How to Cut the Price of Higher Ed: Don't Pay It

So Teresa Sullivan, the president who didn't cut costs at the University of Virginia, got her job back anyway.

Meanwhile making the rounds of newspaper op-ed pages is an essay by Jeff Selingo, editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education, saying the way to get college costs down is more online courses. Selingo, not coincidentally, is flogging a book he's working on dealing with the same topic.

You know what? If it's really possible to study the American novel online, then maybe the better bet is to just not study it.

Does nobody ever want to talk about the real problem? I do. The reason the sticker on a fancy college degree has soared so absurdly over the last 20 years is that too many Americans are suckers for a fancy college degree.

They're not even trying to buy an education for their kids. They're trying to buy them into into the Secret Order of the Upper Class Skull and Bones Juju Men. Who, by the way, do not exist.

People do not pay 50 grand a year so their kid can get the best possible introduction to Ovid. They pay that money because they think it's the price of admission to the aristocracy.

It's not. It's the price of admission to the same old grunt paycheck middle class their parents belonged to. Go look at, a site quoted in The New York Times and other major media: A degree from the University of Texas at Austin buys you mid-career average annual earnings of $89,500; a degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign puts you at $94,300; Yale will get you $105,000 at mid-career.

So is the difference between 105 grand a year and 89.5 really worth hocking the house and leaving grandma under a bridge? Maybe you could not hock the house, send the kid to Austin instead of New Haven and preach really hard to him about how much money he will save over his lifetime if he quits smoking.

Sure, the cost of higher ed has soared. But it's the private schools that lead the pack, and they are way way out front. Department of Education numbers show that the cost in inflation-adjusted dollars of a public university degree rose by 380 percent between 1980 and 2010, but the cost of a private university degree in the same period rose by 570 percent.

Why? Because they're private, they can charge what they want, so they charge what the market will bear.

But why does the market bear? Oh, please, do not drag out your fake raccoon coat and your plastic ukulele and start singing me a bad version of The Whiffenpoof Song.

Whiffenbullshit. Maybe if you went there yourself and you have good memories, sure, I might believe you. But most people who sell their souls to buy that kind of degree for a kid are doing it because they think it buys the kid into the aristocracy.

The first rude shock the kid's going to get is that the aristocracy pretty much went out with Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island. And that's the good news.

This is a much more openly competitive society than it was a half century ago. We are now in the Golden Age of the scholarship kids, and I don't begrudge those kids one nickel of it. If they can talk Harvard into giving it to them for free, then good for them.

The families that make me want to cry and scream, though, are those who plunge themselves into debt, or, worse, plunge the kid, to pay for this stuff themselves. That's a bleak and awful sucker's game. It's a mistake. A tragic mistake.

I personally don't give a shit what it costs to go to UVA (which is a public university, but was founded by Thomas Jefferson, so ...) but if we all really think the most important thing in the world is to get the costs down at Virginia, the way to do it is stop paying those prices. Let UVA see what it can get out of Thurston Howell the Fifth. Or Thurston Howell and his fifth, as the case may be.

Last year there was a study that totted up the cost of a medical degree from top private schools, factored in some student loans, accounted for years of earnings lost while in school, then compared the outcome of the expensive private medical degree with being a licensed plumber.

The physician came out ahead. He or she wound up with an average annual disposable income that was $423 more per year than the plumber's.

When's the last time you tried to get an appointment with a plumber? Now tell me who's the aristocrat.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze