Let’s talk about all that money that you’re spending on college, and more important, how you’re spending it.
Now, it is not my sincere intention to deflate anybody’s boners here – what with the new school year approaching and all – so this is somewhat optional reading if you’re really, really keen on that whole ignorance is bliss nonsense. But this is a red-button issue if there ever was one, and it behooves one to at least become marginally familiar with the general shape of the pretty stupid conversation that’s going on about it right now.
It is very, very difficult for such a small person as myself to think about, write on, or even hint upon the rather complex and delicate topic of the college debt issue. And truthfully, this isn’t going to be a very coherent or original post, but that isn’t the goal here. The goal is to get something going.
(Disclaimer: Much of this is an opinion piece.)
First things first. On the homepage of the NYT website this morning is a link to the Opinion-Debate section, entitled “Is Education a Losing Bet?” The answer to that question is “Of course not, you conceptually-challenged dilettante.” There can and should be no doubt that people should be educated to obtain knowledge and skills, to be able to think critically and passionately about themselves and the world around us, and to be instilled with a sense of humility and openness that encourages an active engagement with the greater unknown beyond. So, to whoever it was that decided to run with that misleading title, Fuck You and Fuck Your Degree too. (Who the hell taught you how to lead stories?)
The actual content of the NYT Debate is about the cost of a college education these days and whether that’s worth it – and looking at the way the previously (somewhat) noble Ivory Tower is morally buckling beneath the pressure of an economy riddled with a viral infection, it’s a pretty damn good question to ask.
For clarity’s sake, let’s break the issue down:
The Increasing Pool of Student Debtors
Last week The Atlantic published an article concerning the rather questionable relationship between universities and their students, illustrating a semi-parasitic connection that is in all realistic terms to the detriment of the student in specific and the economy as a whole. Put simply, the whole business can be broken down as such:
- Colleges and universities need cash to do shit. (Think Fauver flat-screens, expanding the College of the Environment, so on and so forth)
- While some of that cash comes from alumni gifts (aka you soon) and endowments (increasingly dwindling nowadays due to the bad investment climate of the economy and the occasional swindling Madoff types), the majority of that cash come from tuition payments. So they up that tuition fee number to cater for the new initiatives and projects, while adjusting for inflation and the changing face of the integrated global economy.
- Now, this means that tuition fees in total are typically too high for most students’ actual current existing assets. Of course, when we talk about schools like Wesleyan, a good portion of kids don’t have to take out loans because they’re already with adequate assets to begin with and there are also kids who do come here with some scholarship from somewhere or another (though they’re a major minority).
- But in this day and age it’s sort of the norm that if you want a job with any scintilla of a promise of a future, you need to hold at least a BA. And more often than not, the quality of that BA is not derived from the classes that went to the attainment of that BA but rather from where the BA comes from. (A few contestable point, admittedly, and it will be acknowledges that some classes do grant certain employable skills that pop up in the CV, so on and so forth).
- Because of this, you end up with legions and legions of kids who take out loans in order to buy into this system that ostensibly promises a sunny future (complete with unicorns that piss rainbows), thus committing themselves into a long-term relationship with institutions and places that gave them the money in the first place. And like all long-term relationships where one side is mistakenly deluded into it without considering the full reality of the situation, it typically ends with that one side (you) curled up in the corner of a motel room in a wife-beater crying yourself to sleep and/or death.
In other words, you the student have a vested interest in becoming a debtor, and universities also have a vested interested in students becoming debtors. Which would be (somewhat) okay, if the economy wasn’t such a complete fucking mess.
The Consequence of there being a Terrible Economy when there is an increasing number of Student Debtors
Theoretically this is okay if in the long term the student is able to accumulate enough income power to pay off those loans. The student’s subsequent existence in any and all cases is a juggling act – whatever money earned is divided into the portion that is paid back to those pimp daddies that money is owed to and the other portion to building up our own assets for the future (i.e., getting a house, buying a significant other, producing babies, so on and so forth). However, as previously established, the economy sucks balls. Bad.
For the recent liberal-arts graduate (and most other types of graduates) this means that there are no jobs. Or more accurately put, no jobs that you’re willing to take because hell I spent four bloody years in a top liberal arts college and there’s no bloody way I’m going to do accounts for Dunder Mifflin. Wait. No, actually, even if I wanted to do accounts for Dunder Mifflin, they’re probably too shit-scared or too shit-poor to hire me any way. There are just not enough jobs adequate for the debt level.
Likely earning power in a projected ten-year post-college timeline, then, is fucking low. That is to say, you stand a really bad chance in solidly building up anything towards a future unless you’re already loaded to begin with (and thus in possession of a strong base on which to construct your asset-building apparati – investments, property, whatever) or mom and dad are willing to share the cash cow with you. The general consequences have two major arcs:
- You’re fucked. Go live in mom and dad’s basement – see Adventureland, the implied lifestyle of most Michael Cera movies, etc. You proceed to live the rest of yourself like that bald guy in Breaking Bad.
- You along with so many other people are so fucked to the extent that your collective fuckage can’t pay back those loans, causing the entire situation to assume a state-of-being much like a bubble in the subprime mortgage loan debacle sense of the word that majorly contributed to the ’08 crash. (Of course, there are differences. See the article.)
Long story short, you followed the prescripted path to a better life in a bad state of society and you ended up contributing to the worsening of an already FUBAR economy.
“But frostedmoose!”, I hear you say, “Perhaps I can ride it out, get into grad school, and PhD program, whatever, and wait ’til the tide blows over?”
Sure thing, broski. But come on. A typical PhD program at a decent school and upwards is deathly selective, and it behooves one to remember that you’re not the only ones applying to that shit. And even if you did get into a PhD program and survive (and even thrive), there’s still the issue of jobs and a decent standard of living. Grad school, contrary to popular belief, is not conducive to the maintenance of households and families (or even sanity and morals, for that matter).
And besides, you’re basically hiding from the pains of the real world. Wimp.
“How about if I run overseas? I hear China has jobs. And maybe Libya soon.”
Sure, that’s a perfectly understandable and logical plan of action. But you’d be a bad American – or at least, at the cusp of it.
Now, I have my own views on this. I’m an international student from a country with questionable governance, so I know full well of the virtues (and pitfalls) of a pretty open and theoretically democratic society, and there’s little I hate more than hearing Americans bitch about the stupidity and hopelessness of their own country. IMHO, yhis is a minor tension in the otherwise smooth grand narrative of a country where good things can actually happen with relatively little violence.
But yes, you can run. Just get on that Mandarin/Arabic shit.
What is to be Done
The Atlantic piece has a few practical pieces of advice, the key word being “practical,” not “ideal.” Save, be smart and realistic with your money, swallow your pride. Don’t ever, ever go into debts with no return. You don’t have to give up learning political theory or Ulysses, just remember to pick up some practical skills as well. This pretty much answers the (actual) original question asked by the NYT Debate section: the answer is a resounding “No” to whether the cost of an expensive college education is worth it. Or more accurately, “No, unless you don’t dick around and pick up an employable skill while becoming a more intelligent and better human being.”
But the NYT Debate section ends up picking up the broader theme of whether or not Education in and of itself is important in the first place. It features Peter Thiel (covered previously on this blog) once again running his spiel on college not being a prerequisite for success. They also have a bunch of other people given some abstract sage advice that generally conforms to the message of “Get an education, hang in there, and pray.”
However, beyond that, especially in terms of practical stuff, I don’t know what else to say or who else to quote on this issue. I’m a student much like yourself, and I’m in the same boat as you. I simply have no idea nor the capacity for optimism on this matter. This predicament sucks, and it doesn’t look to improve anytime soon.
But I can use the most seemingly pointless skill I managed to carve up here at Wesleyan: I can ponder the facets of my own situation, and ask some random-ass questions. As Slavoj Zizek once drunkenly rambled on a poorly made documentary about him, “The point of philosophy or to philosophize is not to solve problems, it is to rephrase old questions into novel forms such that we can think of new ways to solve them.”
Random-Ass Questions and Pondering the Situation
Now there are a shit-ton of questions we can ask from this. The typical ones, of course, revolve around us as the center of the universe: “Is a liberal arts education worth the hefty cost?”, “What’s the point of getting a BA in Sociology when I should be getting an education in electrical engineering to make myself more relevant in the marketplace?” and “Why aren’t there enough jobs that can accommodate a brilliant mind like mine?” And we should be asking questions with us firmly in the conceptual center, because the only conditions we can affect any amount of change at this point of time and in this state of being is our own.
But I think only asking those kinds of questions and think in that sort of way isn’t all that interesting. We should think bigger. Broader.
So, it’s pretty clear that there is a problem. And the main people that will suffer from this problem is us – the nascent generation, the post-Gen-X’ers, the unfortunate age whose formative years were defined by the Bush era and where 9/11 was the marker point that indicated our transition into teenagehood. And the whole economic-existential problem, honestly, is quite fixable (in my opinion). And even if it isn’t fixable, something could conceivably be done to shake the problem out of being another status quo. It might generate another host of problems, yes, but at least something was done and we didn’t accept a singular problematic state of affairs to be the status quo.
But if the recent debt ceiling debate has told us anything, it’s that the American government is too busy having a circle-jerk to get anything done. It’s that the spaghetti-bowl of the integrated political-economic network of the world is so volatile yet so condemned by inertia that this sad state of existence we experience is inescapable or worse – it is the best we can come up with. It feels like we’re trapped, locked in, prisoners of a world that we didn’t create nor did we even want. And that is perfectly true: this system that we’re slowly being conditioned to get stuffed into is a world that was created and belonged to our forefathers, and we – the future sufferers of global warming, overpopulation, and new age diseases – can do little but to bear the punishment of their sins.
It sucks. Don’t let anyone dissuade you from this fact. This is in fact not our world, and it truly, absolutely sucks.
The question from this angle remains ever the same: what can we do to improve our lot in life? The answer to this requires the treatment of another facet. It may well be the case that the world has always been this way. Not this way exactly – obviously the 1800’s didn’t have social networking sites or the mind-numbing culture of The Situation. But History – well aware of the Clinton years and the immediate post-war economic boom – tells us that more often that not, a given point in History will have its fair share of structural oppression and citizen apathy/desperation. And the options open to the following generation of people have always been the same: Reform, Revolt, or Relent.
Whatever the end choice may be, it is important for us – the confused, young, hopeful individual – to know full well that it is perfectly okay for us to consider the truth of the feeling that we’re being perpetually screwed over. The penalty of being wrong about this is far smaller than the benefits of being right. So the next time you decide to picket or get pissed off or do something to improve your lot in life (hopefully through ethical and moralistic means), feel completely at peace with your action. You have every right.
I don’t know if that helped at all. I started out writing this with one goal, and ended up meeting another end (mentally masturbating?). I don’t even know if much of what I wrote can accurate or not (I understand and acknowledge my limitations as a student and a thinker), but I do know that at least some of it is.
Disagree with me? Got something to say? Reply below, or write a Wespeak, or write a guest post for us (just send it in to staff(at)wesleying(dot)org.