mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
The War Against the Young Part II

Not only are American colleges and universities strangling the humanities, they are bankrupting an entire generation to do so. Another article by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in The Atlantic provides the latest on the college loan bubble, which is nearing one trillion dollars across the country, and the misplaced priorities of American universities:

A fact of academic life is that the tuition-debt nexus keeps most colleges going. At Loyola University in Chicago, 77 percent enroll with loans, as do 85 percent in New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce. At historically black colleges, where endowments are low and students are often poor, it’s usually 90 percent. Nor is soaring private tuition the only reason. At public Kentucky State University, with only $6,210 in charges, 76 percent sign up for loans; so do 85 percent at the University of North Dakota, where state residents pay $6,934. What these figures suggest that borrowing is as much to finance living away from home as for bursars’ bills. Books, travel, and socializing quickly add up. Room and board charges have doubled in actual dollars since 1982 to enhance campus life. Bowdoin’s menu features vegetable polenta and butternut soup, while Penn State provides legal downloads of music numbering two million songs a week. But let’s be clear. It’s not the colleges which are paying for these and similar amenities. It’s the students, mainly by borrowing, which the colleges actively encourage.

As the quality of liberal arts education falls, the cost rises; many universities attempt to lure students with fancy sports complexes, fine dining, and luxurious amenities while forsaking their basic mission. Misplaced spending priorities are partially to blame, but government subsidies play a role as well. Government-subsidized loans and aid have become a fundamental part of the college process for a growing majority of students at private colleges. On the one hand, this seems reasonable — intelligent students should not be barred from a good education simply due to the poverty of their parents. These loans, however, pervert incentives for the schools: rather than forcing schools to compete by delivering a better education for a lower price, the abundance of loans guarantees a steady flow of students even as prices rise into the stratosphere. Instead, schools compete based on frills such as gourmet dining and extravagant dormitories — even as officious governments shackle colleges with ever more onerous and unsupportable burdens.

Fears of another financial crisis fueled by student loan debt may be overblown, but the dangers of crippling, “non-dischargeable” loan debt are a very real danger for America’s young. The worst cost may not be the poverty; it is the loss of freedom in the twenties.  These are the years when young people should be traveling, chasing dreams, experimenting with ideas, identities and vocations.  Student loans chain them to desks and routines.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  One of the largest threats to America’s youth comes from the unintended consequences of the malign interplay of two of the country’s bluest institutions: the federal government and the ivory tower of academia.

Features Icon
show comments
  • McDonnell

    I don’t know about chasing dreams versus being chained to routines, but it seems that a relatively recent grad with with $500, $1000, or higher monthly nut to crack isn’t in much of a position to afford a new home or children – at least until later when his debt has been paid or his salary has risen high enough to allow more flexibility.

    What will the social and economic impact be when people with college or graduate degrees can’t enter into those institutions until their early 40s?

  • WigWag

    Professor Mead is precisely right about this; in fact, he probably understates the case. There is no more glaring example of waste, fraud, abuse and laziness than is evident in the world of higher education.

    It reminds me of a story about Woodrow Wilson that may be apocryphal; when he was asked which was harder, being President of Princeton or President of the United States, Wilson responded that being President of Princeton was far harder. When asked why he felt this way, Wilson explained it was simple; as President of the United States he didn’t have a faculty to worry about.

    Probably the laziest and most pampered group in the United States is tenured university faculty; especially in the social sciences and the humanities. Typically paid in the high five figures or low six figures for teaching one or in some cases two classes per semester, the maximum number of hours they need to actually stand in front of students imparting knowledge is significantly less than ten hours per week. In many cases, these faculty members are teaching courses that they’ve taught for decades so very little preparation time is needed. As for grading papers, Professor Mead is one of the few college faculty members who spend his train rides grading papers himself; many faculty members assign this unpleasant task to graduate teaching assistants. Despite their incredibly modest workload, no group feels more aggrieved or complains more about their working conditions than college faculty.

    But the incredibly cushy jobs offered to university faculty and administrators are only one way that universities rip off students and taxpayers. Perhaps the most egregious rip off perpetrated by universities comes in the form of indirect or overhead costs associated with research grants.

    Most successful universities bring in millions of dollars in research grants each year from various federal agencies including the Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, NASA and many, many more. Some institutions like Bard get a relatively small number of federal grants, but institutions like Professor Mead’s previous employer, Yale, bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants every year.

    When a faculty member applies for a grant to a federal agency, he submits a budget for items like personnel, supplies, equipment, etc to underwrite the cost of the research project that he is working on. In addition to the budget submitted by the faculty member, his or her university typically adds an additional amount to the requested budget for overhead expenses. Some of these overhead expense are legitimate; they underwrite the cost of budget items like electricity, Xeroxing and secretarial help. But many of these overhead costs are not legitimate; they underwrite the excessively large compensation packages of university administrators and other “overhead expenses” that University Presidents should be embarrassed to acknowledge. At smaller institutions like Bard, the indirect cost rate is usually around 50-60 percent; at bigger institutions like Yale and Harvard, the indirect cost rate frequently tops 90 percent. That means if a Yale Faculty member applies to the National Institutes of Health to conduct research into a new treatment for cancer and the budget for his project averages around $300,000, Yale adds an additional $270,000 to the budget to cover its “overhead.” There is no negotiation here; the government just pays whatever the institution’s indirect cost rate is.

    Abuse of indirect cost rates by American universities literally costs American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars every year, yet most Americans have never even heard of this scam. About 30 years ago, when Bill Bennett was Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration he tried to focus attention on this problem but lobbyists for the higher education industry shot him down and the issue hasn’t received public attention since.

    It’s a real crime. But the abuse by America’s universities doesn’t stop there. These institutions rip off college athletes who generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue through college football and basketball programs and they rip off graduate and postgraduate students who are forced to teach, serve as lab proctors and act as paid slaves to tenured university faculty.

    If ever an institution called out for disintermediation, its American higher education.

    What I don’t understand is why Professor Mead doesn’t get started already.

  • Kenny

    And who is going to marry a woman with a $50,000 student loan debt and assume that responsibility.

  • Merina Smith

    In fertility terms, women have far fewer options than men. Most women aren’t aware that fertility starts to decline gradually 10 years after the onset of mensus. Consequently, the most sensible life course for women is to have their children beginning in their twenties. If they want to also spend some years at home raising the kids, there won’t be much time to gain education and a career. On the upside, however, they will be fairly young when their children enter school and can pursue further education and a family-friendly career at that point. They will also still be on the young side when they become empty nesters and can pursue career options then. In light of this, it also makes sense to pursue less expensive educational options–starting in a community college if one is available will save young people a boatload of money. If they then move to a decent state school and forget about expensive private colleges, they will not be burdened with debt for the first 20 years of their working life and will be much freer to start families and buy homes. Young people whose talents are not academic should not go to college at all but should develop the talents they have. I have a very talented hairdresser and she makes a good income. I pay a lot of money to the people who repair my plumbing, put on a new roof, clean my pool, spray for ants, etc. These are dignified and important jobs in my view. I’m very grateful that there are people to provide these services. If everyone thought they were above such work, where would we be?

  • J R Yankovic

    BADLY needed message from WRM (who’s to say some of the best – and most eloquently written – essays can’t be done in miniature?). His point about the premature enslavement of the young to desks and routines is especially on-target. And reinforcement from (yes, I’ll say it again) serious heavyweights like WigWag is always appreciated. Carry on.

  • RCL

    Federal subsidies and interference has warped the education market even more than the healthcare market. While the left rails against private insurance and healthcare corporations as “greedy” they’re silent as state and private academics pillage their clients wealth.

    The government needs to get out of both industries and let them work their way back to a competitive market. It will be painful but it should improve the quality and lower the price.

  • Jim.

    @McDonnell –

    I think we’re already seeing the effects of student loan payments on whether people are truly Middle Class, in terms of both spending power and family formation.

    Think about it — financial institutions tell you, “even if you have to make loan payments, you’re still better off having that degree”. The problem is, you only have to be *marginally, on-average* better off for this to be true. “On-average” means that some fall below (some well below) the benefit.

    The race to “marginal” is destroying the benefit these degrees used to confer. Instead of making a thousand more a month with a good degree, you make a hundred more a month (after loan payments). These are not going to be the Middle Class consumers everyone needs, for the economy to keep humming. It also violates graduates’ expectations, which can be very dangerous in terms of the social fabric — either they will over-rely on credit to make up the difference in status spending, or they will become discontented. And it’s very dangerous when effective people get discontented.

    Then there is the family / birthrate problem. The simple fact is that while expensive technology has made it possible for women to have children later in life, it is difficult, unreliable, and extremely expensive. Women need to spend some time in their 20s having children (plural) while it’s most healthy, and science has done little to change that.

    This could be resolved by returning to a “men get established and then marry younger women” model of family, as humanity has in the past, but the push for marriage to be a match between equals rather than a matter of dependency for women militates against that.

    One thing is undeniably true, though — the future belongs to those who show up. The Blue Social Model, of which subsidized education and marriage-of-equals are integrable parts, cannot propagate itself into the future.

    A hopeful sign, though — voters are realizing that things don’t get cheaper if you throw more money at them. The Blue Social Model is going to change.

  • Jeff77450

    I’m 52 and like so many of my generation I was the first in my family to go to college. My parents weren’t in a position to give me any advice other than “Get an education so that you don’t have to dig ditches for a living.” I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing when I started college and got a fairly worthless humanities degree. I was very fortunate to stumble upon a career-field that had it’s own training program and just wanted applicants to have a four-year degree.

    I have two sons in college. During their high school years I told them repeatedly, “Don’t make the mistake that I did and get a humanities degree. When deciding what to major in ask yourself ‘what is this degree *actually* going to qualify me to do?’ A degree in accounting, health-care (BSN), engineering or I.T. actually qualifies you to *do* something.” A humanities degree qualifies you to appear on _Jeopardy_.

    @Kenny: “High five guy!!” 🙂

  • John Barker

    As one who has advised many students on applying to college, I notice that the one unvarying and nearly universal entrance requirement is that the student attempt to qualify for federal or state grants.

  • Scott

    Prof. Mead, have you been following the student protests in Chile? I find it quite disheartening that students in probably the most free-market oriented country in South America, one that’s been very successful and prosperous in the post Pinochet era, have brought the educational system to a grinding halt. I accidentally stumbled onto a far left European blog recently that was championing these student protests and suggesting (I think they were hoping) the student protests may lead to a wholesale political revolution.

    If you’ve been following it and have any observations, I’d be very interested to read your perspectives.

    P.S. If you’ve written about it before, sorry, I just recently started following your blog regularly.

  • WigWag

    One of the things that makes the “War Against the Young” such a one sided battle is the outsized influence that the higher education lobby has on every sector of the American Government both at the national and state level and on a bipartisan basis.

    It is hard to think of an institution whose influence has been more pernicious than Yale.

    Yale University claims amongst its alumni, five former Presidents, including George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford and William Howard Taft.

    Its alumni also include 50 United States Senators including six sitting Senators and 26 Governors. Yale’s influence on the Supreme Court has also been profound; 17 Justices are Yale alumni including three sitting Justices (Alito, Sotomayor and Thomas).

    A similar list of powerful alumni could easily be formulated for Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc.

    Given the reactionary nature of these institutions when it comes to protecting the current system under which they operate, it is hard to imagine that educational reformers have much hope unless they take the bull by the horns themselves and invent a new model. One thing those putative reformers can count on, is the fact that these Ivy League institutions will do everything in their power to protect their prerogatives and stifle reform. While they do so, smaller, less powerful colleges and universities will be cheering their more powerful colleagues on. Reformers can also count on the fact that Yale, Harvard, Princeton and the other Ivy League institutions will do everything that they can to motivate their alumni who serve in government to prevent reform from taking place.

    There are few institutions in the United States that have as much influence with government officials from both political parties.

  • Joe

    I’m enrolled at UW Madison in WI, with relatively modest tuition costs, and on the GI Bill. I’m still going to end up with ~$5,000 in debt by the time it’s all said and done, since my engineering degree will take more than the standard 8 semesters to complete. But at least I’ll have an engineering degree.

    Many friends of mine have recently graduated to get jobs at, for example, the Apple store. “I work in retail.” With $50,000 + in debt. Contrast that with somebody who doesn’t have a degree, doesn’t have any debt, but still has essentially the same job–who’s better off?

    It’s an easy question to answer, and one that many young people are increasingly starting to ask, now that the true cost of a college education is being discussed in ever-widening circles.

  • Anthony

    College/university-financial aid nexus became predominant during early eighties as loans, grants, and federal/state dollars made up larger share of institutional dollars – now we have legacy identified by The War Against the Young Part I and II. Many vested interests have arisen over last thirty plus years WRM and to counter their ongoing threat to America’s youth will require involvement of unconcerned parties – Americans who think they have more pressing needs.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service