Love Song for a Neoliberal University: StarbucksU

The May edition of The Atlantic has a long article on the first batch of students to go to StarbucksU (I wrote about it for CNN last May, troubled by the notion of employment-based education). Overall, it’s a solid article in terms of reporting and structure. It tells the stories of people struggling to finish college. Starbucks comes off pretty well here, trying to do its part while getting good PR and not spending too much money. So far, about 1500 people have enrolled, and some will undoubtedly finish, and good for them.

And yet, the article has a kind of casual anti-intellectual and pro-corporate voice. In short, it’s an advertisement for the neoliberal university.

Here’s an example.

We assume that people drop out of college because of the cost. But that’s only part of the explanation. Listen closely to former students, and you’ll hear them tell stories about bureaucracies losing their paperwork, classes running out of spots, nonsensical tuition bills, and transcript offices that don’t take credit cards. The customer service is atrocious.

Simply put, many Americans fail to finish college, because many colleges are not designed to be finished. They are designed to enroll students, yes. They are built to garner research funds and accrue status through rankings and the scholarly articles published by faculty. But those things have little to do with making sure students leave prepared to thrive in the modern economy.

Notice the slash at scholarship. Here’s another.

“Arizona State still relies upon many standard college practices, and some faculty members remain more focused on winning grants and publishing than on teaching. But over the past decade, the university’s leadership has gotten unusually creative about circumventing these models and finding new ways to reach students.”

Those damn faculty members who want to do research. They are the problem, not a bureaucratizing corporate system that extracts wealth from students in exchange for the lowest possible standard of education that for-profits like ASU Online can provide. Yes, there are lots of problems with our system. Yes, I think the ways in which our prestige economy rewards research over teaching is an issue. But I am quite sure that faculty members pursuing grants is not what’s threatening higher education in America today.

Moreover, the forces driving the kind of quantitative assessment of scholarly productivity, where all that counts is what can be counted, are the same forces that create massive over-bureacratization, the for-profit wings of ASU, drive college costs ever higher, and otherwise contribute to a world in which StarbucksU looks like a solution. It may be, but it’s coming out of the same world that created the problems in the first place.

But no fear, the university is creative.

“ASU Online is a profit venture,” said Goldrick-Rab. “And basically, these two businesses have gotten together and created a monopoly on college ventures for Starbucks employees.”

  • For example, ASU spent last December trying to exploit its NTT faculty even more by preemptively raising their teaching load to 5:5, though they backed off a bit under pressure
Creative! You think you’re getting an ASU education, but what you really get are Pearson functionaries and incredibly overworked instructors. Welcome to the future of Neoliberal University.
This article speaks to a number of problems, but I want to focus on this one. We, as a profession, have failed to explain (and keep explaining and keep explaining) why having professors who do research matters. We need to work on that, and by we, I mean everyone, especially people who do more specialized research than I do. 
In the meantime, we have this

Since Starbucks announced the program in June, 20,000 people who have applied online for jobs at the company have cited the college benefit as a reason for their interest. One barista I interviewed had quit her office job in Dallas and taken a $4-an-hour pay cut to attend college for free through Starbucks. The company does not have data yet on whether employee retention has increased, but so far, it has spent very little and received significant PR and HR returns.

That’s a failure of our national system, and something I wrote about for CNN in my piece. When we make college contingent on employment with a certain company, as we do now with healthcare, we limit mobility, we limit choice, we limit career development, we limit risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit.

So, the challenges are clear.

  1. Articulate why specialized research is not in opposition to good teaching, but is in fact complementary.
  2. Resist linking college to employment (in the way that linking healthcare to employment has been a disaster).
  3. Continue to fight the development of a two-tier college education model, in which elites get access to individuals and ideas, thus being prepared for tomorrow’s jobs, while everyone else is offered training only for yesterday’s.

2 Replies to “Love Song for a Neoliberal University: StarbucksU”

  1. Anonymous says:

    From my experience as an undergraduate in the Florida public university system, your article seems to be spot on. The ideology of neoliberalism is creeping into every sector of higher education. The state uses some new "performance metrics" that determine funding for schools based on measures like graduation rates, incomes of graduates that stay in florida, percentage of STEM graduates. The school I attend actually does pretty well in national rankings because we have a high percentage of alumni that attend graduate schools or get high paying jobs, but since they mostly go out of state, we are classified as a low performing school by the state's logic.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Here are some of ASU's goals as a university, from the president's own webpage (
    – Attain national standing in academic quality for each college and school (top 5-10% for each college)
    – Become the leading university academically (faculty, discovery, research, creativity) in at least one department or school within each college/school
    – Enhance research competitiveness to more than $700 million in annual research expenditures

    President Crow has gone on record saying "The community is more important than faculty," and "Students are more important than faculty." But the economic model is built on *faculty* working to achieve national academic standing and bringing in those research dollars.

    As a faculty member who has been recognized for both outstanding research and teaching, I know that excellence in both endeavors is hard work. But excellence in one endeavor feeds the other. My best research work has been inspired by questions I knew my students wanted answered.

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