The Opinion of College is Radically Changing!

In 2017, the value of a college degree is being questioned like never before.  While building for some time as costs rose, the change in attitude really started changing around the time Barack Obama was elected President in 2008.  There were twin reasons for this.  The first was Obama and his administration screamed “Faculty Lounge Elitism” like none before it.  Rightly or wrongly, Obama surrounded himself with an Ivy-League crowd.  He put his faith in academic credentials before all else.  This rubbed people outside education the wrong way, seeing a group of people who theorized on paper rather than making their bones in the real world where results matter more than peer reviews.  People who worked in education loved it.

Second, the 2008 recession was the first ever to really hit educated, white-collar workers at least as hard as blue collar workers.  Previously, the mill would lay workers off, but the office work still needed to be done.  Not this time.  Banks got clobbered and tens to hundreds of thousands of back-office workers who made them work were fired en-mass.  I was among them, more than once.  When they (we!) got laid off, they noticed how few employable skills they really had.  Jobs for welders, to name one profession, went begging because knowing how to use bank software was of no help.

“We are loaning money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train for jobs that don’t exist!”–Mike Rowe, Star of “Dirty Jobs.”

Some History

In the early days, nobody went to college.  A few elite went, one of the first things the Pilgrims off the Mayflower did was set up Harvard University.  College, though, was for the rich.  Most people went to a few grades to learn to read, some math, other basics.  Then they went to work on the farm.  Maybe they became an apprentice to a skilled tradesman if their parents could pawn them off.  I have seen many deeds where (usually women) signed “X.”  Before the 1850s, there was almost no need to get more education.

At that point, more colleges opened, most all very small.  The Industrial Revolution was starting, so a few more educated folks were needed.  By about 1900, the Land Grant College had been formed.  Made to teach agriculture, science, military science, and engineering, they became a backbone of education.  They taught farmers better practices, and did some research.  Even with this system, it was still rare to attend college before WWII.

GI Bill and Other Changes

After WWII, the GI Bill, first of many, was passed.  Money was available for the average guy to attend college, provided he was a Vet.  The Baby Boom hit, states knew they would need teachers, lots of them.  Scientific Management was hitting Corporate America.  A space race was starting.  All of this required a degree.  State Universities, sometimes called “Teacher Factories.” were expanded to meed the needs the Land Grant Universities could not handle.  More people than ever went to post-secondary education, but still a minority.  Most guys got recruited to some kind of mill job or trade after high school, and they were expected to get to work fast.

By the mid 1960s, the first true Post-War kids were hitting college.  As they hit, the idea of the Great Society was hitting.  Money was made available in the form of grants and loans to pull these kids to college.  While this happened, Vietnam was pushing men to attend to get a deferment.  A building boom hit colleges in the form of new dorms and classrooms.  That space had to be filled.  Standards started to fall, degrees started to get fluffed.  Not like it would later, but the college-industrial complex was now a fact.  But these students got the best bang for their buck.  Tuition was cheap, very cheap by later standards.  Employers needed an army of white-collar workers, computers just starting to be understood.

Cracks Appear

1980 started like any other year.  Times were very, very dark.  Hostages in Iran, economy in the tank, inflation raging.  Jimmy Carter was in office, and there was all of three TV channels to watch at night, not counting the local independent or the new ESPN, which few people had.  By November, Ronald Reagan had been elected, the first of many changes.  The PC was born in 1981, helping spark the computer-revolution.  Corporate life would change with the birth of the “Raider.”  Raiders with names of T. Boone Pickens, Carl Ichan, and Frank Lorenzo would borrow big to buy old-line companies which had become no longer competitive, run as much for employees as shareholders.

During this time, USA Manufacturing collapsed.  No other way to put  Mills that had hired for 100 years no longer even took applications, or closed forever.  High School Guidance Counselors guided all but the most basket-case students to “get a degree!”  Around this time, tuition and fees started to climb faster than inflation.  Loan limits were increased, the idea of “saving for college” by parents was pushed to infants!  EVERYONE was supposed to go.

In 1980, a public university cost $2,100 per year, or $6,429 in 2015 dollars.  By 1997, it was $3,168, or $4,690 in 2015 dollars.   Then $9,938 in 2015.  You are paying 50% more today in real terms than 2 generations ago.  I had to use a different source for 1980 dollars, so I think the figures understate the real new cost.  Students, though, get gouged up and down the line.  Room and board, books, ever popular fees.  Colleges found ways to clip them coming and going.

Next–Degree Supply and Demand and The Changing Campus Culture