The old song goes,
“You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.”
It refers to a time in our history when American mine workers were paid in a company scrip that could only be exchanged for goods sold at the company store or on rent from the company supplied dormitory. Mineworkers could not accumulate cash and they had little hope of escaping a life in the mines. It took the passion and violent birth of the United Mineworkers Union to force an end to these practices. It took a revolution.
Today, as a professional financial advisor, I’m worried about a couple of things: the cost of health care and, today’s topic, the cost of a college education. At lunch last week, a friend of mine told me that his daughter was thinking about attending an out of state college whose tuition runs a nifty $45,000 a year. Yup, without minor incidental expenses like books, travel, and computers, the sticker price for four years at this school is close to $200,000. By extension, his three kids then, will cost my friend and his wife about three quarters a million dollars in college expenses (I adjusted up for inflation).
What the heck does that college degree get you today? I’m a full time college student, by the way. Last year, at 55 years old, I decided to take care of some unfinished business and I am enrolled as an on-line student. In the thirty five years I used to “take a semester off” I have noticed this: higher learning isn’t so high anymore. I am here to tell you, some of the subjects and skills in this incarnation of my matriculation were high school level on my last go around. As my college graduate children will tell you, an undergraduate degree today buys you one poker chip, you probably need a very narrow specialization or a Daddy with great connections to get a meaningful job without graduate credentials (and more money). A college degree is an entry ticket to the job market, but only for a bleacher seat.
How many college graduates are under employed or jobless? AND deeply in debt?
Whether you choose to go to an expensive college or a junior college, there are costs involved to become minimally qualified to get a job in our society. In the poker rooms they call this your “buy in.” Like my buddy, most people don’t have an extra fortune laying around to ante up, so the colleges become loan sharks, they make us an offer we can’t refuse.
We owe our souls to the company store.
I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t. But I know this, we won’t grow as a society if we are saddling our young workers with debt they can never hope to pay back. Does everyone need a classical education? Is the answer going to be found by a renewed interest in trade schools or do we have to wait for an actual revolution, rioting in the streets, for things to change?
In every other business, the people who charged for knowledge are being put out of business by the internet. Unlike newspapers, travel agents, and local radio stations, colleges are the only gatekeepers of knowledge who have been able to raise prices. Yet, you can watch MIT and Harvard lectures on line for free, and, with a mouse click, the sum total of human knowledge is at our fingertips. How long do we let academicians charge more than the local bookie? When do we find another way to certify the basic level of knowledge needed to become a functioning member of the workforce?
In my line of work, I can tell you that there are two obstacles that come into play everyday: how do we pay our college loans and what do we do about health insurance. And, I am telling you, until we find a way to change our system we are all working for the company store.