Iranian school girls attend a parliament session in Tehran on Nov. 18, 2014, to listen to President Hassan Rouhani’s speech defending his nominee for the ministry of Science, Research and Technology, Fakhredin Ahmadi Danesh Ashtiyani. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

Enghelab Square lies at the heart of Tehran’s urban and revolutionary landscape, just meters away from the gates of Tehran University. The site of some of the most pitched battles of the 1979 revolution, the square today bustles as an open-air market of goods. There, among the booksellers and fruit vendors, visitors can buy bootleg DVDs, banned books, drugs and alcohol and, if need be, an entire master’s thesis — written from scratch and prepared for oral defense, in less than a month.

The illicit buying and selling of advanced degrees is the logical, if unhappy, consequence of the commodification of education in post-revolutionary Iran. Fueled by an insatiable mania for credentials by employers and ordinary Iranians alike, students who pay others to write their research are not unlike their peers who purchase their degrees in installments from private and public universities. They do so in order to survive in the country’s cutthroat labor and marriage markets where possession of a credential is the principle criterion of success.

More interested in “getting the paper” than bearing witness to political Islam, ordinary Iranians have appropriated the university system for themselves, transforming an ideological apparatus designed to produce Islamic citizens into a transactional relationship between the pedagogical state and its population.

Although Iran’s 4.5 million university students comprise only 5 percent of the country’s overall population, gross enrollment rates show that more than half of people ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in some form of higher education, well on pace to reach the official goal of 60 percent by 2025. Of these, around 85 percent will pay out-of-pocket for their education, whether enrolling in night school, participating in Iran’s open university system (Payam-e Noor) or attending one of the nearly 400 local campuses of Islamic Azad University, billed as one of world’s largest university systems with a reported $200 billion in assets. All told, Iranian parents annually spend more than $3 billion to put their children’s through college.

Yet less than 10 years ago, Iran was a country of high school dropouts and junior high graduates. In 2006, less than half of all 14- to 17-year-olds were enrolled in the correct high school level, and no more than 34 percent among those living in Iran’s rural provinces. Some 1 million teenagers were either in the wrong grade because of late enrollment or because they had failed the previous grade. More than 2.4 million students eligible for high school had gone missing and were not in the system at all.

These seemingly puzzling figures are evidence of an educational system that, until very recently, had been incapable of meeting the unrelenting demand for college education. Prospective high school students faced the daunting choice of either entering a labor market that punished the poorly educated but in which menial jobs were always available or seeking entry into a public university system that had historically accepted only 10 percent of all applicants. Given this balance of odds, it is not surprising that large numbers of teenagers dropped out of school to seek their fortune in the workforce.

Supply finally met demand during the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which ended in 2013. Growth in the private and fee-based public sectors of higher education has been nothing short of astonishing, fueled by the unprecedented expansion of distance-learning and part-time universities from just over 383,000 available spots in 2005 to 1.1 million in 2011. For the first time in Iran’s modern history, anyone who is willing to pay can go to university. Figures released this summer confirm a nearly perfect chance of being accepted to most majors, if not specific degree programs. For math majors, where vacancies outnumber total applicants, that figure is over 100 percent.

The effects of this transformation have already been felt downstream. Iran’s vice-minister for high school education announced in late July that net enrollment rates for the first cycle of high school (grades 7 through 9) had reached 94 percent and an impressive 82 percent for the second cycle (grades 10 through 12).

The movement of the invisible hand across Iran’s educational market has not been entirely efficient. During the final year of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, many university campuses reported that they were operating well under capacity, leading to accusations that the administration was profiting off of the desperation of families by illegally expanding fee-based schooling.

Given the recent revelations of corruption and gross incompetence during Ahmadinejad’s tenure, there may be some basis to such claims. However the problem of credentialism is hardly state-manufactured. In Iran, demand drives capacity: even as bachelor’s degrees have become ubiquitous, new bottlenecks are emerging at the top of the educational food chain. Of the approximately 900,000 students who applied in 2011 for a master’s degree, only 60,000 were accepted, some 6 percent. The figures for PhD candidates were even worse: only 4 percent of those seeking a doctorate made it into a program, a meager 6,000 students out of 127,000 applicants.

The transformation of schooling from a public good into a private resource has come at a cost, as much political as financial. By conceding the ideological character of the school system, state authorities have secured the cooperation of families and the withdrawal of their children from oppositional activities. Going to college has, in effect, demobilized large segments of Iranian society by rendering much of the country’s youth quiet, if not entirely quiescent, on campus.

To be clear, careerism does not preclude oppositional politics. Indeed, significant segments of the student population consistently put their own futures at risk in spite of the extraordinary sacrifices that they and their families have made to be accepted into the university system. It is not uncommon to find student activist leaders drawn from the best students (daneshjuyan-e nabegheh) enrolled in the country’s most prestigious departments and universities, by definition those who have the most to lose by their protests and the most to gain through their quiescence. Nothing in this essay denies the virtue of their actions or the righteousness of their cause.

The reality is that many university students in Iran reject political activism out of an abundance of caution. They are encouraged to do so by a state increasingly adept at wielding the proverbial combination of carrots and sticks. Authorities are helped in their efforts by a growing skepticism among many young Iranians of the value of open struggle. “Do we become more politically active and risk everything?” asked one student during the Green Movement protests in the wake of the contested 2009 presidential election. “Or mind our own business and just get on with our lives?” The answer is hardly obvious.

Rather than explain why the few are willing to risk it all, we would do better to explore what happens when the many choose to comply. Getting a university education in Iran has historically been the purview of the wealthy, the well connected or the exceptionally talented. As participation in post-secondary education has become commonplace, what was once an exception reserved for the extraordinary has become an expectation for all. Universal access to higher education has transformed the experience of going to university and those who attend, into the ordinary.

This may turn out to be the most important work that universities do. Alexis de Tocqueville observed many years ago that the loss of aristocratic authority precedes the emergence of democratic states. Individuals who live in the age of equality do not, Tocqueville argued, “recognize any signs of incontestable greatness or superiority in any of their fellows, [and] are continually brought back to their own judgment as the most apparent and accessible test of truth.”

In a country long governed by rigid social hierarchies defined by wealth and social status, the erosion of unearned distinction by the university system will not necessarily lead to the outbreak of democracy, but it will surely matter when the next breakthrough comes to Iran. Democracy is more likely to survive because the hard work of leveling authority and separating democratic souls from the nondemocratic is already well underway: an extraordinary if unnoticed change produced by the accumulation of ordinary, educated lives.

Shervin Malekzadeh teaches political science at Swarthmore College.