Commodification

Not being a Marxist economist, I can’t add much to the concept of the commodity fetish, except to point out its multiple connections to contemporary higher education. The simple commodity is a product that has absolutely no differentiation by producer and no intention of a relationship between producer and consumer. A hundred pounds of milk, for instance, a standard unit of measurement in the industry. It’s picked up at the dairy, pumped into in the giant truck of other raw milk from everybody else, goes through the same processes and packaging as the milk from hundreds of other dairies, and winds up in a plastic jug in the supermarket, molecules intermingled with those from every other farm. Every dairy farmer gets the same price per unit, with no claim to unique quality being made except for a minimum threshold of purity and non-contamination. It can’t be any worse than the bottom, but it doesn’t need to be any better.

A college credit is just as commodified. As students become more mobile, as transfers become more common, the three credits you’ve accumulated in Intro Sociology at one school need to be recognized and converted into three credits of Intro Sociology at another school. The uniqueness of the experience you might have had with that teacher, the insights she led you to regarding the notions of stigma and shame, are no longer relevant; she has been eliminated from view in favor of the three credits of content she provided, and you likewise have been eliminated from view in favor of a person who owns three credits of content. Sociology and milk, uniform and impersonal products, drawn as needed from the common tank. To use my wife’s favorite word, they are fungible, non-differentiated and mutually exchangeable.

The fungibility of the commodity places downward pressure on price and on qualification of producer. If a particular dairy farmer thinks he needs $11.50 per hundredweight to break even, but the going market rate from the co-op is $11.20, then $11.20 it’s going to be, and the individual farmer gets to choose to a) lose 30 cents per hundred pounds or b) stop selling milk altogether. So too for adjunct faculty. Your Intro Sociology could be bought in the Boston Metro market for about $2,800 per three credits, so your choices are to a) teach for an embarrassingly small stipend or b) not teach at all. As long as you’re above the floor of competency, it doesn’t really matter if you’re any better.

So as the college experience is abandoned in favor of the college credit, it makes perfect sense to move to a Darwinian competition between desperate providers. The scary thing is the degree to which we’ve accepted the loss of the unique experience, are willing to settle for the quantifiable product. A college course should be a unique thing that you do, not a uniform product that you buy. But the logic of exchange consumes all other ways of thinking if we aren’t wary.

And frankly, if I think back on all of the college credits I’ve bought, how many of them were really uniquely valuable experiences? At Michigan Tech, none out of sixty. At Laney College in Oakland, a dozen out of thirty, most because of the unique brilliance of Tom Turman. At Berkeley, 27 of about 60. In grad school at UWM, maybe 36 of 54. You have to work really hard (and increasingly be really lucky) to deserve a quality premium, to be differentiated in the marketplace from the other content providers.

News sites, colleges, magazines, dairy co-ops… the place to be is on the inside. The content providers looking in from the outside will cannibalize each other, driving prices down for a chance to compete at all.