The battle over St. Cloud State reveals the power of corporations over our higher education system

13 July 2023

The recent opinion piece in the Star Tribune by St. Cloud State University’s Katherine Jackson attempts to justify the draconian changes to the institution sought by university administrators to address a budget deficit. Her arguments have been advanced by corporations and foundations for decades, organizations which now tell us that higher education – not business culture or public policy – must be radically transformed.

St. Cloud State University is a public university. Public universities used to be largely publicly funded but now depend substantially on student tuition, with state revenue making up only a small portion of their budgets. What happened?

Several decades ago, corporations began a forceful assault on organized labor and moved manufacturing overseas. They used more independent contractors and made employees’ schedules unstable. They fought all taxation and pushed deregulation relentlessly. Public services were privatized. Most policy makers went along, and a new system was built solely in the interests of owners and shareholders. Predictably, economic inequality skyrocketed, while wages stagnated for a significant majority.

But because this agenda benefits so few, it was very unpopular. So, business changed the subject and blamed the education system for growing inequality.

Corporate leaders told us we had entered a so-called “knowledge economy.” Thus, the population’s grim economic prospects in our new, increasingly unequal society were the fault of educators, not corporate leaders and policy makers who built an economy for the few.

But there’s never been anything close to a knowledge economy. The labor market in Minnesota and the U.S. is dominated by low-education, low wage jobs. And the education system can never change this reality.

But because the knowledge economy became conventional wisdom, the education system was pummeled politically.  Public institutions – like St. Cloud State – gradually lost state funding. Unlike nearly all other public services, paying for increasingly expensive public higher education became the responsibility of students and their families, leading to a student loan crisis.

This is why St. Cloud State is being gutted when the state has a huge surplus – because pretty much everyone accepts the assumption of a failing higher education system, which is based on a mythical version of the economy.

In her piece, Jackson suggests we look at the “bigger picture.” I agree. Her script is written by those who profit from a model that blames education for things it can’t control and seek to profit further by imposing a centralized model of “delivering content” that narrows education, making it an assembly line in the service of shareholders.

Because online education – an idea that’s been around for a very long time – can’t be sold on the merits, Jackson makes age-old industry arguments about reaching “adult learners” and “underserved students.” This language comes from the same interests that don’t want to pay taxes, despise unions and take any measure that minimizes labor costs, including the wages of the “underserved” populations that the purveyors of online education are ostensibly so concerned about.

Neil Kraus

Online education has never taken off because education is an in-person activity. Screens can never replicate the magic that takes place in classrooms, labs, art studios and the like. This is painfully obvious to any educator or student. It’s so obvious, in fact, it goes unstated.

The lack of popular appeal of online education means that the only way it can be implemented is during a time of crisis. Enter St. Cloud State. Yet the untapped market of students yearning to take online classes is the pipedream of all pipedreams.

Do St. Cloud administrators have online degrees? Do they look to hire people with online degrees?

Colleges and universities are captured by corporate interests who want to profit from higher education’s current plight. Roughly 20 million students are enrolled in higher education. For corporate America, increasing online education is the Holy Grail.

St. Cloud State is a comprehensive, public university which should be publicly funded. It’s St. Cloud State’s job – and the job of higher education generally – to educate students as citizens in a democracy.

And democracy itself is at real risk when education is run in the service of corporate interests.

Neil Kraus is professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls and author of three books, including “The Fantasy Economy: Neoliberalism, Inequality, and the Education Reform Movement,” which will be published this fall.

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