students. But most colleges won’t. These “losers” are going to be low-tier colleges while the “winners” are going to be high-tier colleges. Colleges generate most of the money they use to maintain and develop physical infrastructure and pay staff, administrators, and faculty from two sources–tuition and the interest from their endowment. Schools with large endowments (the winners–think Harvard and some public schools like Michigan) make enough money off of the interest to absorb whatever costs they have to incur to be “cost-competitive” according to federal metrics. Schools with small endowments (the losers–think most state schools) are going to have to make very tough cuts. This is going to reduce the quality of education in general, but particularly the quality of education Native American, Latino, and black students in general and poor-to-middle class white students receive.

Within the schools we know that certain types of workers are going to suffer more than others. We can expect the number of tenured faculty to decrease and the number of adjunct faculty to increase, reducing job security and quality in general. We can expect benefit packages in general to decrease, and a variety of jobs to be outsourced (think janitorial and cafeteria services).

We know this, because we know how Race to the Top works. We know how No Child Left Behind worked. We know how a wide variety of attempts to neoliberalize public goods turns out. But when these phenomenon come to pass they will NOT be viewed as crises worth addressing…or to the extent they are viewed as crises the President will double down on the current set of policies rather than articulate an approach that acknowledges the benefit of significant public investment in schools and in students.

(Oh. The fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington took place this past weekend. I passed.)