College Is For Suckers, Pt. II

COLLEGE TUITION OR MUTUAL FUNDS? NAME THE BETTER INVESTMENTOur society devotes enormous resources to the quest for a college diploma. The United States is the only industrialized country that relies on individuals to foot most of the bill for higher education. At any given time, roughly 8 million full-time students each pay an average of $19,000 per year in tuition and board feesÑa total of $152 billion. This is equal to more than half of the federal budget deficit. During the '80s, health care prices rose 110 percent, an increase that sparked the current health care fracas. Meanwhile, the cost of attending college rose 109 percent for public schools, and 146 percent for private schools, but no one's panicking. They're just writing out checks.As with most things that Americans buy but can't afford, they borrow the money. They take out $19 billion per year in guaranteed student loans. "The shift in emphasis of federal student aid from grants to loans threatens to create a generation of debtors," says American Council on Education president Robert H. Atwell. Actually, it's already happenedÑin the late '80s, 23 percent of student loan borrowers defaulted.And the program is only getting bigger. In 1992, Congress removed the ceiling from a program that allows parents to borrow up to the total cost of four years tuition and created a new, unsubsidized loan option that permits undergraduates to borrow up to $10,000 annually -Ñ without considering financial need. Rates are higher, too -Ñ up to 13 or 14 percent from the old 9 percent.IT'S MORE THAN JUST COED DORMS: THE FINANCIAL ADVANTAGES OF COLLEGEIf, like most Americans, you consider a college education as a certification process -Ñ a means to a high-paying job -Ñ there are reasons to take out big loans to pay that bill (tuition, books, housing, food and other expenses typically total $25,000 a year for private four-year colleges and $15,000 for public institutions):YOU'RE LESS LIKELY TO BE UNEMPLOYED. In 1993, 3 percent of college graduates were on welfare, compared to 8 percent of the mere high-school grads. (No one seems to keep track of college drop-outs.)YOU'LL MAKE MORE MONEY. Young men with college degrees in 1993 earned a median income of $35,000, compared to $23,000 for those with high-school diplomas. The difference shrinks to $27,000 for women with degrees and $18,000 for those without.YOU'LL MAKE MORE MONEY OVER TIME. In the recent past, those who have completed more education are not only likely to earn more, but also more likely to earn much more as they get older. Nationally, BA and BS holders can expect lifetime earnings of $1.4 million (in 1992 dollars). High school graduates will receive career earnings of only $800,000.MORE DEGREES MEANS MORE MONEY! Masters degree holders earn an average of $1.6 million over their lifetimes, and doctorates chalk up $2.1 million.There's no doubt that our society rewards those brave souls who have met Milton, Thucydides and Einstein on the academic fields of battle. For one thing, your old college pals can hook you up with good jobs later in life. But you liberal-arts majors won't share in the spoils. The degree differential pays off almost exclusively to those who go the professional route -Ñ particularly in engineering and medicine.A year after graduation, members of the Class of 1990 earned an average of $23,600, compared with $21,000 for high school graduates five years after commencement. But humanities majors earned only $19,200 -Ñ less than workers of the same age without any college education. Biology majors didn't see a dime of payoff for passing those brutal organic chemistry exams -Ñ they earned $21,100. The winners were the 20 percent of students who majored in health care ($31,500), engineering ($30,900) and math, physics and computer science ($27,200).That $600,000 difference in lifetime earnings between B.A. and high school grads evaporates when you focus on liberal-arts majors.Unless you're planning to become a doctor, engineer or programmer, there is little financial inducement for attending an American college or university. The 80 percent of college students who are liberal-arts majors are getting screwedÑor screwing themselves. And if you're majoring in something like art historyÉIt gets worse. In 1991, the last year for which information was available, unemployment for liberal-arts majors exceeded the national jobless rate of 6.2 percent. Those irritating health care majors had a low 1.0 percent jobless rate, engineers 3.2 percent and computer scientists 5.1 percent. On the other hand, 6.7 percent of psychology majors spent their afternoon watching Ricki Lake. History majors were the kings of the dole at 8.2 percent. Hey Mom! Guess what I finally majored in?COLLEGE AND EDUCATION: ARE THEY RELATED?My alma mater is very proud of its "core curriculu877;ired classes that every student must complete to graduate regardless of his or her major. Every Columbia student is required to demonstrate a well-rounded knowledge of all of the liberal arts. Molecular cellular biologists read de Beauvoir, art history buffs memorize arpeggios and future French lit professors struggle through two years of calculus.In some ways, I benefited from Columbia's approach to higher education. Although I hated spending time and money on classes I didn't choose (despite being fluent in French, I had to take it to fulfill the foreign language requirement), I would never have learned about the architectural significance of the Seagram Building, John Donne or Soviet innovations in astronomy if they hadn't been shoved down my throat. As Dan Hassan says, "The primary advantage of college is that you learn how to look for what you want to learn." But that could be taught in a year or less.On the other hand, most of school is a waste of time. For full-time students, classes take up perhaps 15 hours a week. If they're diligent, they may study and work on assignments perhaps another 15 hours. The rest is down time. I fondly recall numerous naps, soap operas on TV, marathon sex sessions and learning about drugs from my friends. Not that sex and TV and sleeping are bad or anything, but should we spend four years of our lives screwing and sleeping?Arguably, most classes are worthless too. Many are rehashes of topics you already studied in high school; others move too slowly to offer an intellectual challenge. Still others are taught by inept graduate students or professors with no interest in teaching. Few classes are devoted to intellectual exploration or problem-solving. English lit students parrot what they suspect their professors want to hear: "I'm really happy you assigned this book..." Chemistry professors jot formulas on the chalkboard; students are so busy copying them into their notebooks that they don't have time to think about what they mean. The real work will occur at night when they try to unravel the stuff on their own. Grades are capricious and therefore worthless. When I returned to Columbia I discovered that uttering the following statement to my professor vastly improved my chances of landing an A: "I'm an A student. Could you tell me what I need to do in your class to get an A?" It worked -Ñ I went from a 2.4 to a 3.8 GPA in my second incarnation.Worst of all, most college students learn to regurgitate information rather than think for themselves. They take notes as their professors blather on and on, but rarely question them out of fear of getting low grades. They read books outside class, then they come in to be told what they mean.THEY'VE BEEN PROGRAMMED FOR EMPLOYMENT.In an ideal world, education would be customized to the needs and desires of every student. In reality, college students work through codified curricula that fit a school's lowest common denominator. This rote regurgitation that passes for thought is excellent training for working as a corporate drone, but it's not an education.YOU'RE GONNA PAY: THE COSTS OF A COLLEGE EDUCATIONYou're 17 years old. Your decision to head off to college -Ñ rather than a first job -Ñ is going to cost you a hell of a lot more money than mere tuition. Sure, tuition is a bitch. You'll pay a school like Bryn Mawr $28,000 a year in tuition, fees, housing and food, and that's before next year's tuition increase. Attending Ohio State will save you a substantial chunk of change Ñ- the home of the Buckeyes only costs about $15,000 per year.Let's assume $25,000 to attend a private school and $15,000 for a public one. Both figures are rough averages of the total of tuition, fees, books, room, board and sundry expenses. So that's $100,000 and $60,000 over four years, right?Not exactly.First, the average pupil takes a nice, leisurely pace to earn that B.A. or B.S. Only 43 percent of college students finish in four years or less. Another 23 percent need five years and yet another 9 percent take six. Forget the wankers -Ñ 26 percent to be exact -Ñ who need even longer than six years to get their bachelor's degree. Maybe they're so busy working to pay tuition that they keep failing all their classes. In any event, five years is typical, so tuition et al. totals $125,000 and $75,000 for private and public, respectively.Then there's lost income. That's right Ñ- instead of arguing over keg duty at Beta house, you could be out earning a living. If you're a typical high-school grad, you would have earned $20,000 a year, so that's $100,000 in lost income.If you go to a private school, you're out $240,000. If you opted for a public school, you've lost $190,000.THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING: STUDENT LOANSStudent loan rates currently range between 9 and 14 percent. Because loan interest is compounded exponentially (you pay interest on interest on interest), at these rates you'll eventually repay more than three times as much as you borrowed. At 9 percent, you make $8,000 in payments to repay a $2,500 student loan.The standard repayment period is ten years. A typical debt burden for a graduate of a moderately priced institution is $20,000. Unless you default, you'll send in $500 a month until you're out $60,000.The student loan system destroys Americans under 32 years of age both financially and emotionally. You'll never qualify for a home mortgage as long as you've got the Student Loan Marketing Association chasing you down every month. This works out well because you probably can't afford a house anyway. Because of my own crushing debt burden -Ñ once $32,000, accruing $3,400 a year in interest -Ñ numerous career options were ruled out. I couldn't intern, join the Peace Corps, work in publishing or music, volunteer at a soup kitchen or work on a political campaign. Money-grubbing is your only choice when you're a slave to your loan coupon book. People who have to take out loans are relegated to whatever stupid job will pay their bills, defeating the purpose of getting a degree in the first place. Four years of English lit to become a PR whore? Four years of history to file loan applications? Why?In an economy in which high-paying entry-level jobs are rare, even forgoing idealism isn't a simple solution. You won't even get a car loan if you default on a student loan. Crushed by college debts, a lot of college grads consider personal bankruptcy, but student loans are "grandfathered debt," meaning you have to repay them even if you file Chapter 11.PULLING YOUR STRINGS: THE SECRET LIFE OF AN ADMISSIONS OFFICERI've seen the Rubik's Cube of college education from every possible point-of-view -Ñ applicant, problem student, honor student -Ñ but my perspective wouldn't be complete without the other side of the process. After I finally graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1991, I worked for two and a half years in an undergraduate admissions office at Columbia. I handled hundreds of admissions and financial aid applications, proctored and graded entrance exams. I saw the application process from a person's first request for a catalog to their first registration for class.What I saw made me wonder why employers are so ready to rely on a college degree as an indication of ability. Admissions and financial aid in particular were subject to a nasty witch's brew of nepotism and politically-correct maneuvering. The school's highest need-based scholarship ($7,500 a year) of 1993-94 went to a woman whose annual income was $36,000 -Ñ in interest earnings from investments. She got it because she licked the dean's ass, which I suppose was good training for life in the workplace. The dean justified it because the student was a woman. Meanwhile, we turned away poor kids from the Bronx because they couldn't pay their tuition.Admissions was no different. First, as at most universities, there aren't any admissions committees. Applications are divvied among the admissions officers, who make 99 percent of acceptance and rejection decisions individually. Most students' fate are decided based on their GPAs and test scores, in that order. In marginal cases (at Columbia, a GPA of 2.5 to 3.0), extracurricular activities come into play, but it's rare. Affirmative action policies are formalized. Admissions officers multiply test scores by factors based on your race, further muddling an already dubious process (for example, a university might multiply GPAs with a formula like Caucasian=1, African-American=1.3, Hispanic American or South Islander=1.1).Most of the educational bureaucrats who make the Big Decision are poorly paid, third-rate losers who are too untalented to do anything else. Because admissions officers receive low pay (around $28,000 to $34,000 at Columbia) and few chances for raises or promotions, the job attracts unambitious older slackers. They like the low workload and outstanding benefits of working inside Ivy walls -Ñ free gym, generous retirement plan, no dress code, access to attractive young students.Atypically, my division was blessed by two admissions officers who were perceptive, amusing geniuses. The third, however, was an insufferable, cheesy, moronic hardass. Aware of her predilection for arbitrarily rejecting people, we untermenschen gave her all the admissions applications of students whom we didn't like. If we had it in for someone, we could misplace their file until it was too late for a decision to be made for that term. Alternatively, we greased the skids for our friends. We'd go to the dean and give her the old "his grades don't reflect his abilities" speech, or supply our pal with essay tips. This often made a big difference.Even the lowliest clerk (I was an Office Assistant) affects admissions decisions. If someone gave me a lot of shit over the phone, I'd mark them a "20" (do not admit/pain-in-the-ass) or "19" (insane). Their application wouldn't make it past my file drawer. A lot of applicants are transfer students with several transcripts from various colleges, often of varying quality. If I liked someone, I could pull their unfavorable transcript until after they'd gotten admitted, then drop it back into the file so they'd still get their transfer credits.If you didn't get into the school of your choice, don't worry about it. The decision process is so screwed up that admissions and rejections don't say anything useful about the people getting admitted and rejected. American colleges turn out hundreds of thousands of total idiots every year, and millions of geniuses are working the night shift at Arco. Truly educated people learn on their own -Ñ at school, at home, on the bus. Everyone else is just going through the motions. It's too bad your next potential employer doesn't know this.THE PRESTIGE DIFFERENTIALAssuming that you've decided to pursue an undergraduate degree, where should you go?Differences in the quality of education are subtle. Professors at Dayton, Ohio's Wright State University are just as likely to have earned their doctorates at Yale as are professors at Yale itself, assuming that that makes them better teachers. At state universities, instructors tend to be less accessible due to large class sizes, especially for your first two years. However, the big-name schools' small class sizes tend to get canceled out by the pressure on professors to publish and do research. By your junior year, it's essentially the same deal, whether you attend City College or Cornell.To be sure, attending a "prestigious" school has its advantages. Many of your classmates will be rich, influential fucks. Conceivably, these people could help you later on. Among my classmates at Columbia were a Moroccan princess, Martha Stewart's daughter, Dan Rather, Jr. and a rock star's live-in girlfriend. I tutored the princess in calculus, attended Dan's well-funded parties and spied Martha's tax deduction in the cafeteria now and then. Just last week I pitched a book proposal to the rock woman, who's now a book editor. It may not have done much for my socio-economic status, but it was kind of interesting to see how the white power elite is trained. Before I went East, I'd always thought "crew" was a hairstyle. Making it to Harvard won't grant you acceptance to the American aristocracy, but it will put you on a first-name basis with it.On the other hand, opting for a lower-cost state school will save you about $40,000, which makes up for the reduced snob appeal. If you're willing to seek it out, you can get just as good an education at Eastern Kentucky State University as anywhere else.Attending a second-tier, not-quite-Ivy institution like NYU or Amherst offers the worst of both worlds. You'll wallow in rush weeks, pep rallies and date rapes, and still shell out $25,000 a year for a degree that won't even raise an eyebrow at HR offices of the snottier firms. Most lists of "good education buys," such as US News & World Report's annual "Best Colleges" issue, snub these schools.LIFE DEFERRAL ALTERNATIVES: GRADUATE SCHOOLClearly you must go to law or medical school if you want to become a lawyer or doctor. (In many states, including California, you don't have to have a law degree to practice law -Ñ you only have to pass the bar. But firms won't hire you without a law degree.) But most people who go to graduate school do so to escape having to look for a job. "There aren't any good jobs," a friend told me a few years ago about her decision to apply to grad school in Asian Studies. "And my student loans will be deferred while I'm in grad school!""Yeah, but what will you do when you finish?" I asked. "You'll still owe the loans from undergrad, plus your new loans for grad school. And there's no reason to think that there'll be any good jobs then."She shot me an exasperated special-ed-teacher-staring-at-her-idiots look. "Then I'll go for my doctorate. Obviously. Duh!" she pointed out, rolling her eyes. This philosophy works well for people with deep pockets. For everyone else, it's a road to ruin, or to a life as an assistant professor. These poor people, having entered college unsuspectingly at age 18, will spend the rest of their lives trapped in academic oblivion. These pathetic souls will never have lived real lives, but will delude themselves into thinking they made a lifestyle decision. In fact, they never made any decision at all -Ñ they were hoodwinked by the higher education swindle.

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