The Most Expensive Mirage

Thomas Frank, from his book of essays Rendezvous with Oblivion: Letters from a Sinking Society:

When we reach the end of high school, we approach the next life, the university life, in the manner of children writing letters to Santa. We promise to be so very good. We open our hearts to the beloved institution. We get good grades. We do our best on the standardized tests. We earnestly list our first, second, third choices. We tell them what we want to be when we grow up. We confide our wishes. We stare at the stock photos of smiling students, we visit the campus, and we find, always, that it is so very beautiful.

And when that fat acceptance letter comes — oh, it is the greatest moment of personal vindication most of us have experienced. Our hard work has paid off. We have been chosen.

Then several years pass, and one day we wake up to discover there is no Santa Claus. Somehow, we have been had. We are a hundred thousand dollars in debt, and there is no clear way to escape it. We have no prospects to speak of. And if those damn dreams of ours happened to have taken a particularly fantastic turn and urged us to get a Ph.D., then the learning really begins.

I got plucked out of the first elementary school I attended in favor of a GATE Program school across the city. My parents thought it would be a better challenge. Once I got there, and was surrounded by a classroom full of like-minded kids, for three consecutive years on the state test I fell in the 99th percentile in math and got awarded a few tiny scholarships from Johns Hopkins University. I always liked school at that age, because to that point school always seemed to like me back.

By happenstance I started watching college sports at the tail end of the 20th century; in 1999 Duke made the National Championship for men’s basketball, and in the 1999-’00 season Michael Vick led Virginia Tech to the National Championship for football. I was just a nine year-old kid, but that’s when I knew my main goal in life was to attend one of those schools. Nothing else mattered. And with the absurd level of irrational confidence I had in my youth it never seemed like a matter of “if.” One way or another it was definitely going to happen.

In my middle and high school years my enthusiasm for school progressively dwindled. I was still the same kid, smart and sure of myself, but like the cliche goes: my greatest strengths were also my greatest weaknesses. I was a little too smart in some ways, not nearly smart enough in most of the areas that mattered, and lacked severely in the humility department. These personal items wouldn’t undergo an autopsy until years later, well after I had ended my experience in higher education.

In my teenage years I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing how important college was. I heard it at school from teachers and administrators; I heard it from my parents, and seemingly everyone else’s parents; I heard it on TV during college sports games; I heard it from U.S. Presidents and professionals alike. Everyone said the same thing: If you want to make it in life, you first have to go to college.

As it turned out I didn’t need anyone to tell me. I already knew what I wanted to do, and it just happened that what everyone was saying and what I wanted ran parallel to one another. As a boy I dreamed of playing point guard on Duke University’s basketball team. I dreamed of playing quarterback and leading Virginia Tech onto the field at Lane Stadium every Saturday.

But once I made it to like 6th grade I knew neither of those things were ever going to happen. It wasn’t like I was bad at playing basketball, and it wasn’t like I couldn’t throw the fucking pigskin from time to time; it was just basic math. And the facts were such that I was (a) a small kid, (b) I wasn’t very fast, (c) I wasn’t very physical, and (d) almost every other kid who played sports at that age had similar aspirations.

To my benefit I understood my limits at a pretty young age, I think. As a grown man I stand only about 5’7″, and I must’ve rationalized as early as elementary school that there was a solid chance I would never be the 6’1″, 180-pound shortstop I generally envisioned myself as. Some kids were of similar stature to mine and eventually hit their growth spurts. I was not one of those kids.

But this is kind of the point: I knew I wasn’t going to be a part of the 1% that made it to college on an athletic scholarship. Before I knew anything about anything, I knew if I was ever going to propel myself into Duke or Virginia Tech I would have to do it with my brain. With education, my athletic shortcomings were never part of the equation. It didn’t matter that I was small. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t very fast. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t very physical. My advantage over the field, at least earlier on, was understanding what I thought to be the necessity of schooling, wanting to be good academically, because I knew without admissible grades and acceptable SAT scores I would never be able to sniff either of my dream schools.

I finished high school with something like a 3.3 grade point average, which is both amazing and pathetic at the same time. My SATs were solid but not where I wanted them to be. I wrote a handful of letters to colleges — Cal State Fullerton, Humboldt State, Sacramento State, and my reach school, Virginia Tech — and I remember I ended them all with some version of: I know I am going to do great things in life, but I would prefer calling [such and such school] my alma mater once I make it. 

I was faking it, of course. I figured the various gatekeepers of these institutions probably hated having to read a bunch of boring nonsense from teenagers, talking about why that particular school mattered to them and why, so I decided to (try to) be different and turn the generally accepted paradigm on its head. I don’t need your school, I confidently declared, your school needs me. 

So when I got my acceptance letter from Virginia Tech in March, 2008, I felt like my childhood wasn’t a waste. My longterm plan from boyhood worked out precisely as it was supposed to. Like Thomas Frank said, it was indeed the greatest moment of personal vindication I had ever experienced.

Even though I loved my time there, my expedition at Virginia Tech lasted only a year. Counting out-of-state tuition, room and board, and the meal plan, the student loans my parents took out totaled around $40,000. I began paying them down in the fall of 2009, and come this December, two months from now, they will finally be paid off completely.

* * * * *

My path to college wasn’t uncommon. Okay, maybe not everyone who dips their feet in higher education wanted to from as early as age-9, and certainly not everyone picked their college destinations haphazardly based on some stupid sporting events. But as far as trying, caring, hoping to be accepted, then getting saddled with tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars in student debt, I am just one drop in a generational bucket.

But let’s argue that I actually closed the deal, that I went to Virginia Tech for four years and graduated with a degree in Communication, specifically Electronic and Print Journalism (EPJ). (Good thing I chose such a lucrative, not-dying industry!) Now we are talking about $40,000 multiplied by four, which doesn’t take into account 3-4 round trip flights from Ontario, CA to Roanoke, VA per year. After four years that rounds off to somewhere in the neighborhood of $175,000; if I had to finish up in a 5th year, it would have been north of $200,000.

For the last decade my student loans have cost around $500 a month. Just running the quick math, 200,000 divided by 500 comes out to an astonishing 400 months; that’s a shade over 33 years. And that’s not including interest, which would push that number closer to 40 years (or more). Even if I was somehow able to stash away 10 grand a year to pay off these debts, it would still take a remarkable 20 years to get to $200,000 (again not including interest).

How many people can afford this? How many jobs are available to fresh-out-of-college kids that can offset so many thousands of dollars? I was only stuck $40,000, and it’s taken almost 10 full years while I have had no marriage, no house payment, and no kids to feed. My own situation is what it is, but what about the people who did the right thing, graduated, and got confronted by the reality that the American economy doesn’t care which school they went to, or whether or not they graduated? What about them?

Thomas Frank compares the current collegiate climate to Wall Street, saying:

What [colleges] sell, in other words, is something we believe to be so valuable it is almost impossible to measure. Anyone in her right mind would pay an enormous price for it.

Another fact: this same industry, despite its legal status as a public charity, is today driven by motives almost indistinguishable from those of the profit-maximizing entities traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

The coming of “academic capitalism” has been anticipated and praised for years; today it is here. Colleges and universities clamor greedily for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech start-ups; they boast of being “entrepreneurial”; they have rationalized and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a nineteenth-century railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments into in-house hedge funds.

Now, consider the seventeen year-old consumer against whom this predatory institution squares off. He comes loping to the bargaining table armed with about the same amount of guile that, a few years earlier, he brought to Santa’s lap in the happy holiday shopping center. You can be sure he knows all about the imperative of achieving his dreams, and the status that will surely flow from attending a “good school.” Either he goes to college like the rest of his friends or he goes to work.

The truth is rarely pretty, but it’s all we’ve got. By the time I made it into my 20’s I had a different perspective about my college process, and it aligned much closer to Thomas Frank’s than it did my 17 year-old self. I didn’t know why, exactly, but I knew something wasn’t fair. I knew something wasn’t right. I guess that’s what being an adult can feel like though.

For instance, is there a greater chance Virginia Tech’s administration thought I was special, or that they wanted to capitalize off of my out-of-state tuition to help supplement the in-state students (who paid roughly $9,000 a year)? Did they really like me, or did they like that I was from Southern California and they wanted a little more geographic diversity?

My guess is it was all about the money. Virginia Tech, like any other major public school, has to have an algorithm for maximum profitability when it comes to in-state vs. out-of-state kids. A student with similar grades to mine, but who’s from the state of Virginia, probably had a harder time getting in than I did, and only for the reason that I would be paying roughly four times the amount in comparison.

I find this to be the most realistic outlook. If I was in charge of running a multimillion dollar business — even if, as Thomas Frank says, its legal status is “as a public charity” — I would do my best to juice up the bottom line as much as possible. If that means accepting the kid from California over the reasonable facsimile from in-state, then that’s what has to be done. You don’t get the job if you don’t make it your regular practice to execute such transactions. That doesn’t, however, make any of this shit right, or moral.

For just about the entirety of my public schooling career I was outspoken and occasionally obnoxious, but there was no doubt that I gave a shit about the subject matter and with few exceptions I was an addition to every classroom I was in. I had difficult relationships with some of my teachers, but by the end of the year I usually felt like we arrived to some sort of an understanding. The understanding was this: I was the student who tried to keep things interesting for everyone, even if that meant having to challenge the teachers periodically.

Maybe my style was better suited for middle school and high school, when going to class was more of an obligation than a choice, but nonetheless I feel like I brought a lot to the table. Universities are about free speech, challenging one another in the arena of ideas in hopes of expanding the mind, and to that end I was the ideal student that higher institutions should always want. Unfortunately, during the application process every student is basically stripped of all possible originality. Everyone gets reduced to a few numbers.

There are people like me, and people much smarter than me, who believed college was their ticket to success and money. We married our dreams to the institutions we chose, and they were nice enough to choose us in return. What I have learned, and what millions of others have surely learned as well, is that the dream everyone sold was in many ways a lie.

* * * * *

The lens I see life through has, naturally, been influenced by my own personal experiences. I have witnessed firsthand how my mom was (and is) arguably the most valuable employee for the company she has spent 20-plus years working for, yet she gets paid about 70 cents to the dollar that her male counterparts earn. I watched my dad labor for 25 years at a job that paid him less than I make in about six months. I saw myself, having accomplished my dream of going to Virginia Tech, salt away a mountain of debt for attempting to go to college and better my future.

These are all worker issues. That is the lens. They are working class and middle class issues. Sure, libertarians and conservatives might say we created these problems for ourselves. They might say if my mom and dad were unhappy with their working situations, they should have got different jobs. They might tell me that I didn’t have to go to Virginia Tech, that I should have just gone to a less expensive college.

In a de facto sense it’s a way to shift the blame to the workers; that is basically what’s happening. Pick yourself up by your bootstraps: that is the cure-all, they say. Everyone has the choice to boil everything down to that, or they can look squarely at the broken system that has profited so much from people like us. As a general rule of thumb I think the issues deserve a harder look when the lowest hanging fruit, the most obvious conclusion to draw, is to blame poor people.

What can be done about college? That’s the real challenge. In 2015-’16 Bernie Sanders was the only Presidential candidate that talked about making public colleges and universities tuition-free, which he said would be paid for by bringing back Glass-Steagall — a tax on Wall Street speculation. Hillary Clinton later came up with a plan for student loan forgiveness, but with her longtime alliance with the banks it’s difficult to imagine her ever following through.

As with so many other things — healthcare, banking, defense spending — Republicans and Democrats are on the same side when it comes to college prices. Put another way, they are indifferent. After all, both parties accept huge sums of money from Wall Street, the places that profit off perpetual student debt, and so neither has any real urge to upset that applecart. The parties are not beholden to the workers or students of workers. Instead they are beholden to the financial institutions, for they are the donors that fund so much of the political campaigns on both sides. No matter which party is in power, the banks win.

The amount of money the United States spends on the military is sickening, and it’s ultimately why poor people can’t have nice things. When 60 cents out of every tax dollar is spent on defense, that means there is less money for healthcare and education — which is a big reason why Americans are so unhealthy and uneducated compared to the rest of the advanced world.

I’m a gambler, so I don’t think throwing money at the problem is the worst idea. Bernie Sanders’s idea was, ironically, to use Wall Street speculation as his means to pay for free public college. It’s estimated that the cost would be around $75 billion annually, no doubt a hefty price that the corporate media should give some push back on. Yet when both parties came together to up Donald Trump’s military budget by $80 billion a year, what did the mainstream media have to say about that? Almost nothing.

You know, if I didn’t know any better I would almost have to assume that the only time the wealthy and powerful have a problem with free stuff is when poor people want it. No one blinks an eye when our politicians vote on the behalf of the American people to give $80 billion worth of free stuff to the Department of Defense, which already spends more than the next 10 countries combined.

I look forward to having kids someday, and I like to think that the world I would bring them into actually valued education. Assuming from here the cost of college will only continue to rise, I wouldn’t have any motivation to push them to get into a Duke or a Virginia Tech. And frankly, unless they were interested in being a doctor, or lawyer, or some other specialized field, I would probably encourage them to go a more economical route. The perceived benefits of attending a four-year school, the types I staked my life on while I was growing up, don’t come anywhere close to matching the reality that there aren’t nearly enough good-paying jobs in the U.S. economy.

I know this isn’t the type of thing I would have wanted to hear from my parents when I was a kid, but I didn’t know any better. We didn’t know any better. I think if you canvased every working class and middle class family who sent their kids away to an expensive college, you would find the majority knew about as much as my family did.

Ignorance should not cost families $40,000 a year. There should not be a penalty on students who work their asses off and get into good schools. There should not be excessive interest rates tacked on to the best and brightest, crippling their futures before they ever get the chance to start. And this shouldn’t be one of the unifying themes that leads millennials — the most shitted on generation in the the United States — to believe as a majority that Capitalism does not work for them.

If I was bitter about having to pay back my student loans, then I would say the problem doesn’t need fixing. I would say if I had to pay it, then all these other motherfuckers should have to pay, too.

But I’m not in this for myself. I’m thinking about my kids, and the kids of my friends. I’m thinking about a society that puts a premium on education, that is actively looking to reclaim American Exceptionalism as a real thing. I’m thinking about the working class, and middle class people like my parents, who are absolutely starving for the powers that be to prove that they give a shit about the little guy.