February 7, 2012

College debt outweighs post-academic opportunities

By Lee Cole–

What if there was a network of institutions across our nation specifically designed to take as much money as possible from you, all the while leading you on with false promises of future wealth and prestige? What if I told you this network of institutions is placing an enormous strain on our economy by causing countless Americans to go into debt? No, I’m not talking about predatory lenders or greedy firms on Wall Street. I’m talking about America’s universities and colleges.

Perhaps I’m being hasty. I look around at the University of Louisville, and I see well-meaning people. I see an atmosphere of serious scholarly work and a commitment to students. Surely this can’t be an elaborate hoax. Is it really possible that something insidious could be going on, just beneath the surface? When you look at the statistics, it’s hard to deny that there is something very wrong with the American higher education system.

Tuition rates speak for themselves, continuing to rise steadily. Around 23 percent of humanities students will end up $30,000 in debt, and 14 percent will end up owing more than $50000, according to the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. American’s student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt, according to the U.S. Department of Education, with total loans reaching $1 trillion this year. This puts a tremendous strain on young people trying to find jobs in the midst of a rough economic recovery. Furthermore, the chances of getting a job, particularly in the humanities, are rather slim. Students are expected to pay large sums of money with no guarantee that a career will be available at the end of their college days.

Despite all this, I don’t think that those in charge of our colleges and universities are knowingly perpetrating a scam. The numbers and my melodramatic opener make it seem like America’s colleges are havens for usurers, covens of Satanists or maybe united by the all-seeing eye of Sauron. While there is certainly something unfair taking place, I wouldn’t call it evil. Many professors and administrators undoubtedly see that tuition costs are outrageous and that more graduates are failing to find work and end up crippled by debt. Perhaps they feel that expensive education is better than no education, and they may be right.

Our universities have something of key importance going for them: a society in which going to college is expected. For many middle class Americans, it’s simply “the thing to do” once you’ve moved on from high school. But college isn’t right for everyone, as clichéd as that sounds. We need people to farm. We need people to work in the real world of real people and conflicts outside of the abstract world of academia. And yet so many young people are corralled into universities and continue to fuel the process, spending exorbitant sums of money, which they may never make back in their careers.

Public universities in California were free up until the 1960s. Yes, you read that right; if you were a student in a California public university in the 1950s, you were not expected to pay tuition. In 1960 with the passing of the California Master Plan for Higher Education, college was still considered “tuition” free, but fees were implemented. The same can be said for Baruch College in New York City, founded to be a free university. What has happened since that golden age? At one point did education become something only for the elite and the wealthy among us? As with so many things, when money becomes involved, fairness and opportunity go out the window. I wouldn’t think of calling college a rip-off if I were a student at Baruch College before it was part of CUNY and when it was still free to all. But when I look at higher education today, I’m not so sure.

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Cartoon by Michael Layman/The Louisville Cardinal

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