President Selma Botman evoked a metaphor that made my stomach churn.

It was on the evening of March 7, at a public forum on unemployment sponsored by various Maine labor unions and USM’s Economics Department.

Possibly mistaking the gathering of elderly union organizers and young leftists as “job-creating” capitalists, her brief opening speech enthusiastically lauded USM’s commitment to connecting students with jobs. “USM is a pipeline, which delivers students to employers,” she said.

I was left picturing my friends and fellow classmates sucked up a slimy sewer pipe leading to an office cubicle in some drab, Wall Street firm.

As it turns out, the pipeline ideology goes deeper than Botman’s uninspiring speech. The imagery is actually borrowed from Mike Wing, USM director of external programs. Wing’s quote shows up in a Portland Press Herald op-ed piece written by Botman on Feb. 20.

“We are helping to build a pipeline of human capital for tomorrow’s high-skilled jobs,” he wrote. Although a seemingly innocuous piece of corporate jargon, the attitude underscores the problem with higher education in America, and at USM. There has been much conversation recently about the University of Maine System’s “budget shortfall.”  We have been told that revenues fail to match expenditures and are encouraged to accept the obvious economic antidote to the problem: the chopping block.

My concern here is that no one has examined the bigger picture or questioned the economic and political forces at work within the context of higher education in the United States. The recent system budget trouble is only a tiny sliver of a much bigger problem.

The truth is that public universities are gradually being destroyed in favor of corporatized, student debt factories with shiny buildings and highly paid CEOs who know how to market a particular image. The knowledge commons of the academy is quickly surrendering to neoliberal models that value profit margins over intellectual pursuits.

While administrators aim to transform students into “human capital” and intellectual commons into a “pipeline,” the reality is that students are graduating to low wage service sector jobs and a lifetime of debt.

Furthermore, decreased state and federal support for higher education erodes the college dream for lower income students with each passing year. We have little choice but to take on massive amounts of unsubsidized debt, keeping mega financial institutions smiling. What happened here?

In Bad Education, an essay in the communique “Generation of Debt,” Malcolm Harris explores the institutional priority shift in public and private universities alike. He notes the exponential increase in the amount of debt current students take on compared to the benefits of the degree they may attain. While tuition at American colleges has risen 900 percent since 1978, far outpacing the rate of inflation, wages for recent graduates have fallen and unemployment has skyrocketed. “The result,” Harris writes, “is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.”

Now, for those of us who value the acquisition of knowledge over obsolete notions of career preparation, this might not be a large enough deterrent for us to opt-out of college. However, Harris goes on to note that the increase in tuition over the past several decades has little to do with the quality of education offered. In fact, the ratio of underpaid graduate adjunct professors to tenured professors now stands at three to one, a complete reversal from 40 years ago.

While the money going towards educators has diminished, head administrators are now pulling down large sums of money at many universities, due to market pressures demanding that they attract students, the consumers of university products and services. Within this corporatized view of education, administrators must focus on grandiose projects (second floor of the library, anyone?) to win those tuition dollars.

“If tuition has increased astronomically…[and] if the market value of a degree has dipped and the most students can no longer afford to enjoy college as a period of intellectual adventure,” Harris writes, “…higher education, for-profit or not, has increasingly become a scam.”

Fortunately, we are nowhere near the draconian tuition hikes of the University of California, where rates have gone up as high as 32 percent in the past three years alone. The tuition freeze is still in place at USM, but for how much longer? When tuition hikes do come, will we demand a more equitable model of higher education that creates critical thinkers instead of “human capital”? The choice is ours.

Jacob Lowry is a junior English major.


  1. Well written Jacob! I’m concerned about the state of my alma mater, and the wider state of “higher” education….

  2. As a recent graduate, I have noticed the influx of mindless liberalism in the academy and its affects on national malaise. Generally, students enter college because they think it’s required of them either by their parents or by society to obtain a secure financial future. Some end up learning a great deal, and a far greater amount end up working just hard enough to maintain a B/C+ average. Stringent professors with Ph.D’s from Stanford and the likes either rip them apart and the kids whine because they can’t make a coherent argument or write a legible essay, or the professors succumb to the indolence of their students. They graduate and expect the world on a platter because they earned a BA and wrote a mediocre paper on Marx (or substitute Burke if you think I’m accusing the academy of being predominantly Marxist, which it is, and so am I) or did a 20 page seminar paper in a psychology class.

    WAKE UP.

    People are blindly walking into BA programs without ambition and/or grandiose expectations. They think that because they’re majoring in psychology that they’ll get a job somewhere in the field. Realize, MILLIONS MAJOR IN THIS FIELD. The availability of FAFSA and the declining expectation of students, especially at state schools, has devalued the BA, and students are leaving college with ABSOLUTELY NO SKILLS. And don’t get me started on the humanities grads. I am one of them. I majored in philosophy, and I knew what I was getting into. I didn’t do undergrad to get a job. I knew I would be leaving with no professional skills whatsoever. Kids think they can just ask the government for a loan and expect people to hire them out of college. It just doesn’t work that way. I wish they would stop complaining and realize that they could have majored in a profitable field, like science. The truth is 99% of American students don’t really care about education and will never care enough to go onto graduate programs in skilled fields like medicine, chemistry, computer science, etc. For once I want to see students take ownership of their undergrad decisions instead of blaming it on ‘the system’. You are the 99% because you act like the 99%. In the fall I will be entering a funded graduate program and it’s because I worked hard and diligently on my research, and I am passionate about it. The reason people aren’t getting decent jobs is because they don’t know how the system works. All they see is a simple 3 step program: Go to College, graduate college, get job. No creativity whatsoever.

    • I feel like maybe you didn’t read this article. The problems layed out are the increase in tuition vs. benifit of education and the change in priorities from academic to administrative. Are most students sleeping through their BA’s? Sure, most people in this world are sleeping through everything. Do we deserve everything on a silver platter? No.

      That said, we don’t need to be focusing all our recourses on marketing and administration. People come to USM because they want low tuition, they want to stay in Maine, or their parents are paying and want one of the two. Yes there are exceptions, but most of their students fall into these catagories and no amount of marketing is going to help enough to justify the shift in idiology raises of the magnitude we’ve seen.
      If anyone is human capitol, it’s the professors whose knowledge is literally being traded for tuition, and yet they are in no where near the position they were years ago.

      If you’re lucky, you didn’t get convinced by overpaid marketing teams and sleazy finincial aid reps to take out a stupid amount of money when you were 18, but perhaps you were. Can you honestly say that everyone should know what they are doing at 18? Can you tell me that I don’t have the same right to screw up as the company that loaned me money, got into the same debt problem I did (Sallie Mae) and was bailed out by my tax money?  There are so many interconnected problems here it’s amazing and we cant pretend that the advantage is on the side of the people. So, yeah, better planning, more dedication, but also perhaps a bit of education of the masses as to what to expect before they are thrown to the wolves.

      Oh, and lastly, most Phd’s in this country don’t land jobs, neither do Law degrees. I hope you’re not getting a Humanities grad degree, or at least that it’s from one of the top 30 schools in the country, ’cause studies show if it’s not, you’re gonna be one of those teachers who are having their money diverted toward marketing assistans and other such things. PhD or BA degrees in non-humanites lead mostly to massivly underpaid jobs. USM puts a serious aount of time into Social Work and Business, and neither of those feilds get you a decent job upon graduation with either a masters or a BA, nor do they educate you about anything other than middle management. Humanities majors do better statistically on grad school testing and further education and, so far as I can tell, are the most well rounded overall. Too bad they were stupid and went to school for something to expand their horizons instead of investing in their human capitol.

      • You just missed the point. I don’t have anything against humanities grads, remember, I am one. But when they graduate and whine about how they can’t get a job and then areas because they ‘test well’ and are so ‘well rounded’ and think they deserve better employment, they are simply wrong. I read the article and realize the issue is rising cost of tuition and administrative attitude, but this should force the critically thinking student to confront higher education with a different attitude now. We are adults and are capable of making informed decisions. Oh, my doctorate is in neuroscience, I did a post bac which I think is a great opportunity for humanities grads.

      •  As an anecdote, The most morose figure I’ve read on Ph.D job placements are around 60/40, in favor of doctorates. So ‘most’ is just not true. Also, it’s stilly to bank on a Ph.D unless it’s from a top 10 institution (forget top 30, it’s so much more competitive than that). Look at the track record for top ten schools and you’ll see it’s a sound investment of your time (I say time because 99% of ph.d programs at top ten schools are fully funded and you make more in stipends than you would on 13/hour 40/hr week at a regular job).

        Still, the way universities have become cash cows speaks to the naivete of the American people. You need to blame both participants of the commercial exchange equally. Only once the American people begin to realize that they are being duped or are not approaching education properly can they begin to make the system work to their advantage.

      • Josh, If you think that USM puts a “serious amount of time” into the social work program, you are sadly mistaken. The program is vastly underfunded and understaffed. They can’t get approval to hire more faculty, but are instead told to just increase course sizes, which are bursting at the seams! Their graduates are getting jobs upon graduation, right here in Maine. The problem is that it is a social service career, so it takes decades to make any “real” money, and today’s students expect great pay to be handed to them. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way!

  3. Dear Jacob,

    I am just a little appalled by your attitude. Selma Botman’s focus on moving the university to graduate employable people has to be lauded not maligned. Mike Wing is working hard to find opportunities for students to get exposed to the work environment and to build a foundation for future employement. If participating in a process where income and hopefully wealth is earned is so “stomach churning” to you, why do you not go straight to the line of unemployed without saddling yourself and society with additional debt? Obviously there are many more opportunities beside the slimy sewer pipe leading to wallstreet – but you don’t mention that. I, for my part do not want to see my tax dollars spent on students “studying” whatever they please, without any regard to whether they will be able to earn back the investment. To project entitlement thing and look for others to pick up the tab is just plain wrong and not affordable. The same entitlement seems to be present factulty who think when they are tenured they are “made” and henceforth can do as they please. Sorry, I am not buying! Wake up and face reality! That said, I gladly would support investing more if I could see that ist results in more employable graduates.  

  4. “the reality is that students are graduating to low wage service sector jobs and a lifetime of debt”

    Anyone with initiative, resourcefulness and common sense can succeed with or without the degree. All higher ed should take a hard look at the quality vs cost of their institution from the students’ perspectives.

    But in contrast to Jacob here, “human capital” is synonymous with “critical thinkers” in the realm of education and employment. Critical thinkers are the primary human capital that businesses are looking for and willing to pay well for.

    The crime centers on the people in your lives who either set low expectations for you or accepted that you had set low expectations for yourself. Too many students have been given the idea that they can coast through education and still get a good job on the other side. Well that’s just B.S.

    A student should NOT undertake a debt-ridden education until they have a specific objective for which they will sacrifice much in order to achieve. There is nothing condtructive about going to 4 yours plus of college if you don’t know why you are there.


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