Warm Southern Breeze

"… there is no such thing as nothing."

Is a college education ~really~ all it’s cracked up to be… anymore? Or, why has tuition increased 300% in 30 years?

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Tuesday, June 24, 2014

College costs expose the false meritocracy of the American dream

The cost of an education in America has risen so much that only the wealthy and indebted can attend. The system doesn’t work

Post by Chris Arnade Photography.

 Chris Arnade received his PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1992. He spent the next 20 years working as a trader on Wall Street. He left trading in 2012 to focus on photography. His "Faces of Addiction" series explores addiction in the south Bronx neighbourhood in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @Chris_arnade

Chris Arnade received his PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1992. He spent the next 20 years working as a trader on Wall Street. He left trading in 2012 to focus on photography. His “Faces of Addiction” series explores addiction in the south Bronx neighbourhood in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @Chris_arnade

theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 June 2014 07.30 EDT


As a college student, Chris Arnade picked Florida watermelons to pay for school. His daughter can’t do the same.
Photograph: Alamy

When I entered Wall Street in 1993 with a PhD, I was an anomaly. One of my bosses was a failed baseball player, another a frustrated jazz musician. One of the guys running one of the most profitable businesses, in both my firm and all of Wall Street, was a former elevator repairman. Their college degrees – if they even had them – were from all sorts of schools, not simply the Ivy leagues.

By the time I left Wall Street a few years ago, the only people being hired were the “play it safe kids”. The ones with degrees from Princetons and Harvards. You know, the ones who had organized a soup kitchen in eighth grade (meaning, really their parents had) to load their resumes. The ones who had gone to the state science fair (meaning their parents or nannies had spent many weekends and nights helping with a science project).

 Few of these hires where rags-to-riches stories. Most had parents very much like those already working on Wall Street – wealthy and dedicated to getting their children whatever they needed, regardless of cost. Many were in fact the children of Wall Street parents.

It is not just Wall Street. Most of the best paying jobs now require a college degree, or post-college degree, and still rarely hire from state schools. They want Ivy schools, or similar. That feels safe.

This is a problem. Businesses have abdicated their primary role in hiring, handing it over to colleges, which have gladly accepted that role, and now charge a shit-load for it. Want a job kid? Pay $60,000 a year for four years. Then maybe pay for another two to get a MBA.

Yet, those best schools do not teach kids anything radically different from what the average colleges do. They do not prepare them better for the day-to-day work of Wall Street. Those finance skills are learned with experience and instinct after two years of training – on the job.

Rather, a prestigious education is a badge given to students who can follow the established rules, run through the maze, jump through hoops, color between the lines, and sit quietly. It shows that they really, really want to be a grown-up. For that, they pay $60,000 per year.

It has become a test. Are you part of the meritocracy?

It also has become a barrier of entry to professionalism – a very costly barrier of entry.

Harvard University
A rigid system of ‘feeder’ schools is in place for parents who want their children to attend schools like Harvard, which have a reputation for then ‘feeding’ major Wall Street firms. Photograph: Porter Gifford/Corbis

I paid for my own college by working during summers. In 1987, I graduated from a Florida public college, with no debt. My yearly cost was $2,500, an amount I paid for by working picking watermelons, painting houses and tarring roofs.

I can only pay for my daughter’s college because I worked on Wall Street for 20 years. She could never pick enough of a cornucopia of watermelons, or quinoa, or kale to pay her costs.

My oldest daughter is going to college next year. The price, if she chooses a state university in New York, is roughly $25,000 per year. That is the cheapest option, and about 10 times what I paid. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about five times more expensive than my tuition fees.

My case is relatively normal. Over the last 30 years, the cost of education, adjusted for inflation, has increased 300%.

No summer jobs can pay for that, which is an important barrier to have crossed. Thirty years ago, college was below that barrier. You could work summer jobs, night jobs, and pay for college without taking out a loan. Now you can’t. Not even close.

Now the only summer jobs you see on Wall Street resumes are for free internships, or paid jobs in parents’ companies. Working to pay for college? That isn’t only insurmountable, it’s also considered a waste. You need to build a resume, not tar it with blue-collar jobs.

financial traders wall street  trading desk.
Increasingly narrow routes are available to gain jobs in the financial sector, which mostly hires from ‘prestige’ schools and internships that require contacts . Photograph: Alamy

The result? Only the kids with money, like my daughter, can go, or kids willing to go into debt before they reach 20. Far, far fewer spots go to kids talented enough, and with enough support, to obtain a good scholarship.

The dual combination of the increased necessity of a college degree, often from a prestigious institution, and the absurd cost, is a one-two punch that hits middle- and lower-income children hardest.

It provides them a very narrow and very expensive path to pursue the popular idea of the American dream (read: wealth) – get into a very prestigious college and go far into debt.

That path requires doing almost everything right, as defined by the meritocracy, from birth. That path almost always weaves through good elementary, middle, and high schools. That path requires a level of dedication, which many have, and support, that few have. 

There are some who can do it. Some who have parents who are focused enough to help their children early. Some who even get scholarships.

They are very much the exceptions.

Children from low-income homes face so many obstacles so early, that getting into a prestigious school is a long stretch. For them, college and its cost is an increased barrier to mobility. 

Who benefits? Those born into the right neighborhoods, with the right education, and the right support network. Like my daughter. Like the other children of Wall Street parents.


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