Last week my daughter posted on her Facebook page about Stanford University’s new economic policy. The post had a photo of mortarboards flying through the air above gowned, newly-minted, college grads. The photo’s graphics said, “Stanford University Offers Tuition -Free College For Families Earning Below $125K.”
Everyone seemed to think it’s a great idea and all those who wrote comments hoped it would happen at other universities too. But, if you think about it, Stanford is drawing the line between middle-class and upper middle-class. I’m not against Stanford’s generosity, it’s great; I just also see it as commentary about how opportunity is distributed in the United States.
The Secret Colleges Don’t Want You To Know
I’ve been reading a lot about education, partly because my daughter is a teacher, but also because education is in the throws of big changes. Here’s what I think is happening. A hundred and fifty years ago the percentage of people living on farms was much higher than it is today… much, much higher. That meant parents could easily pass along a way of life to their children. Teaching your children how to be farmers was a living experience. If you lived on a farm, chances are you knew all about farming because you were doing some of it – probably a lot of it.
As people moved off their farms, parents no longer had an workable way of life to hand along to their children. By the 1950s the exodus off of farms was huge and by 1985 only a small percentage (in the low single digits) of US citizens still lived on farms. Sure there were more interesting life-styles available off the farm, but not for everyone. The better opportunities usually involved a college education. That’s when a college degree changed its value.
In the nineteenth century very few people went to college and those who did were usually men and usually wealthy or at least from the upper middle-class. With the end of the Second World War, the US government offered returning veterans the GI bill, which included support for a college education. At that point the number of people entering college jumped upward and colleges began to expand and invest in new building.
For the next thirty years a college education was more and more valuable among middle-class families and among hiring businesses. The cost of a college education was modest. I sent myself to college in the 1970s, but I doubt many teenagers are doing that now… at least not at prestigious universities. Things have once again changed.
A college education is, in many suburban towns, considered the de rigueur path all teenagers must pursue. That is obviously nonsense, but it doesn’t stop high school guidance departments from lobbying hard to graduate the highest percentage of college-accepted graduates as possible. It’s just that college is now so expensive many families have to ask themselves, “is college worth the investment?” And the truth of the matter is, for an increasing number of middle-class youth the answer is more often than not, no.
The Future That Really Works
So what are the alternatives? The service industries are the usual avenue, but they don’t offer high wages to young newcomers. Then there’s the internet and all the possible ways of trying to make money online. Some of those ways are scams, but others are not. Yet, against the dwindling industrial labor market families have to consider a broader set of options than putting a child into serious debt to get a college education. This is where the line between upper middle class and middle class is being drawn.
In the mean time the banking industry has made a small fortune by offering predatory loans to those very same families. The banks, of course, always say, “hey, it’s you who want your kid in college, not us,” but that’s bullshit. Banks are falling all over themselves to issue those loans. They are extremely low risk loans for the banks and the banks get a significant interest rate on their money over a long lending period – usually guaranteed by the government. The banks are often far bigger winners than the college graduate who now holds a big debt.
But it’s not just the banks who are making money on middle-class anxieties about how to launch your children into society. The colleges and universities are also making a bundle. Of course every provost in creation will deny this and point to all kinds of numbers that support their claims, but let’s face it, not many universities are going out of business.
The American educational system is in crisis. From preschool through graduate school everything is being challenged technically and organizationally. It’s not clear where things are headed, but it seems likely that there’s been an over emphasis on education for education’s sake. With the tuitioni cost education now demands that won’t continue – especially because, just like for undergraduates at Stanford from families with less than $125K per year income, a lot of education is now free.
Online education is the new kid on the block and online education is likely to send the organization of education off in all sorts of new directions. What directions? I don’t know; but the one hunch that seems most real is that the middle-class will begin to find new ways to pass along a way of life to their children that doesn’t depend quite so heavily on a college degree for everyone. Elite universities with substantial endowments and generous, wealthy alumni may be able to cut their tuition levels, but for the vast middle-class seeking education that won’t matter. Free, or inexpensive, online education will.