First the car industry went bankrupt; next on the economic griddle — as argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education — is the rising astronomical cost of a university education that is about to burst a bloody mess upon us all.

With tuitions, fees, and room and board at dozens of colleges now reaching $50,000 a year, the ability to sustain private higher education for all but the very well-heeled is questionable. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees have risen by 440 percent — more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice the rate of medical care. Patrick M. Callan, the center’s president, has warned that low-income students will find college unaffordable.

Meanwhile, the middle class, which has paid for higher education in the past mainly by taking out loans, may now be precluded from doing so as the private student-loan market has all but dried up. In addition, endowment cushions that allowed colleges to engage in steep tuition discounting are gone. Declines in housing valuations are making it difficult for families to rely on home-equity loans for college financing. Even when the equity is there, parents are reluctant to further leverage themselves into a future where job security is uncertain.

Consumers who have questioned whether it is worth spending $1,000 a square foot for a home are now asking whether it is worth spending $1,000 a week to send their kids to college. There is a growing sense among the public that higher education might be overpriced and under-delivering.

If you weren’t born into wealth, one of the ways you could raise your relevant stake in society was to attend a private school or attend an Ivy League college in order to meet and network with the power elite. 

You had to pay — tuition — to play.

Buying your way in to the upper university caste elite was always possible, but had prickly and dangerous underpinnings — the poor and disengaged local wisdom was always, “A dollar spent today pays tenfold in ten years.”

I’m not sure if that old chestnut still rings ripe today or not — especially with an entire generation of graduate students now holding advanced degrees with nowhere to go and a student loan debt cost piling to the ceiling:  You educated yourself into a perpetual poorhouse with no way out.

Student loans are still an evil necessity if you hope to advance your life in society — but once you sign the loan paper and take the money, the university debt is forever yours — there’s no way to remove that burden unless you pay it off in full and so we all risk a pauper nation filled with really smart people who are really angry all their hard work and discipline are not being greeted and celebrated in the marketplace and when smart people are poor, hungry and angry, cultural revolution is not very far behind.

19 Comments

  1. Makes me glad that I went to Rutgers, where tuition was a tiny fraction of that – and state universities offer excellent education, too. (Especially since I’m not using my communication degree just as well as someone who isn’t using their Harvard degree – yet mine was significantly cheaper not to use 🙂 )

  2. Harvard is still offering free tuition to anyone who makes the grades to be enrolled. If you are smart then Harvard is willing to foot the bill for your college experience. The catch is … will there be a job for you after you graduate?
    It seems most of the young men and a few young ladies have made their choice to enlist into some branch of military service as opposed to entering a college and forking over money they do not have.
    The area technology schools are becoming another big alternative to combat the ever increasing cost of college tuition. Still, hands on education and experience does not promise a job.
    I am afraid that our children’s futures are bleak and dim in the light of the U.S. economic burden.

  3. You make many excellent points, Kimberley — oh, if every student could get a free ride from Harvard!
    There is an uncomfortable cross-pollination between higher education and the military. Many of my Rutgers students were on their own at a young age and to even afford Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, they had to take out loans and enroll in the National Guard to help pay for their tuition.
    They were not interested in the military in any way, but they “joined” so they could pay for school. I find that a discomforting disconnect between intention and will — especially when so many of them were pulled out of school to go fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. Few of them wanted to go and yet they all went — many of them more than once!

  4. Don’t get me wrong – I use my education literally every day in every other aspect of my life – my writing life included – which to me is more significant than the place that “pays the bills” – makes me happy knowing that.

  5. Hi Gordon! I just wish your true talents were paying your bills. You’re certainly doing well, but your degree gives you so many gifts that are going unused a bit right now in the struggle to meet the monetary man’s demands.

  6. I imagine that many are enlisting for the exact reason you described. It is difficult to have to shoot for your dream … by taking the long route!
    It makes me wonder just how many aspiring young men and women will actually achieve their goals? Who will just settle? Who will not even get half way because they are disheartened and give up? Statistically, it would be a grand thing to tip the scales in their favor!
    The schools blast our children with the whole “Higher Education” idea. Yet, our government has not paved an adequate path for the bright young minds to leap upon. We need some smarter politicians and senators fighting for the future of America’s brightest!

  7. Kimberley!
    I thought you were going to say, “It’s difficult to shoot for your dream… when you’re shooting Iraqis!” Ooof! I shouldn’t read ahead and assume so much…
    I agree the way to making America number one in the world today — we’ve fallen behind China and Japan and soon Russia — is to fundamentally re-prioritize the mandate of a functional public school education that includes a university degree. Without that government mandate, we will all wither on the intellectual vine.

  8. Gee David! I think you already know where I stand on taking the life another person. You must be speed reading … slow down a bit. Smiling!

  9. I think part of the problem is that people are so focused on the Ivy league and other private colleges. State schools are just as good at educating students, though they aren’t as glamorous or as well connected as the Ivies.
    There’s a stigma attached to many cost-saving measures, like spending a year or two at a community college before transferring to a four year school, commuting instead of living in the dorms, or going to a less prestigious school. Education should be about learning, not about bragging rights, and people should be judged by what they’ve learned, not where they learned it.
    Paying 50K for higher education is like paying $500 for a pair of jeans. It might be a little better, but not enough to justify the price tag.

  10. That’s an interesting argument, liminal. As the product of a state school undergraduate degree and an Ivy League graduate degree, I have to say the Ivy League education was phenomenally better than the state school education. I wished I’d gone to a better undergrad school after I was exposed to the excellence of the Ivy League. At the Ivy League level, the students were sharper, the professors were more engaged, and the curriculum was freer — but more challenging.

  11. I’m glad your grad school experience was so positive, and sorry to hear your undergrad was disappointing. I think the quality of an education is highly subjective. It sounds like you needed to be in an environment where intellect was prized above all else, so the Ivy league school was best. A friend of mine fled from Harvard to Umass because she couldn’t stand the competitive spirit- she wanted to be somewhere more cooperative, with professors who were more accessible to undergrads. I was very happy at a small school because, although the curriculum wasn’t as challenging, there were opportunities to get involved in high-level research. At a larger school, the research I was doing would have been done by grad students.
    I think there is a danger in saying that prestige is the most important quality of a university- for you, the Ivy might have been best, but that doesn’t mean it’s the overall best choice or even the best choice for everyone smart enough to get in.
    And there is a real difference in the kinds of students you find in grad school vs undergrad- with the possible exception of MBA and other vocational programs, most grad students choose that path because they enjoy learning and are interested in their subject. For many undergrads, college isn’t even a choice, just something society and their parents demand of them. That’s true at Ivies as much as at state schools.

  12. P.S. Sorry if I’m getting a little worked up over this particular post- at the present moment my only source of income is tutoring wealthy college and high school students, most of whom attend schools they couldn’t have gotten into if they were poor. And one of the ways they get into those schools is by hiring academic prostitutes like me, so I’m a little annoyed at the whole system and especially my place in it. Sorry for ranting all over your blog.

  13. liminal —
    In my graduate school life we interacted with a lot of undergrads so I had a pretty good feel for the education they were getting.
    I agree the school should matter more than the reputation, but in the real world prestige is a factor for many parents when it comes to schooling.

  14. Take them for as much as you can get! You’re “Trickle Down Economics” in action!
    I was offered a similar sort of job a few years ago tutoring high school kids to prepare for the written part of their college exams. This woman was going to pay me $250 an hour for three hours a week on Saturdays to tutor her student clients in her home. It was too repulsive to me to take and I turned her down because if she was going to pay me that much… how much was she scarfing off the top?