Class of 2013,
No one else is going to tell you this, so I might as well.
You sit here today, $30,000 or $40,000 in debt, as the latest victims of what may well be the biggest conspiracy in U.S. history. It is a conspiracy so big and powerful that Dan Brown won’t even touch it. It’s a conspiracy so insidious that you will rarely hear its name.
Move over, Illuminati. Stand down, Wall Street. Area 51? Pah. It’s nothing.
The biggest conspiracy of all? The College-Industrial Complex.
Consider this: You have just paid about three times as much for your degree as did someone graduating 30 years ago. That’s in constant dollars - in other words, after accounting for inflation. There is no evidence that you have received a degree three times as good. Some would wonder if you have received a degree even one times as good.
According to the College Board, in 1983 a typical private American university managed to provide a bachelor’s degree education to young people just like you for $11,000 a year in tuition and fees. That’s in 2012 dollars.
Instead, those of you at private colleges paid this year an average of $29,000.
And back then a public college charged just $2,200 a year in tuition and fees - in today’s dollars. You could get a full four-year degree for $8,800. Today that will get you one year’s tuition, or $8,700.
Notice, please, we are not even counting the cost of all the “extras,” like room and board. This is just the cost of the teaching.
It is, as a result, no surprise that total student loans are now approaching $1 trillion. They have easily overtaken credit card debts and car loans. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, total student loans have basically tripled since 2004. Fed researcher Lee Donghoon says in the last eight years the number of borrowers has gone up by about 70%, and the average amount owed has also gone up about 70%.
Donghoon calculates that about 17% of those with student loans are more than 90 days’ delinquent on their interest payments. Yet he also calculates that 44% haven’t even entered the repayment period at all.
If you turn to the pages of any newspaper you will read a lot of handwringing about this. You will hear attacks on “predatory” student loan companies, and “predatory... for-profit colleges.” You will hear about cutbacks on Pell Grants and federal aid and proposals to lower the interest rate on subsidized federal loans. But all of these comments ignore one basic problem.
It’s the cost, stupid.
U.S. colleges are a rip-off. Two decades ago I spent six years at Cambridge and Oxford universities and it didn’t cost me a nickel. Admittedly one reason was social policy: The taxpayers paid the bill (and a very good return they earned too, given the British taxes I paid once I graduated and started work). But the second reason was that these universities did not charge an arm, leg and other appendage for the act of teaching.
My undergraduate course at Cambridge largely consisted of one hour a week with a tutor, a weekly essay question and research list, and a library card. This teaching model hadn’t changed much, really, since the days of Aristotle. Student, teacher, discussion. See you same time next week.
How on earth do colleges today ramp up costs to $40,000 a year?
Yes, I know that in the sciences the costs of teaching may have risen to some extent legitimately. But that’s probably wildly exaggerated, especially at the undergraduate level. And in the humanities and liberal arts any claim that the real cost should be rising faster than inflation is complete nonsense.
Part of the answer lies in the arms race of fancy facilities being built by colleges. Part of the answer lies in escalating salaries, especially for academic “divas” - the marquee names recruited at great expense to bring in the customers... er, students. Part of the answer lies in institutional metastasis - the expansion of bureaucracy, like any bureaucracy.
The student drama facilities at Cambridge consisted of a few rooms here and there and a damp basement below an old church. Out of this the university produced the comedy trouple Monty Python, and a legion of successors. Hollywood director and actor Chris Weisz, who was at university when I was there, began his dramatic career in a bizarre play called Mango Tea in a room above a pub. But apparently today colleges need the dramatic facilities suitable for staging Les Mis.
Some members of the College-Industrial Complex are now talking about a new solution to bring down costs. They want to reduce, or eliminate, the amount spent on the actual teaching. Instead, students will watch online videos. Perhaps these will be on YouTube, or TED. It sounds like a column by the late, great Art Buchwald: “For $30,000 a year we can provide you with a top-of-the-range BA degree, just without any actual teaching.” You couldn’t make this up. But we’re already half way there anyway. Even today most undergraduates don’t get within a million miles of the big-name professors that they are paying for.
Today’s graduates, so badly served by comparison with their parents and grandparents, may look actually look lucky to those who come later. Costs are probably going to keep rising. The super-rich can bid up prices, just as they do for real estate in New York or London. (The difference is that you don’t have to live in New York or London, but you do have to get a degree. Unemployment rates for those without a bachelor’s degree are twice as high as for those who have one). The conspiracy will keep pushing for more federal support. more