GUEST LETTER: The enrollment shopping cart perfectly captures what’s wrong with the university

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It’s the holidays, and that means it's shopping season. The most important shopping decision for students, however, doesn’t involve the holidays, but the next semester and deciding what classes will occupy their time and minds for the next five months. 

You go to UAccess, and it’s right there: your “shopping cart.” With base tuition and fees for Spring 2019 ranging from about $5,925 for residents to $16,536 for non-residents, this is not an insignificant decision. In my major, journalism, resident undergraduates pay the lowest price per unit at $748 (before mandatory fees!), and non-resident graduates pay the highest at $1,781. 

It wasn’t always this way. Adjusted to 2017 prices, students at public four-year institutions paid an average of $3,190 in tuition for the entire year in 1988, according to CNBC (with prices adjusted to reflect inflation). That means in-state residents pay over three times what college costed in 1988, before program fees. At the same time, the value of an undergraduate degree is worth less than ever before (around 33 percent of college graduates are under-employed, according to NPR), and President Dr. Robert Robbins earns more than any other UA president in history, at $800,000 per year, according to the UA salary database. If that seems a little low, you’ll rest easy knowing the good doctor also receives $70,000 for housing and $10,000 for a car. The previous president, Ann Weaver Hart, who now works as a professor at UA, did not extend her contract and faced considerable controversy after serving on the board of the for-profit Devry University. She was paid her presidential salary of $670,000 until June of this year.  

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Robbins told the Arizona Daily Star last year that he’s “never been really motivated by money.” Well, Doctor, I am motivated by money — if you can describe “not drowning in debt for the entirety of my life” as motivation. So, if you would like to pay for my housing with that stipend of yours to avoid the no-good, dirty stench of money, my DMs are always open. 

This reality is brutal, but not at all surprising. Since the Reagan revolution, the whole of American public life has moved toward increased privatization. The word “deregulation” was used like an invocation, only needing an utterance to revitalize any and all economies. The best example of this was Reagan publicly firing 11,345 air traffic controllers who had the will to strike for better working conditions. The stage was set: de-collectivize and deregulate or risk being crushed. 

Fast forward to the present day university. Even though state revenues have returned to pre-recession levels, per-student spending in higher education was 16 percent lower in 2017 than 2008. Public spending on higher education has fallen 23 percent since the Great Recession. This is what Naomi Klein has described as the shock doctrine: After a disaster of capitalism, privatize. Arizona did an especially good job of this, cutting per-student spending by more than 30 percent after the financial collapse. Yet the most distilled version of the commercial attitude toward the university came not from red Arizona but from the Obama administration, when they developed a system that ranked colleges based on the best “bang for your educational buck,” according to the US Department of Education. Qualities like engaging professors, small classroom sizes, an active and diverse student body — these were all subsumed by the profit-motive. The commercialization of the university was complete.

Perhaps this is why the only feeling I get when I purchase classes by placing them in my “shopping cart” is queasiness. I have to face the realization that the dominant function of the university is making money, and I am the vehicle through which that money is created. Any idealism about what education is or does is stillborn in the very act of registering. 

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The most surprising thing, perhaps, is that I’m still surprised. Because, after all, it is no surprise that the edge where the shopping mall ends and the university begins at the UA campus has all but disappeared, and it is no surprise that since the idea of the public has been destroyed, popular student movements against tuition spikes or exorbitant administrative salaries are totally absent.

I would like to end on a theoretical note. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney note that universities share more than mere family resemblance with prisons. They write: “The university, then, is not the opposite of the prison, since they are both involved in their way with the reduction and command of the social individual.” If this seems harsh, or perhaps even histrionic, I don’t blame you. But is it any harsher or melodramatic or obnoxious than the bill at the other end of your shopping cart? Is it any more brutal and absurd than the fact that the contents of your shopping cart this term – which, if you’re like me, will burden you for years – are paying for your president’s car? 


Claude Akins is a journalism graduate student at UA who was frustrated by the idea of the enrollment shopping cart.



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