College education is bankrupting America's middle class

Robert L. Taylor

September 24, 1993|By Robert L. Taylor

A YOUNG man who entered an Eastern private university with the Class of 1953 paid $500 in tuition. When, at graduation, he became an executive trainee in banking, a comparatively low-paying field in those days, he earned $3,200 a year, nearly 6 1/2 times his annual tuition cost.

The tuition at the same university is now $17,000. Even assuming a student finds a job at graduation, by no means a certainty today, he or she would have to earn $109,000 a year to have an equal prospect of recovering the cost of that exorbitantly-priced college stint. Keeping more than 5 percent of our entire population in college -- a far higher proportion than that of any other country -- at this staggering cost is bankrupting the American middle class and is a significant cause of our seemingly intractable recession. In a recent CNBC/Gallup poll, 71 percent of respondents reported their failure to achieve the American Dream was caused by education costs.

In June of 1944 Congress passed the legislation popularly known as the GI Bill of Rights, which gallantly sought to compensate young Americans for the deprivations they had suffered first from the Depression and then from the three years or more they had lost in World War II. One of the best-intentioned but ultimately most damaging provisions of the bill was a commitment to finance a free college education for veterans, which led to an outflow of college graduates far in excess of any real need for them in business and the professions. This led inevitably to the mistaken belief that a college education was indispensable to success in the business world or anywhere else. The result has been that today every 19th person in the United States is enrolled in college -- at paralyzing expense.

The delusion that there is intrinsic value in a college education is peculiar to the United States. In earlier times distinguished writers spoke disparagingly of the value of university learning. Washington, Lafayette and the Duke of Wellington all held responsible positions in their late teens or early 20s without a college degree.

In the '50s, the cost of a college education had not escalated so tragically as it has since, and the percentage of young people enrolled in college had not reached its present oppressive level.

In 1955 only 1 2/3 percent the population were enrolled in college, in contrast to the 5 1/4 percent today. By 1965 that figure had risen to more than 3 percent, feverishly stimulated by the preferential treatment given to students during the Vietnam War. As college attendance and tuitions steadily rose, family expenditures on other phases of life dwindled. As soon as a child is born today, the parents begin nervously accumulating money toward the monstrous college burden. Money that in earlier, less tormented years would have been spent on home improvements, a comfortable new bedroom set, superior medical and dental care, better food, a new car or appliances, refreshing travel, books and the theater instead being squirreled away for tuition.

Can we deal with the problem? Of course. Let the executives of American business begin hiring right out of high school. The amount of backed-up sterile money that would be freed would stimulate the economy of the United States and of our trading partners sufficiently not only to provide jobs for all these young people, but for all the recent college graduates who are currently driving taxis. I suspect high school performance in the United States would improve greatly.

If we do not cure ourselves of our heartbreakingly expensive college delusion very soon, the country will be financially and emotionally bankrupt.

Robert L. Taylor writes from Baltimore.

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