During the second day of the Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan closed out his end of the night speech with a bleak image of a broke college student staring up at her fading Obama poster and weighing the truth that she’ll have to take her mountain of student loan debt and new college degree and move back in to her childhood bedroom. It’s an image that’s all too familiar for me, a Sociology major with a passion for teaching who can’t find a teaching job that will take less than a PhD to save my life. But while I’ve got my business and experience to fall back on, for the young Americans who went straight to college after high school and are now graduating, opportunity isn’t exactly knocking.
Job prospects for all recent college graduates are dismal. Last year, a poll conducted by Twentysomething Inc. found that around 85% of college graduates are moving back in to with their parent(s). With unemployment rates for Americans under 25 years old as high as 54%, the harsh reality of having to put food on the table for those who have children already and the rising costs of living nationwide will no doubt cause more and more of our nation’s educated young adults to drift into areas of guaranteed paychecks, like the military. This is especially so for underprivileged minorities. According to National Priorities, between 2005 and 2010, the annual percentage of white military recruits fell by almost five points, while the annual percentage of black military recruits rose by almost four percent.
For those who don’t want to serve, job applications are constantly turned down because of the over-saturation of higher-than-qualified candidates for even basic job openings. Earlier this year, an out of work adjunct professor posted a fake job listing online for an entry-level position with no experience required, and in the first 24 hours he received 653 applications. The law of supply and demand dictates that higher demand for something leads to less of its supply, and in the case of jobs this is translated inversely into wages: the more qualified applicants you get for a job, the less you have to shell out in wages. In addition to the increasingly competitive market of people who are more qualified than you and willing to work for less, employers have adapted to the increase in credential saturation by requiring more work experience – and in my case while looking for a job teaching at a university, a terminal degree in your field and a history of academic publishing.
Without employment, college students and recent graduates are finding it tougher than ever to tackle their inflated student loan debt. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual tuition for a full-time on-campus student at a 4-year university is $21,189, and while this does not account for Pell Grants (which planned to be cut by $170 Billion), it also doesn’t account for the fastest-growing higher education market in the world: online learning.
Online students face a unique set of financial challenges. Already half of the 4,500 brick and mortar colleges in the US offer degree programs online, but the convenience of “earning a degree in your pajamas” comes at a steep price to students who are already struggling to keep up with their bills and flock to the online environment so they can keep their job(s). This is especially true for institutions that are for-profit (like online universities UoP, APUS, and Park, to name a few), whose students have experienced the highest rate of tuition increase since their parents attended college.
Working while in school used to be a rising trend until the turn of the century gave us a recession, a war, and tax breaks instead of tax increases (even Republican billionaire David Koch thinks we need to raise taxes!). The dire economic conditions gave way to massive blows to the job market and our nation’s job growth has been under heavy scrutiny ever since. While unemployment is higher for people without any college, those who have some college or have graduated college still face higher unemployment than before – and they get the added bonus of a “mountain of student loan debt.”
After adjusting for inflation, the cost of college is about three times more expensive than in 1978. Has education somehow evolved to be better? Has so much happened between 1978 and 2012 that the increased academic knowledge base requires a greater financial commitment to maintain? Without an objective way to measure the value of education we can’t answer those questions, but what we can be sure about is that we are doing everything we can to make education more difficult to achieve and less affordable.
Some blame our culture for the increase in operating expenses that colleges and universities undoubtedly pass on to students in the form of tuition hikes. Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University, said, “In today’s consumer culture, parents and students expect a certain level of comfort – and they compare the amenities.” The more expensive and like Hogwarts a college looks, the more applicants they will get and, ultimately, the more applicants they can reject. Rejections lower the acceptance rate, making the university look very selective. Combined with the million-dollar amenities and a tough admissions process, a low acceptance rate makes prospective students and their parents gloss right over the price tag when the acceptance letter comes.
But brick and mortar competition doesn’t exist in the online environment, so how has tuition for online learning increased at such an exponential rate? One answer is simple: people will pay it. Savvy businesspeople saw an opportunity to cash in on the dire situations of America’s working class and took it, and their profits are forever protected in a culture that requires a college education to be taken seriously but doesn’t take seriously the actual education. Are they wrong for trying to make a buck? Not according to the way capitalism works. Quite the contrary, actually: higher education is a market that will always have a demand because there are always customers who need the supply, and if you can set up shop where you are guaranteed customers, well, you’ve got yourself one hell of a business.
No matter how you plan on obtaining your degree, a radical cultural shift would have to happen for higher education to start cutting back on the tuition rates. Without any way to measure the value of an education, prospective students and parents both look to either the convenience of an online degree or the prestige of a college’s name as the rationale behind their willingness to fork over about a year’s worth of their future salary in student loans. It would seem that getting a degree has become more important than getting an education, and the process of learning and knowledge acquisition in order to understand the world and why we’re here has taken a backseat to the idea of going from zero to bachelors in 2.5 years (the business slogan for ECPI). By placing greater value in the tangible aspect of an education — that is, the actual diploma itself — rather than the process of education, people aren’t paying for the adventure so much as they’re paying for the proof that they took part.
On the outset of things it would seem as though we’ve embraced information technology to the point that it has transcended its purpose (to share and disseminate information and bring knowledge to people in easier and faster ways than ever imagined) and have turned it into a fertile ground for “regionally-accredited online institutions” to feed off of middle class America, who themselves are trying to get from “zero to bachelors in 2.5 years” because we all know that a college degree is the gateway to opportunity. What does it say about us as a nation when we look at college students who are destined to take their education and change the world and decide to bury them with student loan debt and encourage them to fall victim to predatory for-profit colleges who answers not to the hungry minds of its students, but to the hungry pocketbooks of its shareholders?
It says that we care more about money than our minds.
Imagine for a moment that it’s 1995 and you’re 18 years old. You’ve got $5,000 saved up. You can either 1) use it to help pay for your college tuition, take out a student loan, and get a bachelors degree, or 2) get an entry-level job and invest that money in the market. Ironically, if you chose to invest in for-profit education rather than get an education, you’d be much more well off financially today than if you had taken out student loans and went to school. In 1995, just $5,000 invested in Apollo Group Inc (APOL) — the owners of University of Phoenix — would be worth over $2 Million today. That’s an average growth of $117,352 per year!
So while this generation of college graduates are moving back in with their parent(s) and unable to work in their desired field because either no one is hiring for their skill set or, as in my case of wanting to teach, they need an earned terminal degree from a regionally-accredited institution, eventually the high school students watching their older brothers and sisters crumble under student loan debt and the impossibility of post-college opportunities will start to learn that college is not a gateway to the American Dream — it’s a roadblock.