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Do We Hate Our Children? The Insane System That Turns Young Adults into Indentured Servants

We crush them with debt to go to college -- and today, rates are actually set to double. Are we out of our minds?

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In the survey of 61,700 student loan holders recently completed by One Wisconsin Now and Progress Now, students with bachelor’s degrees took an average of 19 years to pay off their loans, at an average cost of $117,000. Their average monthly payment was $499. And this isn’t a brand-new problem: Of the $1 trillion in student debt, 60 percent is owed by people over 30.

It wasn’t always this way. The postwar American economic boom had at its heart  an intentional, comprehensive program of making higher education much more accessible. In 1946, 2 million Americans attended college or university, representing only one in eight college-age students; by 1970, there were 8 million undergraduates, one in three in that age group. And the balance of enrollment shifted to public institutions: In the ’40s, more college students attended private colleges; by 1970 three-quarters were enrolled in public ones. Graduate enrollment spiked, thanks to expanded research funding, from 120,000 in 1946 to 900,000 in 1970.

States competed to expand their public university systems – and many were free, or close to it. The stellar University of California system was tuition free (though there were fees) until Ronald Reagan became governor in 1967; so was the City University of New York system for a long time. CUNY was from the start an “experiment,” in the words of co-founder Horace Webster, in “whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated.” It was a contentious experiment, with its admission and tuition policies shifting back and forth over many years, but the egalitarianism at its heart, and through much of its history, can’t be denied. And that was true of most public university systems. Late in the game, when I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1980, I was still paying less than $400 a semester. Now it’s amost 15 times that, at $5,500 a semester; the annual cost to an in-state student (including room, board, books and other fees) is $24,000.

Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal ran down the California history in a piece about “the slow death of public higher education” last year. With the U.C. system’s bipartisan 1960 master plan:

The doors of the University of California were thrown open, tuition-free, for the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates. The top 33.3 percent could find a place in one of the California State Universities, which were also tuition-free. Everyone else, if they so chose, could go to one of the many California Community Colleges, which were open not only to high school graduates but also to qualifying non-traditional students. Perhaps most important, community college graduates had the opportunity to transfer to one of the UCs or CSUs to finish their bachelor’s degree, if their grades were above a certain point. In theory and to a significant extent in practice, anyone from anywhere in California could, if they worked hard enough, get a bachelor’s degree from one of the best universities in the country (and, therefore, in the world), almost free of charge. The pronounced social and economic mobility of the postwar period would have been unthinkable without institutions of mass higher education, like this one, provided at public expense.

I got angry about this all over again having dinner with a friend who’s a little older than me. He finished at the very bottom of his high school class – and wound up at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which as late as the ’60s had “open enrollment,” and cost $80 a semester. College unlocked something high school didn’t; he thrived and transferred to Columbia University and eventually got a Ph.D. That isn’t happening for anyone today, unless their wealthy parents can buy them into a private university.

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