Academy Fight Song
by Thomas Frank
Indeed, to judge by the popular understanding of the dream-institution, the whole thing might as well be some sort of self-perpetuating cabal, akin to Skull and Bones or Sigma Chi. Maybe college is able to work its magic because college grads hire only college grads, and after decades of “networking”—which everyone knows is more important than book-learning—they have managed to colonize the entire economy. No one knows for sure how it works, but everyone can see that it does work, and that’s good enough. Get yourself a bachelor’s degree from a “good school,” and those dreamy dreams of yours can come true. Get something else, like a cosmetologist license or a membership in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and you lose.
We don’t pause to consider that maybe we’ve got the whole thing backwards—that the big universities expanded in their heyday to keep up with industry demand, not to build the middle class. Instead, what everyone agrees on is this: higher education is the industry that sells tickets to the affluent life. In fact, they are the only ones licensed to do this. Yes, there are many colleges one can choose from—public, private, and for-profit—but collectively they control the one credential that we believe to be of value. Everything about them advertises it. The armorial logos, the Gothic towers, even the names of the great colleges, so redolent of money and privilege and aristocracy: Duke and Princeton and Vanderbilt. If you want to succeed, you must go to them; they are the ones controlling the gate.
What they sell, in other words, is something we believe to be so valuable it is almost impossible to measure. Anyone in her right mind would pay an enormous price for it.
Another fact: This same industry, despite its legal status as a public charity, is today driven by motives indistinguishable from the profit-maximizing entities traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
The coming of “academic capitalism” has been anticipated and praised for years; today it is here. Colleges and universities clamor greedily these days for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech startups; they boast of being “entrepreneurial”; they have rationalized and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a nineteenth-century railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments into in-house hedge funds.
Now, consider the seventeen-year-old customer against whom this predatory institution squares off. He comes loping to the bargaining table armed with about the same amount of guile that, a few years earlier, he brought to Santa’s lap in the happy holiday shopping center. You can be sure that he knows all about the imperative of achieving his dreams, and the status that will surely flow from the beloved institution. Either he goes to college like the rest of his friends, or he goes to work.
He knows enough about the world to predict the kind of work he’ll get with only a high school diploma in his pocket, but of the ways of the University he knows precious little. He is the opposite of a savvy consumer. And yet here he comes nevertheless, armed with the ability to pay virtually any price his dream school demands that he pay. All he needs to do is sign a student loan application, binding himself forever and inescapably with a financial instrument that he only dimly understands and that, thanks to the optimism of adolescence, he has not yet learned to fear.
The disaster that the university has proceeded to inflict on the youth of America, I submit, is the direct and inescapable outcome of this grim equation. Yes, in certain reaches of the system the variables are different and the yield isn’t quite as dreadful as in others. But by and large, once all the factors I have described were in place, it was a matter of simple math. Grant to an industry control over access to the good things in life; insist that it transform itself into a throat-cutting, market-minded mercenary; get thought leaders to declare it to be the answer to every problem; mute any reservations the nation might have about it—and, lastly, send it your unsuspecting kids, armed with a blank check drawn on their own futures.
Was it not inevitable? Put these four pieces together, and of course attendance costs will ascend at a head-swimming clip, reaching $60,000 a year now at some private schools. Of course young people will be saddled with life-crushing amounts of debt; of course the university will use its knowledge of them—their list of college choices, their campus visits, their hopes for the future—to extract every last possible dollar from the teenage mark and her family. It is lambs trotting blithely to the slaughter. It is the utterly predictable fruits of our simultaneous love affairs with College and the Market. It is the same lesson taught us by so many other disastrous privatizations: in our passion for entrepreneurship and meritocracy, we forgot that maybe the market wasn’t the solution to all things.
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