A Matter of Degrees (Feb. 5, 1997)

The football season has ended with the usual quota of scandals and reports of violent criminal activities by thugs hired to play the game by various universities and National Football League owners. Some institutions — we dare not associate them with what is called “higher learning” — figure so often in these stories they should consider changing their nicknames.

The Cornhuskers might want to be known henceforth as the University of Nebraska Molesters. How about the University of Florida Rapists? Many another school or professional team has earned the right to a new moniker and mascot, something like the Gangbangers, the Burglars, the Pistol-Whippers, the Brawlers, the Coke-Sniffers and the Buttfuckers.

A couple of years ago St. John's University distinguished itself by an ugly sex-athletics scandal. If the university has any distinctions of a scholarly character, it is modestly keeping them to itself. Most of the schools whose teams played in the big-time bowl games a few weeks ago are known only for football, basketball, high crime rates and higher salaries for athletic department executives. What, pray tell, transpires at a place like the University of Arizona of an intellectual nature?

While we rack our brains for an answer to the question, what is obvious is that the glorification of sports denigrates learning and scholarship. The criminal athlete on campus, protected by sports administrators paid multiples of academic salaries, tells students what’s important on the quad, even if the meaning of the prestige accorded cheerleaders has escaped them. In such an atmosphere, it follows that survey after survey reveals that a shocking number of college and university women report being attacked, harassed and bothered, not by townies, but by gownies, emulating their varsity role models, those athletes who get the glory and the shoe contracts and however much sex it takes to slake their appetites.

The millions upon millions pissed away on sports stadiums and arenas and the other costly appurtenances to college athletic competition have been pointed out again and again over the years. But wanton spending by colleges and universities is by no means confined to athletics. While there is cost containment for medical services, for welfare, for assisting pregnant mothers or the lame, the halt and the blind, no such pressures have been placed on college administrators.

Between 1980 and 1995, four-year college tuition rose by 256% — three times the rate of inflation during the same period. If we used the same tools of analysis that are being brought to bear to show that the cost-of-living index is overstated, we would point out that the real costs of college are much higher, because academic standards have continued to slip since 1980 and we are, therefore, paying much more for a service that is constantly slipping in quality. In terms of equivalencies, a bachelor of arts degree in 1997 may not even be the equal of a graduation certificate from an academic high school in 1947.

In 1996, room and board at a public four-year college costs over $7,000 a year, and more than $20,000 at a private institution. Although the services these colleges and universities offered for sale were inferior to what the grandparents of today's students got for free in high school, costs last year went up another 5-6%.

Oddly enough, as the quality of collegiate training is diminished, going to college becomes more of an urgent necessity for young people. A half-century ago, a certificate from a good high school was a sufficient carte d'entrée for a young man or woman to get a job with good prospects for advancement to the top. Today, a high school certificate, or degree, as it is now grandiosely called, is worthless. Every personnel office in the country knows full well that someone clutching such a piece of paper may not even be able to read the signs on buses well enough to find their way to work every day. A BA degrees in 1997 is little more than a hope that the bearer thereof can read the exit signs in the corridors in case of a fire.

The people in front of the microphones and the television cameras tell us that the world of work has changed and a high school education no longer will do. Something has indeed changed. People are now mastering material in their 16th year of schooling that the grandparents learned in their eighth year of schooling, and that's why President Clinton said all of our children need to go to college.

Of course they do, but to pay for this debased college degree that entitles the holder to a crack at a job pushing a broom, our young people contract obligations that start them out in adult work life carrying a punishing personal debt. The Government's student loan programs make it easy to sign up for the debt. Cognizant of the burden young people are carrying, Congress may soon create tax-exempt education savings accounts to pay for tuition.

But why should college students pay for tuition at all? Why does free public education stop at high school, especially after high school has been demoted down to a glorified grammar school? The same reasons for making first-grade instruction free apply for making the senior year at college free.

In fact, until the mid-1960s, a student could get a tuition-free, four-year college education at places like Berkeley, UCLA, Ohio State, and the University of Wisconsin. The City University of New York was free until the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. Because many top-ranked free schools depended on state and Federal money, enrollment was limited to students of outstanding proficiency, thereby placing heavy pressure on grammar schools and high schools to prepare their pupils well. The fact that one could get a first-rate college education free at a state school acted as a restraint on how much tuition private colleges and universities could charge. In effect, all of post-high school education was subject to some rough form of review by public appropriating bodies, and thus at least a mild form of cost containment was in operation.

Even then, indefensibly large sums were being spent on things like athletics, the emblem of all runaway college expenditures, but it was nothing compared to what is happening in our time. The shift occurred when free education was abandoned and the present tuition loan system gradually was put into place. The history of how this change came about has not been written, to my knowledge, but the lobbying work probably was done by the private colleges and universities as a means of indirectly getting their hands on the public money they knew they couldn't get directly. No Congress would vote a direct cash payment to a Harvard or a Haveford, but many Congresses have voted for loan programs that enable students to borrow money to go to Harvard.

Hence, for a generation we have had what amounts to a voucher system for higher education, only with the vouchers paid for by the students themselves. Since lowering standards and extending the number of years in college results in more money for the bursar's office, more academic and administrative jobs, our higher education voucher system has come to be a cruel drag on the lives of the students and a disaster for society at large. It has not introduced market forces into higher education. Instead, as the size of the student loans and the ease of obtaining them has increased, the product offered has come to cost more, even as it's worth less. Schools have been caught colluding to block market mechanisms from working. They have conspired to rig the market against students. In this instance, at least, vouchers have resulted in no competition except, perhaps, on the football field.

One Response to "A Matter of Degrees (Feb. 5, 1997)"

  1. Pat Kittle   February 18, 2019 at 3:27 pm

    “Schools have been caught colluding to block market mechanisms from working.”

    Really, you don’t say.

    Affirmative action colludes to do exactly that.

    A dirty little secret — affirmative action-based admissions discriminate most intensely against those with East Asian DNA.

    Reply

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