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College Inc.

February 1, 2012 Leave a comment

I’d like you to meet someone. Let’s call this person “Charlie.” Not a real person, of course. Charlie represents millions of people. You probably know someone just like him or her: S/he was doing fine, until the Great Recession. Not rich, but then s/he never wanted to be rich. S/he’s right in the middle of his or her working life, and is now middle aged. S/he’s married, but the kids are now grown and on their own. The parents are now elderly and getting on to that time when they’ll replace the children in needing regular time and attention.

Unfortunately, Charlie happens to be in one of those industries hit hardest by the Great Recession. Now unemployed, and pretty much unemployable, Charlie decides to do what a lot of people in mid-life are having to do: Go back to school. Charlie wants to retrain into a field that decades of life experience has proven s/he loves. S/he wants to become a scientist. A researcher like the ones you see on PBS’s Nature, or Secrets of the Dead, or Nova. That means, s/he needs a Ph.D.

Charlie has had some college, but never finished. So s/he knows that s/he’ll have to start at the beginning. That realization soon leads to some shocking truths about the American post-secondary education system. Truths that can be summed up as: Everybody wants their cut. They don’t put it that way, of course. Like all bureaucracies, the system is too well oiled a money making machine for that. It’s always couched in the flowery and self important language of “a well rounded education” and “a requirement” or a “prerequisite.”

The first thing s/he learns is that s/he may as well be eighteen again, not in mid-life. In the American college world, thirty years of life experience means nothing—even when it comes to a test like the SAT or ACT. A test designed for, as one testing expert put it, seeing how well high school graduates can process information. Charlie, as this expert explained to me, has been processing information for thirty years. S/he’s still alive and functional in the world, that means s/he passed. At Charlie’s age, the SAT is pointless—except for the money the College Board makes from their defacto monopoly that requires every would be college student take the test regardless of age or background.

The second thing s/he learns is that the “liberal arts” approach to education dominates the accredited college system. An approach that requires every student to take more general education classes in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, and so on than it does classes in their major. All for your own good, of course. That nobody else on the planet wastes everyone’s time and money on such nonsense is of course, to the arrogant American academic elite, nonsense! In Europe, for instance, with few exceptions, the liberal arts is, itself, a degree track. But America, as always, knows best. And as a quick web search will prove, much ink is spilled in defending the benefits of the liberal arts approach to higher education. That it makes a degree from an American college cost twice as much and take twice as long; that there’s no way out, even for older students who are already “well rounded— ” yes, Charlie could CLEP the general ed, but that would still costs as much as taking the class—well we don’t talk bout that.

With the average time to receive an undergraduate degree in the U.S. closer to six years than four (thanks to the liberal arts mandate), it was quickly becoming obvious to Charlie that s/he couldn’t go to school in the U.S. S/he’d be sixty five before s/he had a Ph.D! And a sixty five year old was a liability, not an asset, to an employer. So s/he began looking overseas, where college is treated as tertiary (career-directed post high school) education, not an opportunity to milk families of their hard earned money in the name of creating “well rounded individuals.” In the EU, s/he could earn the degrees in half the time and, because valuable time and money wasn’t being wasted on “music appreciation” and “critical thinking”, s/he would actually end up with twice as many credits in the major as s/he would in the U.S. liberal arts system. In other words, s/he would learn twice as much about the major, albeit at the expense of learning about “underwater basket weaving.” Even more exiting, s/he discovered a school in the UK that was accredited both internationally and in the U.S. that had a distance learning program. S/he could take care of mom and dad, work part time (if s/he could find a job) and still go to school full time.

Under this plan, if s/he hustled, Charlie could have a fully accredited, internationally recognized Ph.D in as little as six years! All other things being equal, that left twenty useful years to work in the new field and earn a retirement pension. This was exiting.

Then dropped the other shoe: While the school s/he’d chosen, and had been accepted by (without an SAT score, thank you very much!), was fully accredited, and entitled to U.S. Federal Financial Aid if s/he attended classes at the school, the U.S. Congress refused to fund those same classes when taught remotely by “a foreign institution.” For funding, s/he was on her own.

And, thanks to the recession, s/he was also bankrupt. Private loans were out of the question. They all required at least a moderately good credit score, which the recession had destroyed. Further complicating things, s/he was Caucasian, married, middle aged, both parents were college graduates, and s/he was enrolled at a “foreign” institution but was not “studying abroad.” Cumulatively, those facts disqualified Charlie from ninety nine percent of all grants and scholarships. In point of fact, after weeks of looking, s/he found only one real scholarship. And, though it didn’t explicitly say so, the application was so focused on high school seniors and recent graduates s/he doubted s/he’d be selected. S/he applied anyway, and while s/he was at it s/he also applied for two tiny lottery style grants, though s/he doubted whether it was worth the time.

The game, it appears, had been rigged by College Inc. It was beginning to look like Charlie might be stuck in a no win situation: S/he could either find a way to game the system and go on welfare and disability, like many people s/he knew had already done, or settle for a lesser goal in a field s/he wasn’t really interested in and endure the drudgery until retirement. Maybe. Statistically, time servers see their health fail long before those who work at jobs they love. S/he doubted that, by following the latter course, s/he’d survive twenty years in the new “career.” More likely, s/he’d end up being a drain on society anyway.

In today’s economy, Charlie’s isn’t alone. Roughly twenty percent of the U.S. population is Charlie’s age and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, worked in the construction industry and related fields. The hardest hit sector of the economy. (19.6% of the U.S. population will be 65 by 2030. Statistically, that population is “Charlie” today.) They are an overlooked demographic that is not only under-served by the current post secondary education system, but that is dis-served.

Readers of this blog know that in my view the best thing that could happen would be for the government to butt out of higher education—or at least limit its involvement to the roll of fairness and guidance to ensure American post secondary degrees are comparable with those in the rest of the world. For the rest, the only thing Federal Student Aid has proven to provide is a ready cash cow for universities both public and private to milk at will. In the private sector the money goes to stock holders and investors, in the public sector it pays for platoons of bureaucrats who feed uselessly at the public trough. Private financing through corporate sponsors, scholarship and grant programs through foundations, and other creative methods such as human capital contracts would soon eliminate all patience for such fat and force universities to get back to the business of serving their customers, the students, rather than their investors or bureaucracies.

Unfortunately, such radical change is unlikely. The only thing the Charlies in America can hope for is that either Obama or Obama II (Mitt Romney) will address the inequities of the system so that older Americans don’t get left behind in the political, money grubbing dust that is College Inc. Because if they do, they will only add to America’s already out of control financial problems.

But in today’s crony capitalist system, I wouldn’t hold my breath.