Marginal Education offers a behind the scenes look at the changes shaking higher education and what the future holds in this new financial climate. I show how tuition-driven colleges and universities are forced to innovate and adopt market-driven financial strategies in response to neoliberal federal policy changes. The institutions I investigate have longstanding commitments to providing access to an affordable education for their students. But as a result of the systematic privatization of higher education and demographic shifts, competition for students and their tuition dollars meant these colleges had to adopt new strategies to find more students in peripheral markets in order to offset losses in offering a “legitimizing” residential educational experience.
But the neoliberal promise of improved educational outcomes as a result of increased market competition never manifested. Instead, over time I reveal how the different strategies schools adopt, be they the traditional approach of growing the endowment, pioneering a periphery market, or even networking across multiple markets never make up the operational shortfall caused by the cost of operating a residential core needed to maintain legitimacy within the higher education sector. Even worse is that these strategies – including the accelerated approach that raises the necessary funds by going to scale – eventually undercut their school’s rich legacies by leading to students being seen as “dollars.” Through candid interviews with over 150 university leaders, I show how the unanticipated consequences of federal policy changes have wound their way through every aspect of these schools to ultimately distort their mission.