There are countless valid criticisms of our current economic system, but perhaps few are as tragic as the effect capitalism has had on higher learning. There are a number of things that would seem to operate better without having to build in a profit margin. Sectors like incarceration, health care, and education exist for the good of society; while new efficiencies that capitalism can provide should be welcome, it’s hard to make a good argument that every human experience should justify private profit.
With profits as the only measure by success is judged through the lens of capitalism, we have seen the cost of college skyrocket in recent decades. And why wouldn’t it? Even a basic understanding of demand and supply curves will justify ballooning tuition costs — college is more in demand now that it ever has been, and while new institutions spring up every year, it’s not unreasonable to expect the costs of a service that’s in great demand to increase.
In 1970, tuition costed about $185 a semester. The medium wage was $9,870. That mean that, assuming the median wage is earned in the 2080 hours of full time employment, it would take 39 hours of labor to pay for a semester — one work week. Seems unimaginable.
But that’s median wage — something unlikely to be realized by a 18 year old just out of high school. When comparing the numbers to the current federal minimum wage, the disparity between then and now explodes. In 1970, it would take 115 hours of minimum wage to pay for a semester — easily completed with a part summer job. Now? You’d have to labor for 705 hours, or four and a half months, at full time, just that same single semester.
That has created an unprecedented amount of student debt — approaching $1.5T, second only to mortgages. So large, in fact, many economists worry that, without relief, the chains of student debt will serve to stifle and snuff out the economy, eating up the vast majority of disposable income in perpetuity.
This isn’t a doom and gloom abstraction. Take my girlfriend — despite have a masters degree and working in her field of speech therapy, her $1000 monthly payments barely covered the interest on her $100K worth of loans. She, and millions others, do best to not think about their financial future, as it feels like a room with no doors, no escape.
Now, a number of degrees, when compared with expected earnings, hold a positive return on investment. There’s a reason college is still wildly popular — without higher learning, your earnings expectations are painfully meager.
Herein lies the problem, the root of the weed that’s strangling the life out of higher education: it’s become entirely transactional. Like all things in capitalism, it’s become nothing more than an exchange of goods and services — I give you this money, so you give me that diploma. I take that diploma as proof of expertise, and use that to earn money in excess (hopefully) of the cost of that process. The rest of my working years become the ‘net profit’ of that exchange.
On the surface, that may sound like good economic sense. It’s justified, and so long as the return on investment remains positive, one could make the argument that it’s a good system, guided by the free market. It becomes harder to justify that as the margin between cost and benefit tightens, many former students not getting out of the red of student debt until their 40s or beyond, but purely from an economic sense, it still holds. Investing in yourself still pays off, it just may take longer than it ever has. Still better than no college, so don’t bite the hand that feeds, right?
But all of that survives under a deeply flawed premise — one that I believe is synonymous the single best criticism of capitalism at large: that all things are valued based upon the ability to produce economic gains. There’s a fairly strong correlation between how much an education costs, and what that position will provide back to capitalism. An arts degree pales in comparison to the cost of a Masters in project management, a degree in philosophy pennies on the dollar to what it takes to become a doctor.
(Well hold on now, you might say, what economic value does a doctor provide? They’re saving lives! Fair — but once you account for the massive profits made by the health care and insurance companies, we can see that even there, the veil of humanitarianism can be pulled back to expose the cold machinery of capitalism.)
This serves to push college students to pursue degrees that are less about what’s in their heart, and more what’s most profitable. Often times, they try to find a balance; an accounting degree is relatively inexpensive with quite high earning potential, but few can stomach the idea of spending 40 years in a cubicle, interactions with humans sparse as compared to the cold companionship provided by spreadsheets and ledgers.
To some extent, this is a good thing. The laws of supply and demand exist outside of capitalism; it would be a problem all its own to be left with millions of art graduates competing for a limited number of jobs. But a case can be made that, with the demand for profits seemingly bottomless, we have drifted into problematic territory at the other extreme.
We are taught — no, herded — to put aside passion, to put aside interest, and pursue that which will be profitable. Herded because it is hardly voluntary — unless you want to graduate with a degree which has little in the way of increased compensation.
Maybe I’m guilty of a little cart-before-the-horse fallacy here, but it seems that with decades of students being corralled away from the arts, appreciation and funding for the arts have faded. They are the first programs to get cut in elementary schooling. And we make not a sound — of course an understand of math and science are more important for success than painting or music.
There’s that word, though — success. Success defined not by happiness, but by dollars. The psychology of happiness as it relates to income in interesting in its own right. Without getting into the details and studies, money is crucial for happiness. That makes sense, being poor is hard, exhausting, and not surprisingly is always at the top of factors in depression and marital disputes.
But that correlation flattens out — sharply — at around $80K. Put simply, you’re less likely to report happiness in civilized nations the further you fall below that threshold, but you’re no more likely to be happier when your income exceeds that. It turns out the “money doesn’t buy happiness” is partly true — if you aren’t happy at $100K, making $200K is unlikely to solve your problems.
Where does that leave us? With entry levels wages stagnant, few will ever get to that threshold where their finances don’t stand in the way of their happiness. That pushes us to careers and degrees that are likely to get us there.
But that means we miss a massive part of the equation — if you can make a living doing what you love, your reported income nearly doesn’t factor at all into how happy you are.
I’d love to study philosophy, ethics, political sciences. How can I justify it? I don’t intend on entering those field professionally, aside from the off chance my writing gets me there.
By making the college experience nothing more than a transaction, we have killed the very essence and profound beauty of higher education. No longer can we study the entire body of knowledge on a subject, the culmination of centuries of others no different than us that decided to ponder, to wonder, and to learn all there was from those that came before them in the hopes to add an idea, a thought, a concept, brand new to the human specie.
No longer are we free to spend our days wandering the markets with Socrates, soaking up the most brilliant minds of our time, guided by their direction to not only carry legacy, but to break down and improve what’s been learned to this point.
Instead, we are corralled into institutions, corrupted by the profit first mentality of capitalism, taught that the free market will determine what is and what is not valuable. To hell with the Mozarts and Monets, they should learn something useful.
And when you strip away freedom of expression, freedom of inquiry, the majesty of genuine wonder, you strip away what it means to be human. You leave a society that’s little more than people turned into well oiled cogs in the cold machinery of capitalism — replaceable, unvarying, and boring.
If I had three wishes, all three would be that we find a way to free ourselves to discover our own consciousness, just in case the first two wishes didn’t work.