Friday, October 25, 2013

From Strelnikov. On College Debt.

Here's something as an addendum to Bella's "$87,000 in debt for a public U education" post. One of the Heroes wrote this piece on where the Institution is going.

It's not a pretty picture, but then this website is called College Misery, right?

In the name of the Stalingrad dead and all Frontoviks evereywhere,


Academy Fight Song
by Thomas Frank
from The Baffler No. 23, 2013

This essay starts with utopia—the utopia known as the American university. It is the finest educational institution in the world, everyone tells us. Indeed, to judge by the praise that is heaped upon it, the American university may be our best institution, period. With its peaceful quadrangles and prosperity-bringing innovation, the university is more spiritually satisfying than the church, more nurturing than the family, more productive than any industry.

When we reach the end of high school, we approach the next life, the university life, in the manner of children writing letters to Santa. Oh, we promise to be so very good. We open our hearts to the beloved institution. We get good grades. We do our best on standardized tests. We earnestly list our first, second, third choices. We tell them what we want to be when we grow up. We confide our wishes. We stare at the stock photos of smiling students, we visit the campus, and we find, always, that it is so very beautiful.

And when that fat acceptance letter comes—oh, it is the greatest moment of personal vindication most of us have experienced. Our hard work has paid off. We have been chosen.

Then several years pass, and one day we wake up to discover there is no Santa Claus. Somehow, we have been had. We are a hundred thousand dollars in debt, and there is no clear way to escape it. We have no prospects to speak of. And if those damned dreams of ours happened to have taken a particularly fantastic turn and urged us to get a PhD, then the learning really begins.



  1. Sounds like a pretty accurate picture to me. I seem to remember some growsing when this first came out that Ginsberg's Fall of the Faculty (to which this author refers) is unfair/inaccurate in its portrait of the reasons for the huge growth in administration, but I'm not sure that's the central point (though cutting administration is certainly one solution I'd be happy to get behind -- well, I suppose, until some sort of support I value disappears. I'd definitely support cutting athletics drastically.)

    The part that rang most true for me is this:

    "The truth is that rip-offs like this abound in academia—that virtually every aspect of the higher-ed dream has been colonized by monopolies, cartels, and other unrestrained predators—that the charmingly naive American student is in fact a cash cow, and everyone has got a scheme for slicing off a porterhouse or two."

    This I'm extremely aware of. To stretch the metaphor a bit, much of what is making the cattle restive isn't the fault or responsibility of the faculty, but we're the ones in the pen with them, and therefore in greatest danger of getting trampled.

    1. Here's where Bubba's avatar comes in. We're just the cowboys in that big ol' Uni round-up.

      Or, if you like your metaphors a little less romantic, we need an Upton Sinclair for the academic world. We're the slaughterhouse workers, not paid enough to eat the porterhouses we slice off.

  2. That is some high-grade smackdown.

    "Better to be known for “vibrant” architecture, I guess, than for some old-fashioned nonsense about uplifting the non-wealthy."


  3. It's a long article, and the author understands it will have little to no impact.

    I doubt there will be a "breaking point" leading to major, sudden changes in American higher ed. We'll see maybe minor adjustments in the student loan industry, or greater acceptance of intro subjects taken online. Maybe. And the "adjunctification" of the faculty will continue, since it has the same effect as getting rid of tenure through attrition. And few institutions are less popular in the US than professorial tenure.

    This image of American undergraduate education as "best in the world" is just that, an image based on the myth that universities here are all like Princeton, Stanford or MIT. So plutocrats from all over send their kids to those places, much as they would give them a Mercedes. Educational placement consultants cash in. But in reality, at least in science/engineering/math, you can get an UG education in Germany, Brazil, South Korea or China comparable to the best you can get here. And the cost is zero. (Then they come and populate our graduate programs, where they're far more knowledgeable than the typical American graduate.)

    I wonder how many American undergraduates realize that in most advanced countries public higher education is tuition-free and of high quality. Admission is based mainly on entrance exams (and part of the high-school record, sometimes). To be sure, cram schools proliferate, and students at the best public U's come from the upper middle-class. In some cases (Germany, for example) an American high school diploma and language knowledge qualify a student for admission.

    Sometimes I mention this fact (tuition-free quality public education in other countries) to my students, in passing. Lightly, for it makes them uncomfortable. But once they realize those systems are supported by higher federal income taxes, even they would probably not support it. (Also, prof salaries tend to be lower--though they're all tenured, as public servants--and there are fewer academic positions per capita than in the US.)

    1. Of course, it would help to speak German, Portuguese, Korean or Chinese to get your education for free someplace like that. But I understand they are offering more and more courses in English for foreigners - and charging them "out-of-country" tuition.

    2. I'm more familiar with the situation in Germany, where indeed, increasingly, upper-division courses are taught in English (often by non-German profs, including American), mainly in the interest of intra-EU accessibility. As far as I know, there is no "special tuition" for Americans. Once admitted, they pay the same fees (nominal by our standards) as everyone else.

      Maybe this option will come to be seen as a good reason to become proficient in a foreign language at an early age. I imagine academic immigrants to the US will "pioneer" this trend, sending their kids to the country of origin once the ugly reality of FAFSA forms hits (worked for me, why not for junior?) Then it will gradually spread to their friends (equally poorly paid and education-aware academics), and later the general population.

  4. Thanks for this article, Strel. I've been offline but just took some time to catch up (although I did not read whatever happened on Sunday!).

    I feel very sad that the current generation will grow up unable to buy a house or live a "normal" middle class life because they chose....yes chose, in many cases, to incur debt they have no plan for paying back. If more students lived at home and chose the least expensive options for college, there would be far less debt!