Home / General / The generation gap and the education crisis

The generation gap and the education crisis


I think one thing that fuels the current dysfunctions of higher education in this country is the extent to which older people — and especially university administrators and faculty — have lost touch with how basic shifts in the American economy have left young people in a vastly worse position than they themselves were at similar points in their lives.

I graduated from college in 1982, in the middle of what would turn out to be the worst post-WWII recession until the current mess. But I had no debt, because I went to an excellent public university that charged very low tuition. This, I realize in retrospect, made a huge difference in regard to my psychic as well as economic health. A few years later I went to a top state law school for not exactly free, but for a low enough price that I could earn the total cost of tuition from summer jobs. Today if I had done exactly the same thing I would be graduating with easily six figures of non-dischargeable educational debt at 7.5% interest.

All this is just part of a bigger picture involving very fraught questions of generational equity (The basic policy of the federal government for most of the past 30 years has been to pass on the costs of everything to people who weren’t yet old enough to vote. The student loan crisis may be a sign that strategy is running up against some limits).

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  • As college has become less and less exclusively the domain of the wealthy, I guess the upper class had to find a way to make college graduates (the ones who couldn’t afford to pay for college out of pocket, anyway) serfs in the same way that working-class people already were.

  • Malaclypse

    Today if I had done exactly the same thing I would be graduating with easily six figures of non-dischargeable educational debt at 7.5% interest.

    Yep. I was a few years behind you, but left grad school with a bit less than 10K in debt. Today, people start their working careers with the equivalent of a mortgage. If they don’t want to live in their parent’s basement, housing is going to be quite the challenge.

  • So with a few young tykes (who are already picking colleges, based on the most important criteria — how close to grandma’s house), what’s the strategy to try to prepare them–stuff the 529? will that even do it?

    This was in the NYT today:

    “You don’t expect someone who just spent four years in Ivy League schools to be on food stamps.”
    STEPHANIE MORALES, a 2009 graduate of Dartmouth College who is now waiting tables in Weehawken, N.J., for $2.17 an hour plus tips.

  • Bill Murray

    At most public schools, the administration and the faculty don’t set tuition prices, that’s the governor and legislature through the board of regents, although the administration often sets fees. Luckily, in my school’s state costs have risen at just a little over inflation.

    So whether or not the administration or faculty are clueless about today’s economy for students is rather immaterial. Also, at my school most of the faculty and administration have children that are around college age, so I rather doubt they are completely ignorant about shifts in the economy related to going to college

    • L2P

      The administration DOES control costs, though. Spend some time looking at where those higher tuition fees are going. Look at your alma mater’s budget and compare it to when you graduated, if you did in the 80’s.

      Where’s that extra money going? Look in real terms and you’ll throw up in your mouth. Research? In real terms, that’s almost flat (and funded by a lot of grants.) Professors? You’ll get sick if you look at the share going there. Slight increase, at best. Facilities? Slight increase – maybe. Computers, right? Wrong.

      Nope. Admin’s where the growth is. Are students getting anything for that? Hard to see. At my schools, that’s going to alumni support, outreach, and lord knows what. Hard to see how 20 years ago things went along just fine without blowing 20% more of your budget on pushing paperclips.

      So yeah, admin doesn’t control the supply of money from the state, but they sure as hell control the vast increase in their own budget.

      • seeker6079

        This, thricefold.
        There has to be a cap on the percentage that goes into Admin. The number of non-academic staff in universities was getting out of hand when I met in the mid-1980s; it’s insane now. And, depending on the school they are great, secure jobs. (At a uni near me the admin jobs are so secure and so prized that one prof joked to me that to get one “you need a patron with a patron”.

      • Njorl

        You just don’t appreciate what four years of high quality administration can do for a young person.

        • seeker6079

          I think the best example was when I went back to my old university about five years ago. I was thrilled to see some two gleaming new buildings … and depressed to find out that they were devoted to nothing but administrative staff who had, in their tribbles-without-the-cuddly way outgrown their previous habitats.

          At the time (and since) my old law school (at that same uni) was on a massive campaign to obtain donations for a long-overdue upgrade and expansion to its Albert-Speer-like bunker/premises. While we can argue about whether there’s too many lawyers (etc.; this was Canada) there is something seriously screwed up where school administration gets gleaming new buildings and the faculties that actually teach students have to go begging to alumni to do work that’s a decade overdue.

      • seeker6079

        “they sure as hell control the vast increase in their own budget.”

        A phrase sticks in the mind:
        “the problem with `cleaning out the deadwood’ in an organization is that it’s the dead wood who decides who is dead wood”.

      • Bill Murray

        I am on the faculty of the school I graduated from and, while some of the administration costs have come from the university president, most have come from the board of regents. But my school costs not very much more now in inflation adjusted dollars than it did back when I was in school — equivalent to about 1-2% per year.

  • StevenAttewell

    It’s less immaterial than you think. In addition to the fact that administrators have a strong indirect influence – through decisions on building programs, compensation, etc. – faculty and departmental admin have a huge say on financial aid, employment, degree requirements, and the like.

    And that matters a lot – if your advisors or staff think you should just “take a year to do nothing but your exams” without realizing that might mean tens of thousands of dollars in debts, or if they don’t modulate the intake of new grad students to ensure that there’s enough work to go around, or they want to lavish funding on the prize student of the superstar professor without thinking about how that effects the departmental labor market, etc.

    • Bill Murray

      as an advisor, I have no idea what taking a year to do nothing but your exams even means.

      Our number of hours needed to graduate (undergrad) are set by the board of regents. The general requirements are set by the accrediting boards, so again not much administration and faculty presence except at the margins. We mostly have scholarships in the control of the faculty (really the individual departments) with a few in control of the administration. In my department about 2/3 of our undergrads (a higher percentage than when I was in school) have departmental scholarships of $750-$1000 — my (and similar departments around the country) work hard to keep this money coming in. When i was in school, these were mostly corporate, but now are mostly alumni funded. Also most of our rising juniors and seniors have paid summer internships (which wasn’t true when I went to school).

      As I reread again, I think you are talking about grad school. I’m in engineering and where I am, essentially all of our grad students are funded and we don’t let in more (or perhaps very many more since sometimes the calculations are off) than we can fund.

      While there are problems, we try pretty hard to do right by our students. That’s how we get our scholarship money and place our students.

  • superking

    I can get really angry if I think about this too much. There is a reason the Boomers were called the Me Generation. It’s always been about them, and they don’t give a good shit about the rest of the country. The reason we have seen so many tax cuts is because they think they are special gods creating the world and owe nothing to anyone else. And what did all those tax cuts do? They lead to higher and higher tuition rates at our public universities as state governments consistently underfunded the institutions. Rates that went up conveniently after the Boomers had completed their education. They are a cosmic fucking joke played on this country, and we just live in the miserable empty space between their guffaws.

    • AcademicLurker

      Indeed. “Baby Boomers suck” is starting to become my grand Theory of Everything when it comes to explaining why the country is so f*cked.

      • rea

        You know, “haters gonna hate”, I guess, but I was born in ’54, and I never did any of the stuff you complain about, nor did anyone my age I know, other than a handful of weathy asses.

        • seeker6079

          rea, I think that the debate is rather less about what individual boomers did, but what they did collectively as an identifiable demographic and political group.

          • Hogan

            Except that they’re not an identifiable political group.

            • DrDick

              We are diverse politically and some of us are actual socialists.

            • They are an identifiable demographic group.

              Despite the political diversity embodied by the group, there were interests that were broadly shared across the group.

              Those interests were converted to policies. The long-term effects of the burdens of those policies are what the phrase “boomers suck” is in reference to.

        • DrDick

          I was born in ’52 and am the opposite of what you describe. I advocate higher taxes for one and rail against the ongoing cuts to state support for higher education.

          • dave

            Doesn’t do any f*cking good though, does it? Unfortunately, just by existing, and posing the demand-driven challenge that they do, your generation has done the damage.

            • Hogan

              If you’re going to kill me, then kill me. If you’re not, then shut up and deal.

    • MPAVictoria

      “Rates that went up conveniently after the Boomers had completed their education.”

      ARRRGGGGGG!!!!! So angry. So very angry. I try and explain this to my girlfriends father and he just looks at me without comprehension. The boomers screwed us plain and simple.

      • soullite

        They refuse to acknowledge what they have wrought and prefer to believe that they had no special advantages.

        You see this with every group of over-privileged douchebags that have ever stained the face of this planet.

        • asdfsdf

          Well you wouldn’t be a very happy douchebag if you were burdened with guilt.

        • ajay

          The trouble is that they look at every policy suggestion and ask “does it benefit me personally?” and if the answer is “no” then they oppose it.

    • The Worst Generation.

      • Anonymous

        Isn’t this the same argument that was made against raising the debt ceiling…that it was saddling the next generation?

        And you took what position on that?

    • soullite

      Indeed. There are some problems between every generation, but Boomers are the only people I’ve ever heard of hated by both their parents AND their children.

    • Malaclypse

      The reason we have seen so many tax cuts is because they think they are special gods creating the world and owe nothing to anyone else.

      And the last major tax hike was the payroll take hike of 1986, to pay for the Boomer retirement, and now they want to take SS/Medicare away for everybody born after 1956. You know, the exact people who have paid extra into the system their entire working lives.

    • Joshua

      And now that they are getting on Social Security, they are planning to gut it for everyone younger than them.

      I love my parents but I hate their generation.

    • wengler

      We must’ve lost the best of them in Vietnam, because they’ve done nothing but screw people over since they got power.

      • Wow! That put quite the mental picture in my head. The peaceniks dodging the war in protest out of entitlement and selfishness instead of solidarity.

    • David W.

      IMO superking, the watershed event that started all the states cutting back on higher education funding was when Proposition 13 passed in California back in 1978. Then after Reagan was elected President in 1980 the tax revolt began in earnest.

    • Stag Party Palin

      I guess I’m not a Hateful Boomer – just missed by a couple of months. Whatami anyway, a Repulsive War Baby?

      Anyway, those of you who have chosen to make a generalization as sweeping as all of the above are so fucking stupid that you probably fart through your ears. I’m taking names, clods.

      • JoyfulA

        I’m another repulsive war baby. (And my childhood was full of half-day sessions and 50-kid classrooms because of the flood of postwar babies behind me. Our parents couldn’t build schools fast enough.)

        I have always thought that public colleges should be tuition-free. There are an awful lot of smart poor kids who can’t afford even a few thousand for more school, and people of modest means who borrow then must look for high-paying jobs to pay the bills rather than do meaningful work. That hurts them and it hurts the country worse.

        Anyway, when the federal government finally began to have budget surpluses in the late 1990s, I thought the time was finally arriving when tuition for public schools would become just a bad memory. Another disappointment.

  • mike in dc

    What’s that saying about trying to convince someone whose salary depends on their not being convinced?
    280,000 in law school debt, top 20 school, middling class rank, have a full time job already but the debt repayment will impoverish me even at a de minimis level. I went back to school in middle age(I’m 43 now), in order to pursue a “real career” and improve my socioeconomic status. Ha! In my own defense, I started the whole process in late 2006(kaplan LSAT course), and entered law school in 2007, before it became clear this would be no ordinary recession. Just graduated in May. Guess I’ll write research papers just for the heck of it.
    Is it weird that my research topics seem to center on ways to drive large law firms out of business?

    • L2P

      IMHO, the top firms are like Sauron without any One Ring to destroy; there’s no real competition for them. When you’re betting the company on a lawsuit or a deal, you need to be able to legitimately tell the board “These are the best lawyers in the world.” They’ll be busy sucking out billable hours for the next 40 years.

      It’s the next 200 that are hanging on by a thread. Anybody can litigate a $30M case.

      And that, in a nutshell, is why anybody who didn’t graduate from a top 20 law school is screwed. Can a firm legitimately say you’re one of the best and brightest? No? Then you’re a cog; welcome to hourly work – $80k or so right now in a LA. You can beat that as a cop.

      • dave

        And you get to beat suspects, too.

    • “the debt repayment will impoverish me even at a de minimis level”

      If there is ever a doubt as to why lawyers are justifiably scorned for their irritating tendency to pepper their speech with useless trade jargon, just reading this removes it.

  • Joshua

    A few years back this raft of articles came out describing how graduates are living with their parents longer and getting married later. The writer would inevitably furrow his or her brow and question what mental defect was causing kids to not grow up as fast as their parents.

    Surely, it has nothing to do with the fact that we have less money, less job security, more debt, and bigger bills – mostly because of policies our parents enacted. Nope, that can’t be it.

    • Pee Cee

      While we’re being bitter, don’t you love the fact that it now takes TWO incomes to maintain the same standard of living our parents had with only one income?

      • L2P

        Yeah, but you get cell phones! And the internets! Totally worth it!

        • Malaclypse

          To be fair, my parents owned an eight-track player. That was a genuine horror.

          On the other hand, back then Normy-equivalents were given proper care and needed medications, so it is clear there was a cultural trade-off.

      • mpowell

        I don’t want to piss in the punch bowl because I mostly agree with the sentiment here, but complaints like this are generally not true. Real incomes have been flat, not declining. That should mean something if you want to stay in the reality based community. And when you add in health care benefits, they’ve actually been going up. And no, people are not actually working longer, if any of the statistics we have on the subject are to be believed. But expectations have increased. So people used to have much less stuff and quite a bit smaller homes and the wife would stay home and do quite a bit more housework. To have the stuff and luxuries that people consider normal now requires two average incomes.

        • MPAVictoria

          “And no, people are not actually working longer, if any of the statistics we have on the subject are to be believed.”
          Bullshit. Plain and simple. The invention of the blackberry means that I am expected to respond to emails 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

  • Way back in 1974, while in a depressive state, I came to the sudden conclusion that the great economic expansion that began just before World War II was ending and that the party was over even if it would take a long time to become obvious. I had a title for the new era: Putting away the toys. Afterwards I figured I was jumping to conclusions under the influence of a temporary funk. Now I reckon I was right the first time.

    What we’re living with is the politics and economics that go along with a negative sum game. The rising tide rhetoric of Chamber of Commerce flacks is obsolete. Very different strategies are appropriate to musical chairs. Pricing a college education out of reach or making simply making it a bad deal is only one of the ways that the transition to a poorer country will unfold.

    • Walt

      You were exactly right in 1974. There was a big productivity slowdown right around then. There was a brief pick-up in the late 90s, but since then not much.

      • dave

        The French have for a long time referred to that precise era as les trente glorieuses, with the evident implication that all that has come after has been shit. They are not often right, but sometimes…

  • Waingro

    I’ve been starting to understand why highly educated young people in say, the Middle East get really fucking pissed and radicalized about policies beyond their control.

    I’m waiting for the inevitable backlash from this shit- unemployed, broke “lawyers” breaking out the sniper rifle, people with 200k in student debt and no future going on a shotgun rampage at Sallie Mae. Sometimes our elite seem to be taunting people to break out the guillotines.

    • Malaclypse

      I’m waiting for the inevitable backlash from this shit- unemployed, broke “lawyers” breaking out the sniper rifle, people with 200k in student debt and no future going on a shotgun rampage at Sallie Mae.

      Except they won’t go on a rampage at Sallie Mae. They will go after the person in payroll who has been ordered by Sallie Mae to garnish wages.

      At least once a month, in a company of about 125 employees, I get a new garnishment order (although it is usually taxes or child support, rather than student loans). And every time I tell someone their wages are being garnished, I wonder if they will react like Michael McDermott.

  • HyperIon

    You wrote: “I graduated from college”
    Thank you for not writing: “I graduated college”.

  • David W.

    From “Rationing College Opportunity” in the October 26th, 2009 issue of The American Prospect:

    A [public university] system that once thrived on almost four state dollars to every parent’s or student’s dollar now asks families to match the state contribution dollar for dollar, or more. In some state systems, public funding now provides as little as 8 percent of costs. Consequently, public university tuition and fees have risen at exactly the same pace as soaring private tuition, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The NCES data indicates that tuition rose at 2.5 times the overall rate of inflation since double-digit inflation ended in 1982-1983.

    • Marc

      This is the generational equity issue (and I was born in 1962, for the record.) We decided over the last 30 years to cut state tax support for education – partially for prisons, partially for tax cuts – and moved the costs to students.

      Private universities were always (relatively) expensive, but you also had the choice of a cheap state university that could be quite good. Now the state universities are expensive, and as a side consequence out-of-state students are now very rare (as tuition costs are pretty much at Ivy League levels for them.)

      If public universities were getting subsidies at the same rate the Baby Boom generation enjoyed, tuition would be a factor of 3 or more lower. And taxes would not be that much higher. But a greedy cohort would pay more in taxes. (And, at this point, a generation of people with high loans would bitterly oppose giving a “free ride” to people younger than them…)

      • David W.

        I think part of the reason for most states failing to keep up with funding is that as university enrollments kept growing, the tax base was stagnating. The postwar U.S. economy by the end of the 1970s was no longer so flush that it could keep up with the growing demand, so tuition rates started going up.

        • MPAVictoria

          “The postwar U.S. economy by the end of the 1970s was no longer so flush that it could keep up with the growing demand, so tuition rates started going up.”

          This makes no sense either as the US has been steadily getting richer over that time period. The rich just don’t want to pay for civilization anymore.

          • David W.

            Yes, the U.S. has been getting richer overall, but that wealth isn’t as evenly distributed. This has helped put states that used to rely on taxes from a thriving middle-class to fund their state colleges and universities in a bind.

            • MPAVictoria

              This is only a bind because we refuse to tax the people who have all the actual money.

              • David W.


  • mike in dc

    Anonymous/Normy, the problem is that the current job market for lawyers sucks out loud, and is likely to continue that way for at least a few more years(if not effectively forever). Those recent grads who don’t make it into big law, mid law, or government law in their first year out may well be permanently frozen out from any kind of remotely affluent legal career. But they have the same loan debt as that lucky first year associate making 160k per year, except they’re probably making less than half that as a temp doing document monkey work, or far less doing small firm or solo work. Debt load for a Tier 1 school is likely around 150-250k, depending on whether you borrow to help with living expenses and whether you go during the summer. Punch in a 7-7.5 percent interest rate, and a repayment term from 10 to 25 years, and you’re looking at a huge monthly payment that maybe more than half the graduates won’t be able to afford for years after getting their grad degrees, if ever. Should we encourage a policy that will garnish their salaries to the brink of poverty for the next 20-30 years? These aren’t slackers, these are folks who bought into the American dream of going to school, working hard and bettering themselves. But the situation has changed, and you can either show a little compassion and sense and let them off the hook when it looks like they’ll never be able to dig themselves out otherwise, or you can reduce them to indentured servitude and read about their suicide and/or killing spree in the papers.

    • RFlavin

      Let them off the hook or face a killing spree?

      Can we flip a coin? I am having a hard time deciding which. Actually I meant to say, “Isn’t there a third or fourth choice?”

  • Murc

    Twelve years ago, I graduated High School. I spent the next four years fucking around at a local community college, not accumulating any debt (a full semester cost something like three grand) earning a useless associates before entering the workforce.

    My parents were very understanding, telling me that not everyone is cut out for college when they’re 19 and 20 and that I could go back later if I needed to, just like the both of them did, and just like assorted of their friends, cousins, and in one case a sibling did. You know. Back in the 70s.

    I did go back later, a couple years ago. A private school, a good one, not Ivy League but not with a school team that has a name like ‘The Fighting Air Fresheners.’ When I consider my tuition bills and loans I wish to high heaven that I’d gotten my shit together twelve years ago. I’m actually deeply scared for my financial future but feel like I’m in too deep to back out.

    Oh, sidebar: it’s super fuckin’ helpful the way the guys in my schools financial aid office are totally forbidden from giving me any useful advice except for how to fill out FAFSA forms. They aren’t allowed to tell me anything about which private lenders are more or less scummy than which OTHER private lenders and how to structure my private loans to my best advantage or ANYTHING. I kind of understand that they want to discourage kickbacks to loan officers. But I could use some expertise in that regard and it would be nice if the college had people on tap who could do that.

    • Marek

      yeah I remember how my law school financial aid people wouldn’t tell me which loan package was better.

    • Anonymous


      You made the bargain and you were happy to take the loans.

      Only NOW that you got what you needed are you whining. You weren’t whining then.

      Just “man up” to it. It’s of your own doing.

      • RFlavin

        Jebus would be proud of your compassionate heart.

    • Linnaeus

      I know the feeling. I’ve got a ton of graduate school debt, and I have no problem with the notion that I should pay it off. That’s not the issue for me. The issue is, will I be able to? My creditor could seize everything I own and it still wouldn’t be enough. They’d have to sell off a few organs of mine after that.

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