Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Cost of College: The Next Bubble?

Today is the birthday of James Joyce.  I've written about him several times on this blog.  My favorite post is here.

It's rather accidental that I have anything to say about Joyce at all.  When I got to grad school and pored over the list of classes I could take, I discovered that most of them were full. As a new grad student, I was last to register. And so I found myself in Tom Rice's class on James Joyce. What a life-changing experience that was.

It never occurred to me to protest the fact that so few classes were available to me.  Would I have felt differently if I had been paying rates similar to today's students?  My grad school tuition was dirt cheap.  I had a teaching assistantship, so I paid a few hundred dollars a year, could take all the classes I wanted, taught a few classes, and got a meager stipend.  I graduated with no debt.  Sure, I couldn't afford to use the air conditioner in the South Carolina summer months, but I graduated with no debt.  My undergraduate education was more expensive, but I got scholarships and grants, so it never cost more than $1000 a year (in 1983-1987 dollars).

The situation for today's students has changed dramatically.  In this article in The Washington Post, Matt Miller offers these statistics:  "In 1980-81, tuition, room and board at public four-year institutions averaged about 12 percent of median family income; for private four-year colleges, the figure was 26 percent of family income (see the nearby table, developed by my colleague Steve Steigleder at the Center for American Progress). That’s a pretty serious affordability crunch three decades ago. By 2009-10, however, a year at public institutions consumed roughly a quarter of median family income, while at private colleges the figure had jumped to nearly 54 percent."

I've spent some time thinking about these kind of facts and wondering if Higher Education will be the next bubble to burst.  We certainly seem to be headed in that direction.  We are at the end of a baby boom of students, for one thing.  Five to ten years from now, there simply won't be as many U.S. students who are traditional college-age.

Of course, there will be other students:  traditional college-age adolescents from other countries, adults who need a degree.  But the demand will have changed.

The larger issue, which few colleges and universities have started to address, is that the business model has changed to something unsustainable.  When I was in undergraduate school, the shift from having states pay for post-high school education to having students pay for it had just begun.  Now, three decades later, it's almost complete.

Students have relied increasingly on loans to fund increasingly expensive educations.  That was sustainable during an age of easy credit.  Now it is not possible for many students.  Once upon a time, parents might have filled the gap.  Now, with a housing implosion and several years of severe recession, that solution won't work either.

Maybe we are about to enter a golden age of innovation--that's a possible scenario of what might happen when the old ways quit working.  My apocalyptic imagination often thinks of darker dramas.

I have a vested interest, of course.  I work in higher ed, and it has occurred to me that it might be time to come up with a back-up plan, in case the whole bubble pops, and I can't even find adjunct work.

I have friends and colleagues who assure me that the future could never get that grim.  Surely with my Ph.D. and years of teaching English classes of all sorts, I'll always be able to find some kind of work.

But longtime readers of this blog know that I'm haunted by Detroit automakers and newspaper journalists and all sorts of other workers who assumed they were part of American institutions that would not be allowed to fail--and then, they failed.

We hear a lot of politicians bellowing about saving the middle class.  But I suspect that for most of us in the tenuous middle-class, it will simply be up to each of us as individuals to re-invent ourselves, perhaps several times.

I got a wondrous box of books yesterday.  Among the haul:  the latest books by Julia Cameron and Martha Beck.  I'll report more in the coming weeks as I read them.

In the meantime, I have a short story to write.  Two weeks ago, I made a pact with a writer friend of mine who's feeling a lack of focus.  We said that by Feb. 16, we'd each have a rough draft of a short story.  It has to be a new story, not a re-worked story.

I have a writer friend of a different sort (her tastes run to academic writing) who is thinking of blogs and e-books; she wants to know what I know.  Perhaps I'll start to write it down; I think there's a market out there for people who need to come up to speed on social networking and electronic/technological opportunities, but who are easily spooked by it all.

Of course, some people (like Ewan Morrison in this article in The Guardian) would tell us that all this publishing by way of new technology is the next bubble which will pop at some future point.

Maybe I should just stop thinking about bubbles and what will pop next.  Maybe I should just follow my loves and passions and trust that they'll lead me in interesting directions.  Maybe I should resist my urge to overplan, to create not just one back-up plan, but 5 or 6.  After all, it was a happy accident that couldn't have been forestalled by 10 back-up plans that led me to that fateful class (and eventual MA thesis) on James Joyce.

Maybe at midlife, I'll commit to serendipity.


Shefali Shah Choksi said...

Why are you worried? i thought we had that contingency plan done! You could open a bakery / cafe/ quilters' corner/ where there'd be frequent poetry readings!

Lucille said...

Hey there! I've been reading your blog the last few weeks. I'm not sure how I stumbled upon it in the first place, but it's one of the few ones I have on Favorites on my work computer, so I read it very consistently. This post (among many) hit a nerve for me as I too am in midlife and wonder what the future holds. I mean, everyone through history has wondered what the future holds, but it does seem so tenuous today when financial things loom so largely. If money wasn't an issue (and not EXTRA money, but money just to make ends meet and may the under-water mortgage every month), serendipity could come into play so much more easily. Oh, if I only knew then what I knew now....

Thanks for sharing. And I'd be interested to read your thesis!

Kristin said...

Welcome, Lucille. How I wish I could just send you an electronic copy of my thesis. Alas, I wrote it on a Smith Corona Personal Word Processor--so I have disks, but no technology that can read them.

In any case, I'm glad you discovered the blog.

Shefali, thanks for reminding me of the back-up plan!

Lucille said...

Smith Corona :-)