Piketty goes post-secondary: why a university education is so goddamned expensive

Thomas Frank is scorching on the subject of university tuition hikes and the complicity of the press in blaming everything except for bulging administrations and cuts to state universities for the 30-year spiral of super-inflationary price-hikes from America's post-secondary sector. Where he really nails it, though, is about two thirds of the way through, when he discusses the mental shift that allowed all this to happen: once universities started advertising themselves as paths to individual high-earnings (instead of seats of learning and forces for national prosperity), there was no reason for anyone to want to see them as subsidized, universal, accessible institutions:

What I mean to say is that the tuition price spiral is part of the larger history of inequality, just as is the ever-rising price of Andy Warhol paintings, or the ever-growing size of the McMansion, or the ever-weightier catalogs issued by Restoration Hardware—and, of course, the never-increasing wages of American workers. As the rewards that can potentially be won by members of the white-collar class have gone from meh (in the egalitarian 1970s) to Neronian (today), it feels natural that the entrance fee for membership in that class should have escalated in a corresponding manner. The iron logic of inequality works the other way as well: Although a college degree doesn't necessarily guarantee a life of splendor, not having one pretty much makes a life of poorly compensated toil a sure thing. Finding ourselves on the receiving end of inequality is a fate we will pay virtually any price to avoid, and our system of higher ed exists to set and extract that price.

Put it another way: Over the last 30-odd years we have essentially privatized higher ed. In saying this I'm not referencing the defunding of our State U's (an explanation for the tuition spiral, by the way, that doesn't get nearly enough journalistic attention). And I am aware that a good chunk of our institutions of higher ed have been private all along. What has changed is that they aren't "our" institutions of higher ed anymore. Maybe they never were, but not too long ago it was possible to think of them—from Milton Friedman's University of Chicago all the way down to Michele Bachmann's Winona State University—as serving some sort of public function. Whether founded by the grace of Rockefeller or by Act of the Minnesota Legislature, they manufactured good citizens; they taught us scientific farming techniques; hell, they built the atomic bomb and created the Internet. This is why our government subsidized (and still subsidizes) them with grants and earmarks and tax abatements and preferential treatment of every description. But the other part of the bargain doesn't work the way it used to anymore. Everyone in the age of inequality knows that the purpose of a college education isn't to benefit the nation; it's to give the private individual a shot at achieving a High Net Worth.

Agreeing upon that, everyone from state legislators to the Secretary of Education naturally began to ask, Why should I pay for someone else to get rich? Those people need to foot the bill themselves.

Agreeing upon that, the colleges and universities reconceived their mission and began to put a more accurate price tag on what the consensus now acknowledged that they were selling.

The whole enterprise changed. One term they used for it in the early days, according to a landmark 1988 magazine article by Barry Werth, was the "Chivas Regal argument"—the idea that college was a luxury good and should be treated as such. Forget all the bushwah about diversity and lazy professors driving up tuition; price increases in those days became virtually an end in themselves, something colleges did simply to burnish their prestigious brand image. Werth quoted an administrator from Lehigh University who put the new philosophy succinctly: "If it's going to be a world of haves and have-nots, we sure intend to be among the haves."

Colleges are full of it: Behind the three-decade scheme to raise tuition, bankrupt generations, and hypnotize the media [Thomas Frank/Salon]

(Image: Indentured Student – Cartoon, DonkeyHotey, CC-BY)