Paying for College

Has Reality Tarnished the College Concept?

A while back, I wrote a post here entitled B.R.O.K.E.N. In it, I railed about why the ideal of college has become corrupted and is slouching toward irrelevance. At the risk of quoting myself, I made some points to support my thesis:

Generally, I’m not big on cute acronyms, but I thought I would coin one (the one in my title above) to set the tone for my opinion piece today. I’ve been an avid observer and professional/parental participant in all things higher education for going on three decades now. At this advanced stage of my observational participation, I’m convinced of one thing: the higher education system (perhaps better said as “industry”) is heading for a major crash and culture change. Thus, B.R.O.K.E.N. — Berry’s Ruminations OKilling Education’s Nexus. 


… What’s killing it? That’s easy: unaffordability. Granted, there will always be those who can afford it, or as the assassin, Joubert said in Three Days of the Condor, “Someone is always willing to pay.” However, the staggering student loan debt in this country speaks to the simple fact that far more are willing to go into debt, sometimes a lifetime of debt, in order to gain entrance into those (at least for now) hallowed halls of ivy. I won’t burden you here with the familiar data that show how college costs have far outstripped inflation and even medical costs across the decades. You can take my word for it or, as legendary Yankee manager Casey Stengel use to say, you can “Look it up!”

Apparently, others out there share this sentiment. Some, though, are far more articulate than I am, plus they have additional points of view that exceed my cost concerns.

In case you’re curious, the pictured professor here is Animal House‘s Prof. David Jennings, who, in his own way, speaks to some of the issues regarding my alleged “tarnished” college concept. Another spokesperson for the current college conundrum is Nick Romeo, a nationally published journalist, former hedge-fund staffer, and author of the internationally published humor book 11,002 Things to Be Miserable About. One of the more prominent things Nick is miserable about is higher education.

His recent Daily Beast articleHow to Reinvent College, leads off with sentiments similar to my B.R.O.K.E.N. contention:

An undergraduate having to pay off $120,000, and a university that has more than $165 million in debt? Paying adjuncts less but having them teach more, and instructors who give As 43 percent of the time? Nick Romeo on a new book that critiques how higher education has changed, and what needs to be done to save it.

That should whet your college-interests whistle. Of the many excellent points in Romeo’s article, I think this statement may well qualify as his point: “This intensifying struggle to gain prestige and profits has led to rising costs and falling quality.”

Rising costs and failing quality. If I were a parent pondering my co-signing of large college loans, the “failing quality” part of Romeo’s thesis would keep me up at night. In discussing the power of colleges to woo prospectives, he notes:

Ask a 17-year-old about college and you’ll probably hear the word “fit.” It’s the most pervasive and elusive metaphor of the college search: a quasi-religious, quasi-romantic sense of rightness that descends on students as they tour the manicured lawns of the perfect school, the one that feels, in some mystical way, like a good fit.

The hazy imprecision of this notion is a triumph of college marketing. Many colleges hope that whims and intangibles will guide student decisions. It’s simply not in their interest to encourage students to think closely about the economics of their choice. …

What starry-eyed high schooler hasn’t been dazzled by those manicured lawns, Gothic buildings, and the overwhelming sense of academic Nirvana? Unfortunately, collegiate catnip many times overrides that rational part of the brain (and wallet) that cries, “But how can you afford all this?!” The catnip counterpoint comes from Romeo, when he says, “it’s common for students to select a college based more on impulse and intuition than data.” I can vouch for that. I’ve seen many ill-advised decisions in my day as an independent college admissions counselor. The saddest part of bad decisions comes not at the front-end of the process but, rather, at the end, after graduation, when the realities of crushing loan debt and meager, shockingly low-paying job opportunities collide like a cinematic train wreck.

Romeo’s contentions touch some especially sensitive nerves. “The colleges with the most to conceal tend to be expensive 2nd- and 3rd-tier private institutions. For instance, 85 percent of students from Ohio Northern graduated with debt averaging almost $49,000, while the median starting salary for graduates is just $44,800. Compare these figures with the statistics for Princeton, where the average debt is $5,225 for the 23 percent of graduates with any debt, while the median starting salary is $56,900.”

I’ve always tended toward the arguable logic of getting into the best and most expensive school that you can. Romeo’s point about the costly, lower-ranked schools seems to echo this, especially with his Princeton comparison.

Like a rousing Beethoven symphony or sonata, Romeo musters a memorable coda:

There’s something undeniably appealing about the romance of the chance discovery, whether of a subject or a college. But the costs of the current system are unsustainably high. If students and families still want to follow their marketing-fueled whims to a given college or pursue a subject with dismal job prospects, no one will stop them. But as [Jeffrey] Selingo [author of College (Un)Boundobserves, American higher education in its current state risks becoming, like the auto industry, a failed icon of arrogance, waste, and inefficiency.

Wow … “a failed icon of arrogance, waste, and inefficiency.” That about wraps ‘er all up, as Sam Elliott portraying The Stranger in The Big Lebowski intones. Are Romeo and I (and others) saying that college is a bad idea? Of course not.

However, what we are saying is that there may be a better path to a life’s fulfillment. Perhaps the core of the problem, at least as I see it, is that the juncture for this significant decision occurs at the intersection of immaturity and inexperience for most young people. Even mature, learned parents often fail as consultants to the many times flummoxed high school senior trying to make his or her best decision about college and life.

Perhaps my growing caution (may I dare call it cynicism?) about higher education has been fueled by an insider’s comment. Years ago, as I was steeped in writing about the allure of college, especially the magnetic,  so-called “elite” aspects, a friend of mine who was on the faculty of a large “prestigious” university countered my effusions with a torpedo that detonated below my water line. He scoffed and drolly said, “Higher ed: The best scam goin’.”

That was over 20 years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. Apparently, the clues were already out there. Maybe my glasses were too rose colored back then. To paraphrase a popular song from the Seventies, I can see more clearly now; the blush is gone.

I don’t like to end a post or discussion on a negative note. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not “down” on college. I’m just concerned about the outcomes I’m seeing for those graduates today who are struggling, straight out of the collegiate chute, with loan debt and career disappointments. So, who’s to blame? I won’t point a finger, but there are suspects. Nick Romeo’s words come back to haunt: “Many colleges hope that whims and intangibles will guide student decisions. It’s simply not in their interest to encourage students to think closely about the economics of their choice.”

File all this under Stuff That Might Be True. Check it out. Try not to be someone who quickly reaches for the Brasso when you encounter that tarnished college concept.

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Be sure to check out all my other college-related articles at College Confidential.