atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,
atomic_fungus
atomic_fungus

#4165: Ah, let's start with debt.

Yeah, debt.

Plenty of others around are talking about this Tam post in which she discusses the growing sense of bailout entitlement within the nation's youth.

The example given shows a young lady who owes some $17k in revolving debt alone. How in the Sam Hell do you amass $17k in revolving debt before age 25? Really?

It used to be that a person could work part-time and put himself through college. It wasn't easy, because after a full day of classes you still had to go work for six hours, but you could do it if you were poor and really determined to get a serious education.

Then the socialists in wartime D.C. had a great idea: we'd give returning vets a leg up in the world and pay their tuition. As long as we call fascism anything other than socialism--these boys bled and died to fight fascism!--we're going to get scads of converts to leftism!

If that had been the end of it, we might not be where we are now. But the vets saw how great their lives were with an education, and decided their kids had to get educations, too, because that's how things work! --and the educational establishment expanded. And charged more per student, because with so many dollars in the system, why not?

When student loans came on the scene, originally they were treated like any other loan. If you defaulted on one it ruined your credit rating but you could discharge that debt through bankruptcy.

Only some folks ran up huge student loan debts, then discharged them via bankruptcy rather than paying them off. (A lot of these folks were high-dollar law school graduates who discovered that there wasn't nearly as big a market for lawyers as they had thought. A lot of them were doctors who simply didn't want to put off making that first million and buying that first Porsche.)

Instead of taking a hard look at what the priorities of the system should be, D.C. simply made it illegal to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy. Now, if you took out a student loan, you had to pay it off regardless of circumstance. If you end up seriously disabled they let you off the hook, but otherwise--

In this environment, then, colleges can basically charge whatever they want. Banks are all too willing to lend hundreds of thousands of dollars because they know they'll get that money back, by hook or by crook. If you want the education--particularly if you want the Ivy League sheepskin--you're going to pay through the nose.

And for what?

"Beetle tracking! Occupational therapy for morons!" (Have Space Suit--Will Travel)

This ties into the Fred Reed column I commented on the other day. It used to be that a university education was required for serious professions, such as law, medicine, or engineering. If your highest aspiration in life was to manage a department store, however, you didn't go to college. Maybe you went to night school to learn accountancy after you started moving up, but in general you got a job and worked, and you worked hard and you came to work every day and you never missed an opportunity to make yourself more valuable to the company.

You certainly didn't need a four-year degree in anything to go higher than your starting position as a stock clerk. There wasn't a huge corporate HR department checking off boxes on a piece of paper and declining your application for team lead because you didn't have a four-year degree; the guy who decided whether you made the grade was the guy you'd be working for (and who you'd worked for in a lesser capacity already, so he knew you).

...and you could do it on a high school education because public schools actually taught useful things instead of the kind of worthless tripe they spoon-feed the kids these days.

"What's a dangling participle? Why did Van Buren fail of re-election? How do you extract the cube root of 26?"

When I read those three questions in Have Space Suit--Will Travel, I didn't even know what that first question meant. (To be fair, I was 12, but come on.) If Heinlein hadn't said that Van Buren was a President I wouldn't have known that, either. But Kip's answer to the third question was one I knew: look at the table in the back of the book. Yeah.

And Heinlein's story was written in 1957.

And at this point, in all the schooling I've had--mathematics through Fourier transforms--no one ever showed me how to extract a cube root. In Algebra II the teacher demonstrated extracting a square root one time, using one of the biggest pain-in-the-ass methods I ever saw: divide and interpolate. (Translation: trial and error. *sigh*)

I learned the answer to the first question on my own, outside of any formal schooling. And Van Buren? WTF, I don't have the faintest clue why he wasn't re-elected. For all I know, it was his aftershave.

Primary and secondary schooling is now seen--rather than as education--as preparation for college, where the real learning is to begin. That's why you get people graduating from high school who are incapable of writing a correctly-punctuated sentence with simple subject-verb agreement.

College used to be sink or swim, no remedial classes, no second chances; if you couldn't handle the material you flunked out. Now it's overgrown babysitting for overgrown children who take majors in "beetle tracking" which cost tens of thousands of dollars per year to acquire, and then are dumbstruck that there's no job market for people with BA degrees in East African History. (No job market, that is, which does not involve handling food or cleaning supplies.)

The idea that any college degree is superior to no college degree is part of the problem. In the first place, it's not true, except--as noted above--the places where a check box must be marked, because bureaucracy. I know someone who has a history degree from a very nice university, and who doesn't actually do anything related to his major. He makes decent money at what he does, but that's because he understands the value of hard work and persistence, and doesn't shirk his duties...and he got to where he is by starting at the bottom and working his way up.

If you get involved with a trade--plumbing, electrical, carpentry, etc--you can make an excellent wage, and you don't require a degree. You still have to learn but you do that via an apprenticeship, for which you're paid some nominal wage; there are no baccalaurate degrees in plumbing. But you won't be sitting in an office pushing papers around.

And even when you have a degree it's no guarantee of success, even if it's in something useful. I have a degree; it has not helped much since the Dot-Com bust in 2000. Of the degreed people my age that I know, it's hit-or-miss as to how well they're doing vis-a-vis those who do not have degrees. And the job I have now, I secured on the merits of my computer technical career--90% of which was entirely self-taught or learned on the job. My credential doesn't lend any credence or gravitas to my extant experience.

So what good is it?

This is the problem that we're facing now: we expect our kids to get degrees in something, so they do--and it's usually something either useless or of marginal utility, because not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or a scientist (hard science, I mean, like chemistry and physics, not "political science" or climatology). The universities pump out all kinds of degrees in obscure history, "black studies", "womyn's studies", and a plethora of other utterly useless things...and too many people and corporations treat them as if they're just as valuable and useful as a degree in actuarial science or chemical engineering.

Heinlein, in Expanded Universe, explored the course catalogs of the University of California, and discovered that it is possible to graduate from that college system with a four-year liberal arts degree without having to learn anything. He did this in the 1960s or 1970s as I recall. The situation has not since improved.

Only now it costs about fifty thousand dollars more than it did when Heinlein wrote that piece.

* * *

...which is not to say that we don't need people to study classical literature or history or even soft sciences like social studies. We do; but the market for such degrees is limited primarily to the ivory tower. The limits of that market are demonstrated by how much adjunct professors are paid, and how much educators at large are paid for being able to confer their expertise upon others.

The point is, too much of our culture now focuses on the idea that if you don't go to college you are automatically a failure. That's not so; it's never actually been so.

* * *

And I completely skipped over the main reason for college attendance in the 1960s: college as the escape hatch from the draft board. The kid in college got an exception--was deferred from draft, though not exempt from it--and thus able to stay home and protest. Fathers who had been to war were adamant that their kids not be exposed to it.

(My own father--as law-abiding as he was--said that if they ever started up the draft again he'd send all his military-aged kids to Canada. I was single-digit aged at the time; I remember this only because I was shocked, it was so out of character.)

So what do we do?

Well, I think the most important thing we can do now is to return student debt to the bankruptcy court. Make it dischargeable in bankruptcy, because that will drive down the cost of education. It will do so by making banks be a lot more careful about lending money, and when you have fewer dollars chasing a set number of units of a commodity, the price of the commodity must decrease.

Richard Feynman's father put him through MIT and in the 1930s, while supporting his family on a blue-collar salary. These days a year's worth of blue-collar salary won't pay for a year's undergraduate tuition at either school, much less graduate tuition (which is much more expensive).

If you bring down the cost of education far enough, you return it to a paradigm where a person can work his way through college, paying as he goes.

...but of course college administrators need Porsches too.
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