I have great sympathy today for those young millenials who aspire to succeed on the “real life” monopoly game-board which seems to be increasingly stacked against them. Limited job opportunities compounded by lackluster growth in real wages is certainly discouraging, but the thing that may ultimately doom untold millions of twenty-somethings to a very bleak future is not current market trends but mountains of compounded educational debt. In fact, an entire generation is being subjected to a vast “bait and switch” scheme by those very institutions charged with helping them to successfully integrate into the larger society. And the primary perpetrators of this cruel hoax appear to be the very establishments of higher education whose stated purpose it is to prepare our youth for a future productive life. Instead, many American colleges and universities seem too busy fleecing their youthful charges to devote much concern to their long term prospects.
Hijacked by Higher Education
This, I admit, is an ambitious generalized claim, that is until one looks more closely at the facts. A cadre of elite “Educrats” is currently engaged in turning the American dream into a fiscal nightmare for many young people. For generations, Americans have rightly cherished education both as the key to upward mobility and a necessary means for insuring our civil liberties. Parents have sacrificed to give their children a higher education so that they might enjoy a better life. But in the last 20 to 30 years something seems to have gone terribly awry with the system. As the cost of higher education soars higher and higher, beyond the reach of ordinary families, the burden has increasingly fallen upon the students themselves in the form of student debt.
While student loans have always been around the new twist came, as is so often the case, when the Federal Government decided to “help” students by backstopping such loans. Once again, good intentions have produced horrifyingly bad results. Programs like Stafford Loans meant to help students finish school effectively enabled Educrats to profit from a guaranteed method of funding which involved little or no risk to them. As credit was extended in ever larger amounts to poor college students, the cost of acquiring an education has risen commensurately. Instead of tuitions rising at anything near the normal inflation index, they have inflated exponentially. Consider that over the first decade of this century average tuition and fees, (based on ten private institutions representing all sections of the country) increased by 71% to an eye-popping $40,500 per year. The rate of inflation was even steeper at public universities where tuition and fees, although much lower, increased much faster by 118% from an average of $4,000 to over $8,700 per annum.* During that same period the Consumer Price Index rose approximately 27%.
How is it possible that the cost of obtaining an education increased 2.6 times as fast as the CPI at the already pricey private colleges and 4.4 times the CPI in public institutes? Even ramped up health care costs proved to be a bargain by comparison, rising at about half the rate of higher education during the same period. Worse, entrenched Educrats are shamelessly milking that segment of the population with the fewest assets and very little income. The whole edifice seems not designed to provide valued instruction at a reasonable cost but to exploit the perceived ability of desperate students to borrow, and borrow, and borrow more. It is that ability to borrow, not the real cost of providing instruction, which now appears to be driving the higher education gravy train. The coup de grace was in getting the Federal Government to guarantee such debt so that, whatever level of borrowing the Feds insure would set the new pricing level for the final product, namely a degree.
With such guaranteed revenue streams firmly in place, the Educrats have further capitalized on their influence by setting themselves up as virtual gatekeepers to job markets, and ultimately personal financial security. This is the cudgel that they now hold over the heads of students. Today, without a college degree, no young person can realistically hope to land a decent job, even with the local police or fire department. Students have been coerced into purchasing a very expensive certificate simply in order to enter the job market. This was not always the case. Some of our most innovative geniuses had only very rudimentary formal education, Thomas Edison for example. But in the past the doors of opportunity were not summarily closed because of educational limits. Today’s educational establishment has pretty much sealed off all other routes of access to financial success however. In other words professional Educrats, in collusion with large high-end employers, have created a virtual job market monopoly which they alone control, and having successfully done so they are now exploiting that monopoly shamelessly.
The current system of financing higher education is as ruthless as it is cynical. To give just one example, I had lunch the other day with a young single woman, about 30 years old, with a very familiar complaint. She was under so much student debt that she struggled to maintain any semblance of a normal lifestyle. She had accrued about $150,000 in student loans between undergraduate and grad schools. Certain notes carried interest rates as high as 8.5% meaning that in some months her accrued interest was higher than her payments, causing the principal to grow even more. As a physical therapist grad student at a prestigious mid-western university, the job prospects in her field were optimistically inflated. Upon graduating she discovered that actual compensation in the job she was actually able to find was far less than what she had been told. She now struggles to pay down her loans by living with roommates, strictly limiting expenditures, and basically living like a hermit just to dig out from under that mountain of debt.
Sad as her story was, she was still thankful that she had not chosen political science, literature, or so-called feminist studies as a career path. Many of her compatriots had selected fields where the opportunity to find gainful employment is just about nil. This woman indicated that she knew of many other young people with degrees who were living on the street because they had lost all hope of ever paying down compounded student loans, much less of ever think of buying a house or a car. That of course was not the scenario that the college advisors and counselors had described back in the halcyon days at good old XYZ State when the money was there just for the asking. Serious sticker shock usually doesn’t occur until after graduation when the hopeful young graduate enters the real world job market.
Today, the cost of attending a prestigious university can exceed $52,000 per year, with living expenses. Yet a student may be lucky to actually earn half or two thirds of that amount upon graduation. Millions of trusting young Americans with high hopes and ambitions are being ruthlessly hijacked by an educational system that is charging platinum prices for a copper plated education. Has higher education become a grand con game run by greedy, elite Educrats playing the Pied Piper to an unsuspecting generation? Amazingly, there seems to be little criticism of what is plainly happening before our eyes. Higher education has become such a sacred cow in our society that few, if any, are willing to seriously question its methods or motives. To do so is considered heresy, despite the evidence of millions of people who have received little or no return on their considerable investment. The perfect con is one where the victims walk away refusing to believe that they have been taken advantage of. Too often our innate human pride seems to keep us from admitting certain embarrassing truths.
Today the numbers are on the wall, however. Colleges and universities boast billion dollar building campaigns and tens of billions more in government research grants. Yet with all that available cash there seems to be scant relief for those pecunious students whose debts continue to compound and accelerate under the hefty fee structures imposed upon them. Higher education has gradually morphed into a world of “haves” and “have-nots.” Consider one such “have,” the now infamous MIT professor Jonathan Gruber who, after receiving nearly $400,000 in taxpayer funded grants, freely boasted about deceiving the public even as he contemptuously clucked about the stupidity of American voters. Gruber, so very instrumental in crafting and pedaling the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) to Congress, is not just some academic crackpot. He is a well connected insider Educrat whose values seem to be symptomatic of a disconnected higher education establishment, utterly entrenched in its ivory towers.
American higher education has become terminally self-absorbed, while providing a convenient place for shady politicians to grub for shills who will expound whatever nonsense it is they decide to fob off on the public. Like the Washington political culture, there seems to be very little accountability among today’s higher education elites. Bureaucrats and Educrats aren’t really that different from one another. Both have the same, self-serving ends and tend to use the same methodology to control and exploit those who fall under their purview. That is bad new for America as a whole, but especially for the luckless generations trailing along behind us as they reap the inevitable whirlwind that the corruption of education is presently sowing.
The tragic irony in all of this is that the very institutions who style themselves as vanguards of liberalism (and its accompanying political correctness) are quite willing to subject the very students they seem intent on radicalizing to a life of economic peonage. These intellectual aristocrats are, in truth, abusing an entire generation of trusting young souls as well as abusing the trust of their parents. Our system of American higher education has ossified even as it has enriched itself on grants and bequests. It is not that today’s educators lack brilliance, rhetorical ability, or technical competence. Rather, they seem to have lost their true sense of mission. In order to bear good fruit, education should always about instilling truth. John Henry Newman insisted that the goal of education is not to provide clever answers or teach students what to think but rather to educate succeeding generations how to think. A good first step might be requiring a freshmen level cost analysis class called, “Economic Transparency in Higher Education.”
I would advise all professional Educrats today to pause and ponder the words of St. John concerning the Church at Ephesus during the first century. “I know your works, your labor, and your endurance… Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come and remove your lamp-stand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:2,4)
If our actions are not motivated by love they quickly lose whatever value and meaning they once had. Higher education today is simply going through the motions of teaching but it appears to have lost its true heart. Such is the price that the secularization of education imposes. Without God arrogance invariably replaces humility, the sure foundation of all true knowledge. It will only be a matter of time before our lamp-stand is taken away if we do not change both our motives and methods. The instruction of young impressionable minds is a noble and necessary task but it must always be motivated by love, not by profit, if it is to bear any good fruit.
Francis J. Pierson
* Based upon reported tuition and fees at the following private and public Universities for 2001 and 2011: Brown, Boston College, Colorado College, Duke, Georgetown, Northwestern, Princeton, Stanford, Tulane, Washington. Ivy League schools were actually somewhat cheaper than non-Ivy institutions, probably as the result of substantially greater endowments. Public universities used for sampling included: UCLA, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, State Univ. of New York, Texas, Wisconsin. Source, The World Almanac 2002, 2012
Fran, unfortunately I find your higher education analysis spot-on. I have much to add to this but I will limit it to a couple of thoughts. Working in an industry where my salary is directly proportional to how many university credits I “earn” (purchase), I can’t escape the phony education world. You will be happy to know that in the economics/personal finance class I teach in a public high school, I spend a few days on what you call, “Economic Transparency in Higher Education.” We try to look at college from an investment angle: costs and expected returns. This analysis makes college in general a more difficult decision and almost always makes the “for profit” colleges a no-go.
Unfortunately, for poorer, often minority students, the outlook is even more bleak than you portray it. Throughout their 12 years or so of primary education they are told by counselors, teachers, and administration that they will go to college. So they take out the loans and go. Then, after a year or a few, they drop out. Minority kids are more than twice as likely to drop as their white counterparts. What I constantly see in high school is kids who are completely unprepared for college being encouraged to attend college without any other options even mentioned. (They are also totally in the dark about how lacking their previous 12 years of education has been.)
My question for you is, what can be done about it? A college diploma is a membership to the country club of our middle class. It isn’t absolutely necessary to enter the country club but, as you pointed out, there are fewer and fewer opportunities without this golden ticket.