Avoiding the Threat of Neoliberalism in Outcome-Based Assessment

written by: Kelly Lee Tatone

My Introduction to Neoliberalism

I attended high school and college during the reign of Reaganomics. The 1980s emerged from the storm of the economic crises and civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s (Giroux, 2002). The power of 1980s conservative leadership quieted the waters that had been bubbling with energy and effort toward egalitarianism and democratic citizenship. During Reagan’s presidency, policy makers worked to restore the traditions of patriarchy and capitalism (Giroux, 2002; Museus & LePeau, 2019). As students, we were customers and products of the university (Giroux, 2002; Kezar & Posselt, 2019). Gen X graduates were meant to be economically successful, so we, as alumni, would be satisfied, continue to contribute monetarily, promote the reputation of the institution, or at the very least in many cases we were encouraged to support the football team, an institutional marketing tool steeped in patriarchy.

Our satisfaction with the higher education experience was assessed with the measures of success being our level of employment and the amount of our salary, rather than suitable preparation to effectively participate in democratic citizenship (Giroux, 2002). Financial security was the ultimate promise and obligation of the college experience. Higher education assessments mirrored consumer satisfaction surveys, with students regarded as both customer and product. The quality of education centered around earning potential and fulfillment related to the packaged ‘excursion’ of education, intended to keep customers spending at the Ivory Tower. The opinion that education was a public good that benefitted society, and was therefore worth community investment, began to erode, along with pedagogical efforts to guide young people to democratic citizenship and egalitarianism.

I am currently over 50 years old, a non-traditional student, enrolled in a master’s degree program in higher education. I am learning about policies and theories that shaped my undergraduate experience of which, at the time, I was ignorant. It is somewhat surreal to retrospectively gain awareness of external forces taken for granted and the impact they had on my history and life path. An assessment in higher education class taught me that the end of the 20th century assessment in higher education began trending away from understanding student satisfaction to assessing outcomes (Henning & Roberts, 2016; Thelin, 2011). While student satisfaction is still considered, the outcomes of higher education experiences are being centered in assessment (Henning & Roberts, 2016). The purpose of outcomes assessment is to collect information for the institution to determine if programs and activities are having the intended impact on participating individuals. In other words, are the students benefitting from these experiences and gaining knowledge (Henning & Roberts, 2016).

A Call to Action for Student Affairs

This shift may seem progressive, in that determining growth and learning is noble, but the punitive shadow of accountability looms due to the neoliberal sensibilities that linger in the ether of the past (Giroux, 2002; Henning & Roberts, 2016). It is the responsibility of student affairs professionals to guard against the temptation to unconsciously promote the status quo.

Instead, professionals in our field must be hyper vigilant of the typical paradigms, those being the traditionally accepted systems of power and profit. Higher education professionals performing outcome-based assessments must strive to be aware of the threats of neoliberalism. A lack of cognizance may lead to treating students as consumers, rather than people. Further, an ignorance of the dangers of a neoliberal tradition could center institutional, political, or economic interests and could promote hegemonic policies and practices. In this piece, I will provide some background on neoliberalism and the threats the paradigm presents to outcome-based assessment practices, along with a framework that student affairs professionals can utilize to avoid the pitfalls of neoliberal pressures.

Neoliberalism: A Dangerous Ideology

A decade after I graduated with a bachelor’s degree, a professor at my alma mater Giroux argued that neoliberalism was “the most dangerous ideology of the historical moment” (2002, p. 425). The term ‘neoliberalism’ was coined in the 1930s and the theory has evolved through the ages (Monbiot, 2016). The freedoms, from regulation and taxation, promised by the ideology were supported by the wealthy elite, as was the romantic notion that capitalistic competition would reward the deserving (Giroux, 2002; Monbiot, 2016). The ‘greed is good’ attitude that promoted corporate values began in the 1960s and became the ideal in the 1980s, popularized by world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, reducing government involvement in the economy, as well as investment in the common good of the community, like education (Cahill & Konings, 2017).

Neoliberalism “privileges a market-based, capitalist mindset and economic drivers for public and government-based institutions” (Kezar & Posselt, 2019, p. 4). The growing popularity of privatization over democratization allowed the neoliberal regime to sponsor and endorse consumerism, competition, individualism, choice, and accountability, even in higher education (Gustafson, 2009; Museus & LePeau, 2019). The responsibility for financial success was placed upon the individual person or institution in in lieu of a community investment in progress (Giroux, 2002; Giroux, 2019). The concept of education being a public good, therefore, began to wane and the tools of assessment, or what Museus and LePeau (2019) term “surveillance,” were called upon to measure compliance with the values of neoliberalism, as prioritized by hegemony.

Neoliberal policy makers used the period of economic downturn in the 1970s as further ammunition to insist that deregulation, free markets, and fewer constraints would increase opportunity for free choice, benefiting everyone and making the country stronger (Cahill & Konings, 2017; Gillborn, 2013). In truth, those in power saw the policies of the civil rights era as “not simply rules to protect the public,” but as “unfair rules that constrain good whites’ ability to run the economy” (Hohle, 2015, p. 12). Making education a commodity and, for example, letting the market determine the quality of schools, results in exaggerating the class structure in society, which is, ultimately, in the interests of the white power holders, even though they are quickly becoming a statistical minority (Cahill & Konings, 2017; Gillborn, 2013; Giroux, 2019). The egalitarianism fought for in the civil rights movement was weaponized by the neoliberal white power holders. Neoliberals used the widely and unconsciously accepted racism, classism, and meritocracy to maintain the status quo via interest divergence, a perceived advantage to those in power afforded by the continued oppression of minoritized groups under the guise and rhetoric of freedom, growth, and improvement (Gillborn, 2013; Mills, 1998).

The desired outcomes of the patriarchy, those in control and shaping the practices and policies of higher education institutions, were incentivized to ensure acquiescence of the institutional products, the students; emerging members of the hegemony (Museus & LePeau, 2019). With funding tied to specific desired outcomes, the concern is by whom, why, and how are the desired outcomes being determined. In the currently struggling Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), funding for the schools in the system is tied to a formula based on enrollment, degrees granted, and programs offered. The finance model is overseen by the Board of Governors, (Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, n.d.-b). PASSHE is run by the state and is intended to serve Pennsylvania residents, to make higher education more accessible, especially for rural communities (Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, n.d.-a).

An obvious example of how neoliberalism has influenced higher education is the widely recognized and relied upon U.S. News & World Report classing system for institutions of higher education. Its “Best Colleges” ranking was launched in the early 1980s, in complement with the sweeping neoliberal sentiment. A recent headline in The Washington Post described the competition incited by this list as an “arms race” (Paterno, 2021). It is indeed a contest of prestige based, at least in part, on high stakes testing, which is both inequitable and exclusionary (Mintz, 2021; Paterno, 2021). For institutions, “[m]aintaining one’s position, even for the most selective schools, remains important since the system is self-reinforcing: perceived quality generates prestige levels” (Mintz, 2021, p. 91). This rubric for the educational ‘market’ is frequently utilized in college searches and reinforces the idea of student as customer or consumer (Mintz, 2021).

Neoliberalism in Student Affairs

In the case of student programs and institutional outcomes, if tied to transactionality and consumership by decision makers, consciously or not, the danger becomes that marketability will replace intellectualism and critical thought (H. Giroux, 2002). Institutional submission to state sponsored accountability will come at the cost of agency of the student and the institution and will limit creativity (Raaper, 2019). Programs in PASSHE are victims of this neoliberal idea of performance funding, putting them in competition for the same dollars. As an example, the chancellor has announced plans to eliminate programs and faculty positions due to the declining enrollment and merge schools in the system (Greenstein, 2020).

In developing outcome-based assessments, student affairs professionals should be aware of subtle dangers of neoliberalism. One of which is accountability and the subsequent centering of consumerism in education. In the neoliberal environment, student affairs professionals are called upon to justify their work in quantifiable ways to the institution and various levels of government to qualify for or receive funding (Kupo, 2014; Zerquera et al., 2018). In a study by Zerquera et al., (2018), student affairs professionals were interviewed in an online survey to determine the ways in which they were incorporating social justice in their assessment practice and barriers they encountered. The researchers recognized that these student affairs professionals were “working to reclaim assessment from the traditional, dominant framing of assessment work through neoliberal lenses and advance social justice in higher education” (p. 15). The professionals who responded to the survey indicated they performed assessments typically because they were mandated. They felt overwhelmingly that they and their colleagues were “overworked.” As to the inclusion of social justice practices in assessment, they replied that these were not incorporated because they were not part of what was required and also that “[n]obody is seeking this information” (Zerquera et al., 2018, pp. 34–35). The threat of neoliberal constructs on assessment practices makes guiding resources, by organizations like the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education’s (CAS) and their Learning Domains and Dimensions (Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, 2008), imperative to the viability and equity of assessment.

A Proposed Protective Framework: SIStor

How do student affairs professionals and those guiding the professionals defend against the neoliberal mindset? First and foremost, they must not assume a guardian or savior role and must practice humility in their work. Further, they must not be oblivious to systemic inequity and their own biases (Steger, 2013). To avoid the influence of neoliberalism in outcome-based assessment I propose that student affairs professionals apply a framework I have designed, called SIStor, which will help us remember to: 1) put Students first; 2) be Introspective; 3) have a healthy sense of Suspicion; and 4) be a proud and practical agitaTOR in the institutional hierarchy.

Each of these practices borrows from CAS standards and social justice ideologies established by higher education scholars (Fraser-Burgess et al., 2021; la paperson, 2017; Roseboro & Ross, 2009; Squire & Nicolazzo, 2019). The CAS domains, and undergirding dimensions represented in SIStor are: cognitive complexity (critical thinking, reflective thinking, effective reasoning); intrapersonal development (realistic self-appraisal, self-understanding, and self-respect); interpersonal competence (meaningful relationships, interdependence); and humanitarianism and civic engagement (understanding and appreciation of cultural and human differences, social responsibility, sense of civic responsibility) (Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, 2008). As suggested in Table 1, the practitioner should pose reflective questions to help ensure social justice and the centering of students in professional practice.

Table 1

SIStor CAS Domains & Dimensions Questions
Student Interpersonal Competence

·    Meaningful Relationships

·    Interdependence

Humanitarianism and Civic Engagement

·    Social Responsibility

·    Sense of Civic Responsibility

·    Understanding and Appreciation of Cultural and Human Differences

–     Are you serving students?

–     Are you being respectful of students?

–     Are you acknowledging the values and worth of students and their communities?

–     Are you considering the welfare of the student?


Once these questions are considered, ask them again with the most marginalized groups of students in mind.

Introspection Cognitive Complexity

·    Critical Thinking

·    Reflective Thinking

Intrapersonal Development

·    Realistic Self-Appraisal, Self-Understanding, and Self-Respect

Humanitarianism and Civic Engagement

·    Understanding and Appreciation of Cultural and Human Differences

–     Are you cognizant of your assumptions, identity, privilege, and culture?

–     Are you considering other perspectives?

–     Are you using reflection to improve understanding?

–     Are you employing humbleness in exploring implicit biases?

Suspicion Cognitive Complexity

·    Critical Thinking

·    Reflective Thinking

Intrapersonal Development

·    Realistic Self-Appraisal, Self-Understanding, and Self-Respect

Humanitarianism and Civic Engagement

·    Understanding and Appreciation of Cultural and Human Differences

·    Social Responsibility

·    Sense of Civic Responsibility

–     Are you detecting the important questions and issues?

–     Are you building decisions on an ample amount of quality impartial information gleaned from multiple sources?

–     Are you properly appraising the material?

–     Are you identifying and understanding systemic inequities and existing barriers to parity and justice?

–     Are you routinely engaging in critical reflection?

agitaTOR Humanitarianism and Civic Engagement

·    Understanding and Appreciation of Cultural and Human Differences

·    Social Responsibility

·    Sense of Civic Responsibility

–     Are you fully aware of inequitable systems in place and the negative impact on students?

–     Are you able to defend the deconstruction of these systems?

–     Are you able to engage in ethical opposition and advocacy?

–     Are you cultivating and enabling the civic participation of others, especially students?

The SIStor framework centers, above all, a holistic focus on students. In the process of developing outcome-based assessments, put the students at the center and ask yourself if you are: serving students; being respectful of students; acknowledging the values and worth of students and their communities; and considering the welfare of the student. This exercise will help to ensure that student affairs professionals do not treat students as consumers, but instead center students “as democratic agents” (Kezar & Posselt, 2019, p. 14).

The second tenet of the SIStor framework is introspection. Practicing regular and on-going introspection exercises will assist the helping professional become self-aware. Humility in reflection while examining personal bias and privilege will assuage the inclination to bend to neoliberal pressure in outcome-based assessment work. Use the following prompts:

  • Am I (are we) cognizant of my assumptions, identity, privilege, and culture?
  • Am I (are we) considering other perspectives?
  • Am I (are we) using reflection to improve understanding?
  • Am I (are we) employing humbleness in exploring implicit biases?

The consciousness of power and privilege is crucial to developing the ability reference data without assumptive or neoliberal influences, while also resisting the temptation to respond instinctually (Kezar & Posselt, 2019).

Zerquera et al., (2018) found the barriers for social justice implementation in assessment were “centered on the overall understanding across [the] institution of social justice concepts: social justice, oppression, privilege, and power” (p. 24). They place the responsibility to incorporate social justice in assessment needs at all levels of the educational hierarchy. Institutions need to practice what they preach and not just give lip service to the current buzzwords of diversity, equity, and inclusion. There needs to be an investment in genuine awareness and understanding of social justice concepts.

The recommendations resulting from the findings of the study include building systems of support, both personal and professional. Ideally, the institution would value the advancement of social justice initiatives, but even without institutional support, the researchers encourage student affairs professionals to seek out colleagues to build a community in their work. The community should include professionals involved in assessment, as well as those serving in social justice roles on campus (Zerquera et al., 2018).

In addition to individuals and institutions, Zerquera et al., (2018) hold organizations responsible for the work of understanding and self-awareness:

Organizations such as NASPA, ACPA, and the Association for Institutional Research, as well as graduate programs share a responsibility to develop this capacity, for instance, via workshops and explicit foci within curricula – this training must not just focus on development of social justice and assessment understanding, but how to use this understanding to implement change through institutional structures (p. 37).

For those involved in preparing and guiding student affairs professionals, knowledge and self-awareness is important, as is the ability to enact understanding.

Student affairs professionals should endeavor to be what Kupo (2014) refers to as scholar-practitioners, “using scholarship to inform practice and practice to inform scholarship” (p. 91). Engaging in self-reflection allows the practitioner to explore and interrogate their own “framework of values, habits of mind, and the ability to balance and integrate ‘doing’ with ‘knowing’” (Kupo, 2014, p. 89). Introspection exercises will help the practitioner understand themselves and, in so doing, have more awareness as they enter into dialogue with others. The capacity to have deep and meaningful discussions, based on scholarship and practice, and grounded in self-discovery, will lead to the development of fortification skills and a network to defend against neoliberal pitfalls.

Constructive suspicion is a useful tool for a student affairs professional doing work in outcomes-based assessment and the third precept of the SIStor paradigm. It is born of the hermeneutic of suspicion required by Roseboro and Ross (2009) for Black students and teachers. Roseboro and Ross (2009) define this as “an attitude grounded in learned distrust that leads us to critically question schools and the political structures that sustain them” (p. 23).

These questions will help us review our biases, consider our sources of knowledge, examine our values, and interrogate the power structure. Kezar and Posselt (2019) remind us that “[v]alues . . are an integral part of wise thinking. Attention to power begs the question of ‘whose values’” (p. 10).

Finally, the SIStor model encourages the student affairs professional to be an agitator; disturb the status quo and excite the system.

These practices will help deliver justice centered success in out-comes based assessment. As higher education professionals and student serving agents of change, it is our duty to be self-aware and mindful of the pitfalls of neoliberalism in our work. As we participate in outcomes-based education we must guard against allowing students and education to be viewed as commodities to be capitalized upon and instead protect these resources and guide the institution toward nurturing our most valuable asset, future citizens, who will be ready, willing, and able to engage in civic democracy as intelligent, ethical, and caring citizens.

Change is not just needed to address the challenges of our times, but possible. We are facing great challenges in advancing evidence-based social justice practices in higher education. However, the experiences of the participants in this study provide a counter to the dominant discourse that assessment and social justice do not coexist. However, in order to advance it, it will take a critical reshifting of the field. It must happen from within and led by those who best know how. (Zerquera et al., 2018, p. 37)

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways do you see evidence of the influence of neoliberal ideologies more clearly in your personal or professional life?
  2. What will you start, stop, and continue to do to guard against the threats of neoliberalism in your work?
  3. Which three of the introspection questions in the SIStor framework do you feel will best serve you in your self-reflection and growth?

Author Bio

Kelly Lee Tatone (she/her) is pursuing an MEd at the University of Pittsburgh as a part-time, post-traditional graduate student with the support and guidance of amazing faculty, like Dr. Darris Means, who encouraged her to write this piece. She graduated from The Pennsylvania State University in 1990 with a B.A. in English Literature. She is the proud mother of three smart, kind, and caring women, which is her greatest source of pride.


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