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College math

High cost plus low value equals a brewing storm for higher education

College math


Driving past a Philadelphia college now in swing, taking in its neoclassical buildings, million-dollar gym, and campus buzz, I think to myself: “How is the modern college like a drugstore gift basket?” The answer: packaging. Remove all the cellophane wrapping, plastic grass, and bonbon boxes, and you’ve got a buck and a half’s worth of candy. Price tag: $30. 

How did we get to this place of overpriced packages with little substance inside? In The New School, Glenn Harlan Reynolds traces American higher education from its post–Civil War infatuation with the German model of a research university, in which publishing and prestige became the tail wagging the dog.

This brought a de-emphasis on the education of undergrads—except that they were needed for their tuition money. The debut of federal research grants and federal student aid after World War II made tuition less important—and people less sensitive about costs. Prices soared to meet the subsidies. All of which led to the bubble we have today. Price tag: $120,000.

Although they aren’t giving us much, we feel we need colleges for status insurance.

It would be one thing if the 120 grand were for skills an employer wants to pay you for after the commencement addresses are over. But behold the perfect storm of mushrooming costs and mushy courses: “Philosophy and Star Trek,” “How to Watch Television,” “Zombies in Popular Media,” “Queer TV Comedy Since Ellen Came Out.” Add to this a residual American snobbery toward the “trade school” idea of college as education in farming and mechanics, and you have a recipe for school-in-haste-and-repent-in-leisure. 

A mile up the road from open classroom discussions on “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame,” I am having my teeth fixed at the university’s dental clinic. I count as many as three dentists fussing over me at one time in a foreign language that is English. It restores my confidence to be in this different country where words have referents in the real world and are not just blowing smoke.

Meanwhile, back at the educational mirage 10 blocks south of my dentist chair, lemmings purchase the “college experience” on cheap credit because everyone else is doing it so it must be OK, and because the myth persists that a diploma is a ticket to prosperity. Lamentations 1:9 says no one considers his future. Or that the cost is 439 percent more than in 1982 and growing at four times the rate of inflation. Or that the product is dubious and the Gaga books can be read at home for free. 

Where is the money going? Not to faculty. When I was 18, colleges had more professors than administrators. Now it is reversed.

Political commentator Heather Mac Donald writes that the University of California diversity machine “includes the Chancellor’s Diversity Office, the associate vice chancellor for faculty equity, the assistant vice chancellor for diversity, the faculty equity advisors, the graduate diversity coordinators, the staff diversity liaison, the undergraduate student diversity liaison, the graduate student diversity liaison, the chief diversity officer, the director of development for diversity initiatives, the Office of Academic Diversity and Equal Opportunity, the Committee on Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Issues, the Committee on the Status of Women, the Campus Council on Climate, Culture and Inclusion, the Diversity Council, and the directors of the Cross-Cultural Center, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center, and the Women’s Center.”

Even as state and local aid dries up, the powers that be will be loath to kill these diversity sacred cows. 

The Catch-22 is that although they aren’t giving us much, we feel we need colleges for status insurance. Even that wears thin, however, when many college grads don’t have a job, at least in the field they want. But what if we rethought college entirely? What if we didn’t take it as automatic? What if we refused to go into debt? What if we recovered the biblical value of manual labor and crafts? What if the jobs of the future will be based on on-the-job training? As author Glenn Reynolds says, “If you want your toilet fixed, it can’t be done by somebody in Bangalore.”

What is not sustainable will not be sustained. It’s all fun and games now; but when houses are make-believe, they will not keep out the rain. And indications are that it will be raining presently.



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  • JGWillson's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:13 am

    This article strike
    very close to home and at my heart.  I
    have 4 children ranging in age from 12 to 19; so I’m battling the college cost
    problem head on.  My dilemma is that the
    bible teaches that we should not incur debt. 
    It also teaches that we should not be conformed to the world.  So here I sit.  I’ve done all that I could to save what I can
    in today’s economy.  My wife and I homeschooled our children and poured our life into them. 
    They’ve done excellent.  Using my
    son as an example, he’s scored a 31 on his ACT.

    Yet despite all of my efforts, I
    cannot afford to send him to a Christian school, without his taking on enormous
    debt.  I can afford to send him to a
    state university with the academic scholarships that he earned, but not a Christian university.  They’ve priced themselves at 3X
    to 4X the state college after scholarship funds are factored in.  So unless some benevolent benefactor appears out of nowhere, he’s will earn his degree (Media
    Production) from worldly professors.  I pray that the Lord will protect his heart and not corrode his potential for the kingdom.

    Have Christian universities lost
    their mission?  We made it so costly that
    we force students to choose between debt and the world.  It seems to me that this, in either choice,
    is a detriment to impacting the world for Christ.  Christian university administrators will have
    to stand before Christ one day and account for their stewardship.  Will they hear, “Well done?”

  • LL
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:13 am

    Most colleges and universities need to come down out of the ivory tower and focus on practical ways to equip students for life and leadership -- both of which are messy and require lots of wisdom that goes way beyond textbook learning. The colleges and universities who courageously discover new and better ways to educate, train and equip students without loading them up with debt will be the new leaders in higher education. Schools must focus on practical solutions and delivering the greatest value for every dollar invested in a season of higher learning. Traditional approaches to work and careers is not enough when there simply are not enough good, full-time jobs. While the current emphasis on entrepreneurship is a good start, most ventures that focus on getting rich quick fail. Students need work and volunteer experience to gain a greater understanding of their strengths. This takes time. A patient commitment to self-employment may be the answer for more and more students who recognize the need for hard work and the fallacy of a get rich quick mentality. Can colleges and universities change fast enough to continue their role in equipping future workers, business owners and leaders? This remains to be seen. As leaders and parents, we need to speak up, participate, and encourage colleges and universities to deliver better solutions for today's students. Much about our future depends on it. 

  • DC
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:13 am

    #4 Post by TexasCrane. Leave it to Texans to come up with the Wisdom in room. There isn't anything wrong with taking a chance (loan) on your future. $120,000 is a reasonable amount to spend on a graduate degree. Yes, only 30% of Californians complete their college degree, so many of those who spend their first year's tuition have lost a lot of money, but the attempt is worthy of the ambition. We should still encourage the attempt, as we strive to prove our gifts intellectually and with persistence. There's city college for those who take the long road. My kids have all the money they need for college, yet half of them are choosing to use city college on the route. One paid full tuition and loved the experience. Another, is earning tons of scholarships, to the point that it's almost gifted by the college's appreciation of the child's gifts. I love the real world focus and do believe that most of the basic college information should be free on the internet. Have free, assessment testing to prove worth of the information the student has learned and bypass the crazy price tag. But the price tag is only crazy when you compare it to a free internet/assessment test process. It's not a crazy price tag for the benefit, at this time. Yes, and thank you, Ms. Peterson for the "referents" lesson. See, we can learn just by paying attention.

  • Brightsword
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:13 am

    Wonderful article and insight... Attending a college replete with a "diversity machine" is a dangerous place of contrary influence. Also, the many textbooks used, whether hardbound or online are expensive, and become out of date rapidly due the reality of change. Perhaps, before going into higher education debt, one should diligently be learning the one Book that does not change! Then, I believe some clear decision guidance, replete with His purpose, will arise to help with the "diversity and debt" issue and the follow-the-pack mentality. I hope the wisdom, pleasure, and provision a trade can provide comes back in vogue. 

  • Debbie in Florida
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:13 am

    It took me weeks to get our chain saw repaired.  The owner told me that he has more work than he can possibly do, but there is no place to go in the state of Florida to get training in small engine repairs.  Every store owner like himself is vying for the few people who are trained to do this valuable trade.  The same holds true for many of my self-employed friends who need honest, hard-working young people trained in irrigation systems, construction, and service industries.  We certainly have our priorities mixed up when we counsel our young people about how to prepare for their futures. 

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:13 am

    very good article. Texas Crane - agreed, but on the whole Andre is right. Grove City College in PA is fantastic, probably close to $20 k per year. on the other hand - every Supreme Court Justice is from Harvard or Yale. And none of them Protestant.

    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:13 am

    I think student loans can and should be reserved only for people majoring in something where it is likely that they'll pay back the loans. This mostly applies to government loans because the rubes who give out the loans aren't the suckers who are going to be on the hook when these students renege on their debts.

  • TexasCrane
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:13 am

    Please be careful to not put all schools in the same basket.  There are great Christian schools out there that are serving the Lord by preparing students to have a Christian worldview along with the skills and knowledge necessary to get a job.  You do make some valid points, however there are other reasons for increased tuition costs than a bloated administration and million dollar gyms. Some schools are doing the best they can while paying ever increasing health insurance costs and coping with added regulatory and accreditation demands. Finally, you can't force a student to choose a major that will virtually guarantee a job (such as MIS, Accounting, Computer Science, Nursing). Don't students have some responsibility in the outcome when they take out $50K in loans for a ________________ degree (I didn't want to be mean, so I left the type of degree blank.)?

  •  bwsmith's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:13 am

    Hoping that the industrial arts, and the commercial classes in high school will be restored. 

  • JerryM
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:13 am

    Don't forget the corporatization of higher education: Institutions sell their "brand" which, for now, usually means something in the wider culture.  But higher education, and what these institutions stand for, appear more like a bubble that as your article alludes appears close to popping.