Crowdsourcing Austerity

New York University has found a way to make budget cuts and worker exploitation appear like "innovations" from below.

When New York University welcomes its class of 2020 next month, students will find the school in the midst of significant change. John Sexton, who served as president since 2002, retired at the beginning of this year.

His successor, Andrew Hamilton, arrived in January: just as student protestors across the country were demanding that their institutions address racial, economic, and other forms of exclusion, and the Democratic presidential candidates were debating the causes of and possible solutions for ballooning student debt.

Bernie Sanders gained traction among young voters in part by advocating taxpayer-funded tuition at public universities. Hillary Clinton has now embraced Sanders’s promise of “free college” — albeit with caveats. High costs and crippling loan payments have become flashpoints for popular anger, and NYU’s financial model has depended on both for decades.

Hamilton immediately responded to these developments. He declared affordability his administration’s primary focus, convening an Affordability Steering Committee to head up the initiative. He announced a reduction in a planned tuition increase, and the freezing of various fees. He has instituted a fifteen-dollar hourly wage for student workers. And just this month, NYU announced it will disregard applicants’ criminal history, signaling its commitment to redressing some forms of exclusion.

Hamilton’s moves came as a surprise to some observers, because NYU has pioneered some of the corporatizing strategies that have overhauled American higher education, earning both admiration and scorn for its innovations. Can the same institution now push in the opposite direction, setting a different example for universities to follow?

The reforms NYU has undertaken so far have value, but its broader approach to understanding and generating solutions to the tuition crisis presents problems. They suggest that affordability could, ironically, become the pretext for a new phase in the university’s corporate makeover. Given NYU’s role as an industry leader, anyone concerned about the future of higher education should pay attention to what happens next.

Tuition Is Too Damn High

The Affordability Steering Committee’s website announces: “The challenge: let’s make a difference in the trajectory of college costs at NYU.” It lists a number of ways for visitors to contribute their ideas, but offers no explanation of how NYU arrived here in the first place.

Instead, the program proceeds from the implicit premise that the ballooning cost of attendance has no clear origin — that it is a “wicked problem” the community must come together to solve.

In reality, the factors driving tuition and attendant costs higher may be complex, but they aren’t totally mysterious. The available evidence suggests that skyrocketing tuition, especially at private universities like NYU, has a simple yet circular explanation: colleges charge a lot of money to convince their potential “customers” that the education they provide is worth a lot of money.

As Dylan Matthews has explained, there are no clear criteria students and parents can rely on to assess quality when they are choosing a college: the very question of what constitutes a high-quality education has no obvious answer. Hence, “[t]he main signal [colleges] can use [for quality] is price, and in particular sticker price.”

Counterintuitively, then, far from turning off potential students, expensive tuition becomes a key selling point. This works in higher education in part because students at elite private universities are disproportionately wealthy, but also because those who are not tend to finance their education through debt, and thereby delay the cost until years after they enroll.

If, as Matthews observes, the underlying assumption is that “schools that cost more will deliver a better education,” then “schools have a real incentive to push up tuition for its own sake.” Consequently, competition drives tuition up, not down.

Moreover, as economist Howard Bowen demonstrated, colleges usually spend the revenue raised by higher tuition on perks (gyms, swimming pools, swanky dorms, celebrity professors poached from other institutions) that will attract an ever-larger applicant pool and make tuition increases very difficult to reverse.

Not surprisingly, then, sky-high tuition has been an explicit goal of some ambitious university administrators who see it as not only a prestige-enhancer in itself but also as a mechanism for investing in other assets that will augment the school’s status.

Education researcher Kevin Carey has documented how the leadership of George Washington University reimagined university degrees as luxury goods. Like NYU, GWU was once a humble urban commuter school and has transformed itself into a major research institution. Carey notes:

The great virtue of a luxury good, from the manufacturer’s standpoint, isn’t just that people will pay extra money for the feeling associated with a name brand. It’s that the high price is, in and of itself, a crucial part of what people are buying.

Carey interviewed former GWU president Stephen Trachtenberg, who boasted that he “convinced people that George Washington was worth a lot more money by charging a lot more money.” Trachtenberg is “surprisingly candid”: “College is like vodka, he liked to explain. Vodka is by definition a flavorless beverage. It all tastes the same. But people will spend thirty dollars for a bottle of Absolut because of the brand.” Carey lists NYU, Boston University, and Northeastern as other schools that pursued the luxury-good strategy.

If higher tuition has actually improved NYU’s brand, then administrators surely see the conflict between the demand to lower costs and the institution’s marketing efforts in the United Arab Emirates and China — where they have opened so-called portal campuses. But they also need the political consequences of high tuition and student debt — bad publicity and angry students — to disappear.

Viewed in this way, some of the administration’s recent actions seem like efforts to avoid reckoning with the thorny problems of tuition. If a high sticker price has its benefits, it makes sense for the school to focus on peripheral costs of attendance, such as textbook prices and activity fees.

And while raising the student worker wage honors the efforts of the Fight for $15 movement, it may not actually yield many benefits. If a university unit does not see its budget increased to meet the new pay requirements, it will likely hire fewer workers. Some “affordability” efforts merely divide up the pie in different ways, pitting the most vulnerable members of the NYU community against each other.

More generally, presenting costs as a shared problem that the community must solve collaboratively obscures the fact that the tuition and debt crises come directly out of the branding and marketing strategies that have boosted NYU’s status. Real progress toward broad educational access will be impossible as long as the perverse incentives driving tuition up remain unaddressed by those who actually set the prices.

The Crowdsourcing Scam

One of the Affordability Steering Committee’s central strategies has been community participation. They have held a series of public forums on the issue and launched Affordability at NYU, a crowdsourcing platform that uses software generated by the company IdeaScale.

IdeaScale describes itself as a “cloud-based innovation software platform” that “allows organizations to involve the opinions of public and private communities by collecting their ideas and allowing users to vote.”

If this is an exercise in democracy, it has a distinctly Silicon Valley flavor. It reeks of “solutionism,” a phenomenon memorably skewered by tech critic Evgeny Morozov: Affordability at NYU? There’s an app for that!

Of course, a forum to discuss the problem and pose various solutions has its benefits. Already participants have contributed an array of suggestions, some of which could, for example, help NYU cut back on its energy usage and reduce food waste. Yet the turn to online crowdsourcing also sets troubling precedents.

For one, it offers a variation on the well-established “student-as-consumer” model, in which the university uses student feedback to determine what’s valuable. By asking for suggestions on what can be cut in the name of affordability, NYU is in effect asking students to vote on which aspects of their education are and aren’t worth their money. Attempts at democracy have become hard to separate from the ethos that “the customer is always right.”

But the dangers the platform creates go further than this. In “The Crowdsourcing Scam,” Jacob Silverman observes that “the kind of tentative employment that we might have scoffed at a decade or two ago, in which individuals provide intellectual labor to a corporation for free or for sub-market wages, has been gussied up with the trappings of technological sophistication [and] populist appeal.”

Beyond all the tech-driven hype, Silverman argues, crowdsourcing is “another variation on the age-old practice of exploiting ordinary workers.” It offers, quite simply, “a good way to extract labor from masses of people at very low cost.”

The Affordability at NYU platform puts this technique into practice. Assuming that some of the cost-saving efficiencies suggested by community members are actually adopted, it would mean that the school has outsourced the otherwise paid labor of budgeting.

The initiative represents a relatively minor instance of exploitation — especially by the standards of the modern university — but we should ask ourselves whether it hints at what’s to come. The more ways NYU finds to replace compensated labor with community contributions, the more potential avenues for downsizing it finds, and the easier it will become to redefine paid jobs as volunteer work.

Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton’s tuition plan points in a similar direction. It would require that students receiving free tuition work ten hours a week, while at the same time demanding that participating universities “lower the cost of actually providing . . . education — by, for instance, experimenting with technology to lower the cost of administration.”

As Corey Robin observes, these two measures could very well add up to students donating “free labor either to the university (which might wind up firing workers) or to local employers (which could do the same).”

Reducing administrative staff might seem like a welcome change to some faculty and student observers. After all, higher-ed administrations have exploded over the past few decades, even as faculty numbers have declined. Yet the university’s embrace of crowdsourcing should worry all employees. It seems unlikely that the downsizing made possible in this way would ultimately help faculty or student workers.

If the goal is not to actually reduce tuition dramatically, but to come up with publicity-friendly, seemingly innovative ways of appearing to enhance efficiency, this is surely a promising path.

If crowdsourcing in and of itself “devalues work,” as Silverman argues, it isn’t surprising that the Affordability at NYU platform has already generated an array of ideas that, if put into practice, would collectively represent a massive assault on labor. Suggestions include eliminating unionized workers, replacing in-person instruction with video lectures, turning degrees into business-supported “apprenticeships” tied to future employment, increasing faculty course loads, cutting all courses with low enrollment, and allowing students to vote on faculty reappointment and tenure.

For years, corporate-minded administrators have been floating these same ideas. But Affordability at NYU has created a space for them to emerge spontaneously from the bottom up. In this sense, crowdsourcing might offer management a way to wash its hands of responsibility for controversial moves and present them as hard choices made collaboratively by the community.

How to Crowdsource Austerity

What we may end up with, then, is not crowdsourced affordability but crowdsourced austerity: Silicon Valley pseudo-populism fused with the rhetoric of thrift and responsibility.

Indeed, things are already starting to look this way. The e-mails and posts updating the NYU community on the affordability initiative feature stories about faculty and staff engaged in penny-pinching efforts.

Similarly, the website promotes savvy students “hacking” their educational expenses, and asks other students to contribute their own stories: “Have you taken steps to reduce costs or save money? We want to celebrate your efforts!”

Many of these efforts are valuable and necessary. But the underlying message that affordability demands sacrifices from us all — rather than demanding that we reconsider the prevailing model of higher education — has profound consequences for how we approach the problem more broadly.

If the current campaign successfully represents thrift as a necessary step toward a more affordable and accessible NYU, it could create a moral impetus for other kinds of radical restructuring.

The promise that cutbacks will benefit financially struggling students might justify eliminating all sorts of academic programs deemed “non-vital” and provide cover for streamlining the university into an industry-sponsored job-training institute. Again, some of the crowdsourced ideas on the platform already point in this direction.

If this seems far-fetched, recall that the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) mania that swept across the nation’s chattering classes a few years ago justified a radical profit-driven makeover of higher education precisely in the name of greater accessibility.

The rhetoric of sacrifice in the name of affordability may very well result (once again) in the reframing of a liberal-arts education as an expensive indulgence.

The Clinton tuition plan shares this with NYU’s initiative. Some of its affordability proposals imply an embrace of Silicon Valley–style “disruption.” In developing the plan, Clinton consulted with chief MOOC promoter Sebastian Thrun, who founded the education startup Udacity.

She has also promoted online learning pioneer Arizona State University’s work-study partnership with PayPal as a model for other institutions to follow, and even proposed giving startup founders and tech workers special student loan forgiveness.

With these parallel developments in mind, it is not difficult to see how “affordability” could become an alibi for changes that have less to do with helping low-income students and indebted graduates than with initiating a new phase in remaking universities according to the wishes of neoliberal technocrats.

Activism, Not Hacks

Tuition and debt are political problems that require political responses. Specifically, they require recognizing that the long-dominant corporate model of education is in crisis, and needs serious rethinking. Moreover, they necessitate a discussion about what higher education should be, and what values should inform it.

Crowdsourcing is a subset of solutionism that denies politics and presents “hacks” as the exclusive horizon of progress. As long as solutionist priorities frame the conversation about tuition — at NYU and in the larger political sphere — the more essential questions are likely to disappear in a flurry of ingenious tweaks and publicity-friendly initiatives.

That said, some of the more popular suggestions posted on the Affordability at NYU platform resist the strategy lurking behind the whole effort. “Cap bloated salaries at the top,” “freeze salaries for top administrators,” and, quite simply, “actually reduce tuition” have received hundreds of up-votes. While they may not offer a solution in themselves, such demands at least confront key symptoms of corporatization, rather than limiting themselves to minor inefficiencies.

These responses offer hope that students will respond not simply with hacks, but with activism.