Let’s Stop Blaming Walmart for Everything

According to a new article at the The Hechinger Report, many academics are protesting what that see as disastrous developments in education policy.

Colleges are starting to resemble a certain multinational corporation based in Bentonville, Arkansas, apparently. Well, maybe.

As the article puts it:

To save money, more conventional classrooms are filling up with part-time faculty, often hired two or three weeks before they’re due to begin teaching, according to research by another organization, the New Faculty Majority Foundation.

“We are creating Walmarts of higher education — convenient, cheap and second-rate,” says Karen Arnold, associate professor at the Educational Leadership and Higher Education Department at Boston College.

Steven Ward, a sociology professor at Western Connecticut State University and the author of Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education, likens the new world of higher education to another American business known for its low prices. Reviving a term first used in 1983 by the sociologist George Ritzer to describe a dehumanizing drive toward efficiency and control, Ward calls it the “McDonaldization” of universities and colleges, “where you produce more things, but they’re not as good.”

Walmart

I share their concern about low quality, but Walmart is a weird metaphor. Walmart doesn’t have anything to do with what’s happening in higher education. And low prices are a good thing for students. If only college were about low prices.

Walmart’s slogan is “save money, live better,” a solution made possible due to the company’s huge economies of scale and ability to demand cheaper and cheaper products from suppliers. If Walmart is the suppliers’ largest and most important contact, Walmart can demand whatever it wants. The goods get cheaper because Walmart has eliminated competition and can force its supplies to work for less, or otherwise they’ll got out of business.

But college, of course, has been getting more and more expensive over time.

Pundits often bemoan the increasing corporatization of the American university, but in fact we had an earlier, and less capitalist, version of “save money, live better” in higher education; during the last century, when Americans could take advantage of inexpensive, high quality state schools.

Now that’s gone, not because of any Walmart-like forces, but just because of declining state support, and increasing intuitional costs, for higher education.

The trend since then has been one in which American college students pay more and more, and enjoy more luxurious facilities on campus. This might be a very bad trend, but it’s not at all what’s going on with Walmart.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer