Empty Promises: An Observation of the Effects of Neoliberalism on Student Conceptions of Success and the Value of Higher Education at Boise State University

Document Type

Student Presentation

Presentation Date



College of Arts and Sciences



Faculty Sponsor

Arthur Scarritt


While a great deal of analysis has been done in regard to the effects of Neoliberalism on higher education, the qualitative understanding of those effects on students is not as clear (Saunders 2011). This leaves the effects of ideological neoliberalism on the student body, and their concepts of success and the value of their education, as a sociological puzzle.

Contradictions also exist in observable behavior. Participation within neoliberal ideological behavior is deleterious to the wellbeing of students (Newfield 2008) yet they do so (Saunders 2007) and the establishment of higher education has been facilitating, imposing, and causing that participation (explained by both of those sources, and Clawson 2011). Students express beliefs which are contradictory to their substantive experience (IMRL 2017). Avenues of access (in higher education) lead to what is systemically and socionormativly purported to be lanes of success, which are in fact devoid of certain value (Moore 2004; Schmuck, Kasser & Ryan 2000).

The conceptualization of success for students is important for understanding our society. Before they go on to fill positions, and make roles for themselves in the wider world, students are shaped by education. Not simply given the tools to cooperate and perform within the economy (which is the focus in neoliberalism) but also as individuals. The ways in which they conceptualize success is imperative to understanding the choices they make, their values, and the directions they both choose and are consigned to.

A foundation of neoliberalism, in the form of a socio-normative atmosphere, sets students up for college. The foundations of normativity for them, already rife with neoliberal ideology, are then subject to further influence through a process reinvented from traditional higher education by neoliberal forces. This is essentially a groundwork before the conceptualization process I sought to observe.

The influence of the neoliberal atmosphere leads to the utilization of a neoliberal bargaining ritual. Students compose ideological mindsets that persist in the face of real experiences, despite those experiences being substantive evidence of the falsehood of that mindset. The spirit of neoliberalism remains a cornerstone of student communication about success, regardless of it falling short of meeting those needs they express, or its failure in explaining the experiences they describe. The communication is often itself a neoliberal construct, a ritual language, as students communicate in terms of neoliberalism to defend their deviance from the norms it itself pressures them with.

Privilege allows those with cultural capital to obfuscate its sources so as to perpetuate said privilege (Moore 2004). Neoliberalism is the most recent form of privileged hegemony, but operates similarly to those that have served to insulate privilege as described by Bourdieu. The perpetuation of privilege is a major effect of, and upon, the conceptualization of success for Boise State students. Value is denigrated for the less-privileged, into an extrinsic motivational hollow shell. This allows those who enjoy privilege to continue to do so. The language used by students to describe success and the student life are rites of a false-tautology which allows for the continued disparity of privilege.

Much of this process is possible because of false signs of success. The students are subject to a series of constructed simulations of value and success, which simultaneously highlight extrinsic values and economic capital, while obfuscating the intrinsic values and other forms of capital available through higher education. Avenues of access to privilege are falsely implied to exist by the neoliberal order, so as to push less-privileged students into paths which behoove the order itself as overlords.

The ending conceptualization is a commoditization of human beings. The conceptualization of success tends to be a product of neoliberal ideology. Students describe their successes, not in terms of personal accomplishment, but rather in terms of objectified value. They describe themselves in terms of worthwhile acquisitions by the neoliberal order.

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