Public vs. Private Good: How Neoliberalism has Changed the Role of Higher Education and Created Issues of Access

During the past year, I have participated in several classes that have caused me to take a step back and think about my own framing assumptions and how they influence how I see the world generally and subjects in my area of study specifically.  In my subject domain, Higher Education Administration, we often discuss concerns related to the access, affordability, accountability, and quality of higher education in the United States.  So, as I watched President Barack Obama deliver his 2015 State of the Union Address recently, I found it interesting that he outlined several new initiatives related to these challenges.  For example, he proposed a program aimed at lowering the cost of a community college education to zero, while noting that 40% of students who attend college choose a public two-year institution to do so.  President Obama argued that his plan would provide an opportunity for many more Americans to obtain a post-secondary degree, making them ready for the new economy (Obama, 2015).  This proposal would help address the central issues of ensuring that higher education remains broadly accessible and affordable.  However, one might ask, will the Republican controlled Congress buy into this idea?

For its part, the Republican Party calls for alternatives to traditional four-year college education, such as expanding community colleges, technical schools, and online programs as ways to educate and train workers for the job market (Republican National Committee, 2012).  So, with both political parties indicating they wish to increase access to college-level education, why are public higher education administrators struggling to make such opportunities available?  There is no single answer to this question.  However, the roots of the problem lie in the evolution of higher education and its relationship to the neoliberal public philosophy now dominant in the United States.

Evolution of Higher Education Access

Colleges and universities in the United States began as a way for churches to educate ministers with a liberal education focused on classical languages, ethics, metaphysics, natural philosophy or sciences, and some general world knowledge.  While there was some influence from state governments after the American Revolution, higher education institutions remained predominately private in character as the new nation began.  This view of colleges as a privately provided private good prevailed well into the 19th century (Geiger, 2005; St. John, Daun-Barnett, & Moronski-Chapman, 2013).

As the American Civil War raged, Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, offering federal property to each state to establish colleges to teach agriculture and engineering along with “scientific and classical studies and including military tactics” (“Morrill Land Grant,” 1862).  Congress agreed to the statute to create universities to allow a broader portion of the population to gain access to higher education.  The law embodied the idea that colleges constitute a public good for society.  Following the Civil War and between Reconstruction and the 1920s, higher education changed significantly with the emergence of women’s and junior colleges and urban service-oriented universities.  During this time, too, high school graduation became an entrance requirement for admission to college and academic disciplines began taking their modern form (Geiger, 2005; St. John, Daun-Barnett, & Moronski-Chapman, 2013).

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or GI bill, provided support for returning World War II veterans to attend college at taxpayer expense.  Thereafter, higher education came truly to be seen as a public good to benefit society.  Individuals who had served in the war and conflicts thereafter flooded colleges and universities, including emergent community colleges, into the early 1970s (Geiger, 2005).  Overall, it may be argued that from the time of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 into the 1970s, access to higher education steadily increased because of federal programs.  However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the dominant paradigm of the United States began to shift to neoliberalism and that focus changed our collective vision of the appropriate role of higher education in society once more.


Neoliberalism is a perspective on the appropriate relationship between politics and economics in society.  Scholars associated with the University of Chicago first offered this argument (Brown, 2003), which rests on four principal assumptions: (a) a belief in the self-interested individual, (b) free market economics, (c) a commitment to laissez-faire economics, and (d) staunch support of free trade.  Assuming individuals are self-interested implies that they are driven disproportionately by pursuit of their economic interests and are the best judge of their needs.  Free market economics refers to the idea that the market is a more efficient and morally superior mechanism for social choice-making and for allocating resources than any other mechanism available in society, including democratic politics.  Since, in this view, the free market is self-regulating and influences individual behavior more effectively than democratic decision-making can, proponents of neoliberalism are also committed to limiting the role of government in individuals’ lives while simultaneously enlarging the role of the market in them.  The last assumption is tied to a commitment to free trade that abolishes state protections and supports for the economy (Olssen & Peters, 2005) 

Neoliberalism and Higher Education  

In the 1960s, California possessed one of the most successful and widely respected systems of higher education in the world.  Nonetheless, when elected in 1966, Governor Ronald Reagan (R) contended that it was time that the state’s taxpayers stop subsidizing higher education.  Reagan took five steps to change the California higher education system based on his ideological beliefs.  The governor sought:

  • An end to free tuition for state college and university students
  • 20% annual “across-the-board cuts in higher education funding” for multiple years
  • Deep reductions in “construction funds for state campuses
  • The firing of Clark Kerr, the popular President of the University of California system.
  • Overall, to contend that it was not the taxpayer’s place to subsidize student “intellectual curiosity” (Clabaugh, 2004).

Prior to Reagan’s ideologically rooted attack on public support for higher education, most students had majored in arts or sciences (Geiger, 2005).  By the time Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, however, and in keeping with the assumptions he brought to his governorship, business had become the most popular major for students.  Additionally, other professional and pre-professional programs had become quite fashionable because of neoliberalism’s utilitarian emphasis on college as a place to prepare students for the job market (Berrett, 2015; Geiger, 2005; St. John, Daun-Barnett, & Moronski-Chapman, 2013).

Higher education in the United States today is firmly rooted in the neoliberal paradigm that Reagan first pressed in California.  Most citizens now view college principally as a private good and responsibility, and as a means to provide workers to meet the perceived requirements of the current market place.  This orientation influences many aspects of the university, ranging from the academic programs offered to the services provided to students.  Today, for example, we see an increase in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Health (STEM-H) programs.  Both political parties have emphasized these STEM-H fields as national priorities for higher education because officials in both perceive the current economy of the United States as requiring individuals with preparation in these fields.

With consistent cuts in state higher education budgets during the last three decades, public colleges and universities now must compete with each other and other institutions for students’ business since they are increasingly tuition-driven enterprises.  Students and parents are now “customers” in all aspects of the process of higher education because it is now largely their responsibility to pay for the primary share of its full cost using their own funds or student loans or grants.  To compete for these students, universities now provide upscale residence halls with individual bedrooms and baths.  Colleges and universities have also built top-notch campus wellness centers with Olympic-size pools. Rock-climbing walls, too, have become a normal feature on college campuses.  Dining options have moved from the traditional cafeteria with few selections to multiple facilities with choices ranging from international cuisine to meals that include locally sourced fruits and vegetables.  Universities have moved in this direction because their consumer/students have demanded it and as a way to distinguish themselves from other institutions in their “market place.”  Since students and their families have demanded these services, costs have consequently risen dramatically at institutions of higher education.  The combination of decreasing public financial support, competition through service provision and labor costs for a highly specialized workforce is making the price of college rise for enrollees.  One marked result of these trends is that it is increasingly difficult for students from less well-off families to obtain a four-year degree at public colleges.

Implications for the Character of Higher Education & Access to It 

Neoliberal policies have changed the face of higher education during the past 40 years.  The increase in STEM-H majors on college campuses has caused many policymakers and even some university administrators to question the role of the liberal arts.  With rising student demand for STEM-H and other majors perceived to be “employment producing fields,” fueled by neoliberal assumptions, some institutions have cut budgets for their liberal arts programs while others, primarily traditional liberal arts colleges, have been forced to reevaluate their missions and provide more programs perceived to be market-preparing,” or risk failing.  Overall, the continuing neoliberal focus on preparing students for the current job market and the steady real decline of state appropriations for higher education, coupled with a relative decrease in federal financial aid in the form of grants and an increase in student loans, has led to a return to a widely accepted social definition of higher education as a private good.

This shift in perceived purpose matters because it represents not only a fundamental change in how education is perceived popularly, but also a move toward redefining its character to a more technical and job training role, rather than as an engine for the development and dissemination of knowledge more broadly.  Obviously, employers need workers with the specific skills necessary to fill a share of their positions.  However, the characteristics they repeatedly tell university placement professionals they most desire in university graduates are critical thinking skills, analytical capacities, the ability to work in teams, and the capability to communicate both verbally and in written form.  Ironically, as it happens, these capacities are not simply technical in character and are best learned through a liberal arts education and not via curricula geared to equip students with the latest technical knowledge of software applications or use of existing technologies.

Higher education’s move in the citizenry’s consciousness from its position as a public good to a private one means that those who can afford college and those students who have a strong academic preparation in their K-12 schools will most likely be successful in obtaining a two-year or baccalaureate degree.  Meanwhile, students who rely on financial aid programs will be still more likely in coming years to be shut out of universities simply because in the supposed “free market” they may not be able to afford to attend them.  So one vexing question now facing the nation collectively is whether we should persist in our devotion to neoliberalism, the motive cause of these difficult trends. Assuming that a shift in our celebration of the market does not occur in the near tem, another concern is how to balance the neoliberal mindset’s negative implications for higher education access against the need to ensure that students from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds have the chance to attend college so they can move into the middle class.  Barring a change in our culture’s collective devotion to neoliberal premises and its emphasis on the technical and the present in lieu of student preparation for varying roles and the longer-term, another question confronting voters, legislators and higher education leaders alike is how to ensure that all students, irrespective of their economic status, can continue to gain the benefits of liberal arts curricula as incubators of citizenship and professional capacities. 


Berrett, D. (2015, January 26). The day the purpose of college changed. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Brown, W. (2003). Neo-liberalism and the end of liberal democracy. Theory & Event, 7(1).doi:10.1353/tae.2003.0020

Clabaugh, G.K. (2004). The educational legacy of Ronald Reagan. Retrieved from

Geiger, R. L. (2005). The ten generations of American higher education. In Berdahl, R.O., Altback, P.G., Gumport, P.J. (Eds.), Higher education in the twenty-first century, (38-70). Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, 7 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. (1862)

Obama, B. H. (2015, January 15). State of the union address [Video file]. Retrieved from

Olssen, M. & Peters, M.A. (2005). Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: From the free market to knowledge capitalism. Journal of Education Policy, 20(3), 313-345. doi: 10.1080/02680930500108718

Republic National Committee (2012). Republican platform: We believe in America. Retrieved from

St. John, E. P., Daun-Barnett, N., & Moronski-Chapman, K.M. (2013). Public policy and higher education: Reframing strategies for preparation, access, and college success. New York: Routledge.


Davidson Profile Pic (2)Chris Davidson is a doctoral student in Virginia Tech’s Higher Education program.  His research interests include academic capitalism, emergency and crisis management, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and due process, governance, leadership, and policy in higher education.  He holds a B.S. in History and Social Sciences and a M.S. in Counseling and Human Development from Radford University.  Before coming to Virginia Tech, Chris worked at the University of South Carolina in the Division of Student Affairs and Academic Support.

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