The College Pyramid08-20-2021
Rebecca Gordon asks about the ethics of teaching in Universities where students increasingly graduate with immense debt and few meaningful prospects. She notes that “The average number of doctorates earned over the last decade is almost 53,000 annually. In other words, we're talking about nearly 530,000 PhDs produced by American higher education in those 10 years alone. Many of them have ended up competing for a far smaller number of jobs in the academic world.” But even before the Ph.D., the pursuit of a college degree is, for many, increasingly looking like a pyramid scheme. She writes:
In 1970, when I went to Reed, a small, private, liberal arts college, tuition was $3,000 a year. I was lucky. I had a scholarship (known in modern university jargon as a "tuition discount") that covered most of my costs. This year, annual tuition at that same school is a mind-boggling $62,420, more than 20 times as high. If college costs had simply risen with inflation, the price would be about $21,000 a year, or just under triple the price.
If I'd attended Federal City College (now the University of D.C.), my equivalent of a state school then, tuition would have been free. Now, even state schools cost too much for many students. Annually, tuition at the University of California at Berkeley, the flagship school of that state's system, is $14,253 for in-state students, and $44,007 for out-of-staters.
I left school owing $800, or about $4,400 in today's dollars. These days, most financial "aid" resembles foreign "aid" to developing countries—that is, it generally takes the form of loans whose interest piles up so fast that it's hard to keep up with it, let alone begin to pay off the principal in your post-college life. Some numbers to contemplate: 62% of those graduating with a BA in 2019 did so owing money—owing, in fact, an average of almost $29,000. The average debt of those earning a graduate degree was an even more staggering $71,000. That, of course, is on top of whatever the former students had already shelled out while in school. And that, in turn, is before the "miracle" of compound interest takes hold and that debt starts to grow like a rogue zucchini.
It's enough to make me wonder whether a seat in the Great American College and University Airplane Game is worth the price, and whether it's ethical for me to continue serving as an adjunct flight attendant along the way. Whatever we tell students about education being the path to a good job, the truth is that there are remarkably few seats at the front of the plane.
Of course, on the positive side, I do still believe that time spent at college offers students something beyond any price—the opportunity to learn to think deeply and critically, while encountering people very different from themselves. The luckiest students graduate with a lifelong curiosity about the world and some tools to help them satisfy it. That is truly a ticket to a good life—and no one should have to buy a seat in an Airplane Game to get one.