The liberal arts college-banking-job market complex, or, why everything is screwed up

Dec 15, 2009 • Karen

I attended a liberal arts college. They taught us to analyze social institutions and their interactions as complexes, systems of power. Well, here goes.

College expenses in the US are absolutely insane. When my parents went to school, you could realistically work your way through college. Today nearly all of the better-ranked liberal arts colleges charge more than $40,000 a year--the entire income of an average American household. How did we get here? Liberal arts colleges across the country have raised their tuition faster than inflation every year, year after year, for decades. When times are bad, they claim their endowments are hurting. When times are good, they claim they need to charge more to improve the academics or athletics or build a shiny new dorm to stay competitive. No matter what, like clockwork, colleges are draining generations of students and their families faster than their incomes improve. It's been long enough to say that these excuses are bullshit.

For extra infuriating context, consider that in most civilized countries, university is *free* to those who are admitted. No needing to save for kids' college from zygote to age 18 instead of funding your 401k. No crippling student loan bills that beggar graduates, force young workers to stick with jobs they hate instead of taking risks, and have brought about the boomerang generation and the endless delay of adulthood that social conservatives bemoan. Think of all of the possibilities that are squelched by this ever-increasing drain on our populace's resources, productivity, and well-being. (The parallels with our lack of universal health care are dire.)

So why hasn't the market intervened? Why haven't tuitions leveled off? A major cause is the normalization of student loan debt. Student loans, both federal and private, are guaranteed by the government--even if you declare bankruptcy, you have to give the banks their due. So banks have been giving student loans away like candy--they know young people are good for it, even if they end up living in their parents' basements to pay them off. College financial aid offices count on this; by default they include student loans as part of their packages, as if deferred penury is the same thing as actual aid! And since the FAFSA punishes savers and completely f***s middle-class families--defined as families whose money comes solely from income, as opposed to the rich whose money comes from wealth--expected family contributions are usually unreasonably high. Thus, even those few schools that claim that their financial aid packages include zero loans are lying through their teeth. For their part, institutional lies and mischaracterizations aside, high school students have zero grounding in basic personal finance--it's not part of nearly any high school curriculum. Even if they knew, up front, what debt level attending a given school would entail, they don't have the skills to evaluate whether or not that level is sustainable. (Look how many young people have gotten screwed by credit card debt--which by law is far better documented!)

At the same time, elite schools have convinced generations of parents and students that through their hallowed halls lies the path to financial security. Without a solid education, they say, kids today have no chance of making it. And, indeed, if at the end of racking up all this student debt, graduates were quite likely to find plum jobs that could easily pay that debt back, perhaps it'd be justified.


The sad thing is that they're mostly right about their schools being the gatekeepers to the middle class. With the exception of a few trades, statistically it's basically impossible to "make it" without a bachelor's, and pretty darn hard without one in the liberal arts or sciences. But although it's a necessary condition, it's no longer a sufficient one. There are basically no jobs for new grads anymore. Scripps' career center does one-year-out surveys of each of its graduating classes. Even in 2002, there are comments about how it's been hard finding a decent job because of the economy. It was hard in 2007. It was hard in 2008, when I was first looking--even before the banks collapsed in the fall. It's been nigh-impossible for the grads of 2009. The jokes about liberal arts majors working at Starbucks were funny jabs from the engineering kids in 2004. Only now have we realized it's the reality.

A couple months ago I interviewed for a job barely paying enough to live on that mostly consisted of testing and shipping widgets, with a nominal bit of web marketing and design associated. I told a friend about it and his response: "Oh. Shipping?" I said, "What?". He said, "Nothing," but thirty seconds later proceeded to tweet, "This recession is beating the enthusiasm and ambition out of my generation."

(I didn't get the job.)

Now, a year and a half out of school with a variety of new media production, research and writing, and startup development experience under my belt, I'm living with my parents and applying for part-time internships and retail positions at big-box clothing stores. I hate to think what he'd say now. Yes, I know I'm capable of so much more than this. So are most of us. But the creative, white-collar jobs aren't there for us, and I just can't afford to try and do cool things on my own anymore.

I still hold out some hope that someday when I'm older I'll develop a career that will enable me to achieve my parents' standard of living, even if the statistics don't bear that out: people who graduate college during a recession are basically screwed for the rest of their working lives. I must admit that between offshoring, business oligarchy, American economic incompetence and cowardice, ridiculous debt levels across the board, and the lack of spending on US education and R&D, I have some doubt as to whether or not there's going to be a middle class in America when I'm 40. I'm not the only one. But right now? Yeah, I guess the recession, and being unemployed, and everything else that's been going on have beaten the crap out of me.

So, no. Don't even try to justify your ballooning costs based on lucrative employment upon graduating. Our income isn't rising alongside your tuition increases; liberal arts majors are f***ed more than ever right now.

This situation is completely inexcusable. If university presidents are congenitally incapable of capping or trimming costs, they should resign. Immediately. Cutting college costs--yes, including the "sticker price" that they lie and say no one actually pays--is their job and their responsibility. Hang the market forces that have enabled them to shirk it for so long! If they can't bring themselves to give a damn about financial sense, boards of regents should find people who can. If liberal arts colleges do not even try to keep education affordable enough to be within range of all Americans, without heavy debt, they are NOT fulfilling their mission. They're just diploma farms with an over-inflated sense of superiority and no head for business.

Because, truly I tell you, the day of reckoning is coming. How many articles this year have focused on parents and college seniors' new wariness of excessive tuition bills and student debt? Perhaps the prospective engineering, science, economics, and CS majors will still be able to justify elite colleges' insane bills--studies have found that they still stand a good chance of making money when they graduate (at least, so long as they don't become teachers). But the rest?

My sister, a high school senior, is very smart and works way too hard. She's a first chair violin, captain of the debate team, a karate instructor, and fluent in Spanish--among other extra-curriculars and accomplishments. With her grades and resume, there's a decent chance she could gain admission to any school in the country. BUT...she wants to become a math teacher, potentially in low-income/Spanish-speaking schools. She's seen my financial difficulties, even with my marketable webcrap skills and the (sadly) relatively low amount of student debt I have. Thus, she has completely ruled out any college that would require her to take on student loan debt: teachers hardly make a living wage, let alone with loans on top! Short of a miracle, this will eliminate her top choice school, whose yearly bill has increased about $10,000 since when I applied, yet caps its merit scholarships at half tuition. It already eliminated any number of top schools that she refused to even consider.

St. Olaf, I can tell you right now that you're going to lose out big. And, if you don't get your shit in shape, so will the rest of you liberal arts hypocrites over the next decade or so. Yes, you're already hypocrites and have been for years. But now you're running out of families rich enough or foolish enough to pay you for the privilege.