Sunday, July 24, 2011


Since we're piling on the "United States - Where Dysfunctional is the New Black!" I thought I'd add another log to the fire with some observations about the U.S. higher education system.

Conventional wisdom has gone all in for the "It's All About The Degree!" meme in the past two decades or so. Supposedly the fact that we have put in place tax, tariff, and economic policies that encourage "job producers" to produce jobs overseas is offset by the new excitement among Americans for going to college, getting degrees and thus moving into the Exciting World of the Real Middle Class. As opposed to those yobbo rivetheads who just ACTED middle class because their union jobs paid them so well.

Well, Ed over at Gin and Tacos has a nice little rant on the effect that this explosion of student bodies has had on the Grove of Acadame:
"The cost of higher education, either for students or state legislatures, isn't going to go down until they stop putting politically expedient Band-Aids on their problems (furloughs, larger classes, pay/hiring freezes, more temp labor in the classroom) and decide to focus on what is supposedly their core mission: educating people. The new $100 million MultiTainment Complex and the Orrin Hatch Learning and Instructional Center are expensive frills. Athletic programs are money-losing albatrosses. Administrators exist mostly to perpetuate the need for administrators. Teaching and research should be 99% of what we do. But mention that on the Campus Tour and watch the eyes start to glaze over…"
My experience teaching at community college mirrors his only without the research. My observation is that many, many of the students there were thoroughly unprepared for their junior college entry, that the community college did nothing, or next to nothing, to try and make things go better for the poor Powerpoint Fodder - in particular, most CCs and JCs are staffed with overwhelmed, overmatched adjunct faculty because the administrations know perfectly well that there are waaaaayyyyy more people out there with advanced degrees than there are teaching jobs for them - and their primary job seems to be to act as a revenue generator through monstrous tuition increases.

But on of Ed's commentors makes what I consider to be the most trenchant observation about this entire fucking mess; it's the credit, stupid.
"Comrade Luke has it right,"
he says,
"the root of the matter is the guaranteed student loan system that allow 18 year olds to amass debt beyond their comprehension that they will not be able to discharge even in bankruptcy.

If there aver were an argument for the free market it would be this. You can't charge more than your customers are willing to pay. The ready access to limitless credit to people who would never qualify for a loan of any kind is what has driven tuitions to the ludicrous levels they are today.

Perhaps someday when we acknowledge our third world status it will change but until then let's all celebrate the future of online education that costs just as much but without bothering with such things as classrooms, professors or even dorm rooms.

Bring on the future."
I know a young woman who is a tremendously bright, motivated person. Right now she is out of work, her unemployment is running out (she got temporary employment with the Census but that is going away, obviously) and she is crushed, completely buried under the student loans. Part of her problem is that she majored in a humanity that offers her little in the way of employment except in truly lush economic times.

But the other part is that she should never have been accorded the sort of credit it took for her to spend two years at UVA. It starts her off with a huge rock on her shoulders that will perforce warp her life as she struggles to carry it and has to find ways to pay it down.

Perhaps it's the curmudgeon in me. But it seems as I grow older that we have either found more perfect ways to do simple things wrong...or those ways were always there and it just took me that long to recognize them. Either way, it's like hitting oneself in the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop


  1. Every prospective college student should be forced to read posts like this.

    I graduated from a liberal arts program in 2009--I know a shocking number of people in the abovementioned situation.

    But worse yet, many are now taking on MORE debt to go to grad school (because as mentioned there are no jobs for liberal arts grads), which in turn leads to them being loaded up on debt and not being able to get a job because an MBA over-qualifies them for entry-level positions. Also you have people piling into law school, graduating with AN ADDITIONAL $100,000+ in debt and working as paralegals because there's a glut of lawyers out there already.

    Looks suspiciously like a big, fat credit bubble to me. And yes, these loans are being securitized...

  2. College education is a lot like Medicare - it's growth has increased unchecked at 2-3 times the rate of inflation for several decades. When I attended the University of Colorado in the late 1980's, tuition and fees were increasing about 7% (which caused some protests at the time) a year and it looks like that trend continued. Student loans aren't really the problem - it's the outrageously high - and growing - cost of education combined with a societal norm that suggests a degree is necessary if you want to make it.

  3. I personally favour education. People need a good grounding in order to make informed choices and I don't think High School gives kids enough time and tools to equip them for modern society. We could argue about college curriculums, but that is a different post

    That being said, the student loan scam is evil. Indentured Servitude. Wrong end of the curve ...

    Education should be strongly subsidized by the government and taxes should be collected to pay for it.

  4. Once again, I would quote Canadian historian Pierre Burton. "Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness" may be what we expect government to ensure, but in our model, that simply means the individual is superior to the collective well being. And, we have "progressed" to where the collective well being is definitely subordinate to individual, self seeking desires, no less approaching the point where there is no concept of a "collective well being" at all.

    State colleges and universities, once the provider of low cost, quality education to raise more of the masses to a higher level, are now damn near out of the reach of the lower 50% without taking on onerous debt.

    While it sounds good from a "libertarian" standpoint that people should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps", and easily available debt is alleged a tool for this, it's just farcical. We, as a nation, don't give a crap about any college bound student except our own relatives, and more precisely, our direct offspring. We enjoy eating our young, and investment in the future is only done when short term profits are easily seen.

  5. "Student loans aren't really the problem..."

    Basic economics says that you can only raise the price of something to the extent that you can still sell it. So if I try and sell my potatoes for $100/pound, I just won't sell any potatoes. So when you say "it's growth has increased unchecked at 2-3 times the rate of inflation for several decades." the concurrent thought would be...why? What's there in the economics of higher education that allows that sort of increase?

    A college education HAS been touted as a must-have, true. And certainly the increased demand has had an effect on raising tuition. But common-sense suggests that short of a lavish access to credit the supply of people able and willing to pay those gigantic tuition hikes would quickly begin to dry up - especially given the aggressive recruiting and increased enrollments that colleges and universities have been doing over the past 20-30 years.

    So this cash has got to be coming from somewhere. And what would seem to be the most likely culprit is the easy credit we enjoyed during that same time. Look at heath care; the increase in costs don't seem to be directly traceable to things like research or technical innovation - a hell of a lot of it seems to have to do with the fact that most medical payments come from some sort of "credit" - insurance, Medicare...there's no real force on the health care "market" (or the higher ed. market) to contain costs. You'd think that competing institutions would try and compete on costs...but instead, it's like a cartel, with everyone raising rates and the fancier "brands" raising rates faster...

    This is not to say that all student loans are bad, or that the solution is to crank back on access to higher education. But I would suggest that the demographics of student debt would be worth looking into.

  6. I guess it's a chicken-or-egg thing.

  7. Alas, Chief -- the "poor Powerpoint Fodder" are cash cows for the community college system.

    I want to say, "everyone profits but our society," but someone is raking in the profits when a student fails the same course 5 times. Loan officers/remediation centers/workforce innovation ... the whole lot of vendors preying upon the inadequacy of the system to the client.

    Why isn't the hand of the marketplace working here? I am appalled by the new rush to classroom-less classes -- no instructors, no seminars, no there, there. The "universe-city" is soon to be a nebulous thing in the ether, save for the top-tier institutions (much like in publishing, only a few big papers and imprints will generate anything tangible.)

    Though the trappings of the classroom will be gone, the price is not dropping anytime soon. Here in FLA, we have high schoolers sitting in teacherless classrooms. That certainly bodes well for the persistence of a clueless, herdlike society.

    It does seem "we have found more perfect ways to do simple things wrong."

  8. The thing that makes me suspicious about this is how it stands conventional loan behavior on its head.

    If I were to apply for any other sort of loan the issuing bank would (hopefully) vet the hell out of me. Credit score, past crdit history, collateral, proposed return, market conditions...I should have to have all my ducks in a very neat little row to get a sizeable chunk of cash out of a responsible lender.

    But these student loans are more like those loathsome student credit cards the companies push so hard at every September freshman fair; nobody gets refused, there's no external restraints - these little boogers get handed a wad of cash and just enough rope to hang themselves.

    Like I say - it just seems very shortsighted, although being honest no more so than about 85% of the things we take for granted in This Great Country.

  9. You are right I think about the student loans. But how do you change that for the better without antagonizing students, parents, universities, and banks?? That is a powerful lobby.

    As far as Junior College goes I had a different experience. The night courses I took at Community Colleges were well presented. Some were HS teachers or military officers moonlighting, one or two were engineers or businessmen who also had day jobs. All I thought were fairly dedicated to the learning of their students. But there were no freebies that I recall, you had to earn your grades. Outside of the Curve of course, but as far as I know the Curve used there was the same as used in four year schools. Nobody that I knew had student loans to get them thru JC. Perhaps it was different for the daytime students.

    Four-year universities were a different animal. Outside of maybe one or two classes that were outstanding, most that I had were taught by foreigners who could not even speak English correctly. How the hell did they ever get a professorship??? Probably many of them were grad students. The real professors were too busy stealing labor and ideas from their grad students and writing up experimental results in the academic press. Publish or perish was the motto in most American universities as I recall - no tenure for those that concentrated on teaching instead of research and bringing in grant money.

  10. When I went back to college my dad said, "I'll help you son, but I ain't paying for no history degree."
    One of the things I realized was that sometimes it's better to be in debt to the government than to the family.
    That being said, my dad did help, and I took on college loans...and, I also worked 25-to-30 hours a week...while taking a full load and majoring in Biology.
    The key thing is where I live...lots of money was going into biotech, and so...voila, after I graduated from college, and the mouse room, I moved on into FACS...which is a fancy way of saying "dead end career."
    Anyway, my wife and I paid off my debt to the government at fifty dollars a month till we had had enough, and few years later paid off the damn thing once and for all.
    But like with me, so to with my sons, college is not something to be taken lightly so like me, my sons have skin in the game...too many people I went to school with thought college was "party time!" and fortunately for me, I wasn't one of them, but they slacked off, failed, partied, failed, second chances, third chances, hey, don't cry, here's a class on how to study, fourth chances, till finally someone somewhere in the bureaucracy that is the University grew a pair, and had that "come to Jesus talk" about how college may not be that particular students bag.
    A lot of money is wasted on college, and in my opinion, yeah, it's a bitch, it sucks donkey balls, and a swim in Shit River would be healthier for one's future than taking a student loan, but I can guaranfuckingtee you that that student WILL be putting a lot of effort into their classes than the snot nose, punk ass, party boy/girl whose there throwing care to the wind because they're no longer in mommy's and daddy's house.
    College is not a fucking right of passage, or it shouldn't be viewed as's an institution of higher learning. To take one's passion to the next level so that once the individual leaves the Gold and Ivory Citadel they can function in their field of specialization like a boss, and not like some blow-hard chimp waving a banana peel around it's head.

    Sorry if this contravenes some peoples image of what college should be like, but if you ask me...that student loan should make people think twice, then long and hard about what they're going to College for long before they sign their souls over.

    Anyway, that's my two cents for whatever it's worth on the market.

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  12. mike and Sheerah,

    I agree with both of you -- mike, in that that is how it was and is at many state U's, Sheerah as that is how I approached university. I worked and I took out loans, and it was not a game without consequences.

    There was so much venality involved in the student loan/grant world, with many scamming the system, at least when I was in school. It's really a shame that people so often take advantage of benefits.

    I marvel today at the baby-boomer's kids who see college as 4-6 gap years, followed by grad school, also paid for by parents. Tutoring resources are always available for the bottom of the barrel and the top, and the kids in the middle (like me) suffered few resources.

    Having some experience administering a scholarship for studies abroad, I remember how those slotted for minority students went unclaimed. How I would have loved to have had a study abroad scholarship. Most kids who went were from wealthy families or sold their soul to the devil.