Sunday, December 11, 2016
Student loans, universities, and big business
Some recent FB posts have stimulated this blog. From where I sit, student loan programs have evolved from marginally affordable low-interest loans into predatory loans. After only four years of college, student loans now saddle graduates with massive debt in exchange for what amounts to declining potential for that satisfying job with good pay and benefits. It takes many years to pay off those loans, and in some cases, it's become well nigh impossible ever to be free of that student loan debt. A college degree never was a guarantee of satisfactory employment. The only thing guaranteed is that if you don't have that diploma, you won't even be permitted to apply for many good jobs.
Thus, of late, the universities are running a loan sharking system that forces many students into deep debt and yet can promise them absolutely nothing in return, even if they graduate with distinction. Many large state universities have become businesses, not centers of learning. Such universities now actively discourage faculty from failing students because that can terminate the gravy train prematurely. These corporations masquerading as institutions of learning now siphon massive wealth from the middle and lower classes into the universities, and badger their alumni into supporting the university. Their governing bodies are now often dominated by wealthy local business leaders, not people committed to and experienced in education. The inherently progressive notion of helping students become contributing members of society for the benefit of all has been replaced with something resembling the dark vision of education embodied in Pink Floyd's The Wall, with students on a treadmill ending in a sausage grinder.
When I was in college and grad school, I didn't need any loans, so I entered the workforce basically debt-free. My parents (middle class) were able to afford supporting my undergraduate education and I contributed some by working in the summers. When I entered graduate school, my research assistantships paid me enough to be able to avoid student loans. I was also the beneficiary, after my military "sabbatical," of G.I. Bill benefits. Well-paid, satisfying employment wasn't guaranteed but those good jobs were available. I entered the workforce in 1976 with my doctorate, and have enjoyed 40 years of very satisfying work as a severe storms meteorologist. Sadly, the opportunities I had are more or less no longer available.
Times have changed since those halcyon days, and definitely not for the better. University tuition and in-residence education are decreasingly affordable. Many scientific research institutions are now being run on what amounts to a business model and permanent secure employment is disappearing. The way much research is done now demands short-term projects (3 years or less) with a list of deliverables, mostly "low hanging fruit" rather than risky long-term efforts with high potential value but without the luxury of guaranteed results. Increasingly, employees must find soft money for themselves even to have a job at all. Workers hired to soft-money projects can be out of a job by the end of the funded project; last hired = first fired. Predatory capitalism is running literally out of control in our big-time universities and even in our research institutions, forcing everyone - students , faculty, and scientists - into the business line.
Given the way things are going now in this nation, anti-intellectualism and anti-science attitudes are on the rise within the swelling ranks of the educationally-deprived. This is not an environment that portends a growth of support for scientists and other intellectuals. In fact, as it stands, they're labeled "elitists" and their findings called into question by the scientifically ignorant. People seem to have forgotten the important role science and technology have played in the superpower status of the USA. Investing in, and encouraging educational growth in science and technology is the "capital" that has made the nation strong and a world power. Business people are too tightly focused on P&L sheets to appreciate the notion of investing in our youth for the long-term health of our nation. They see only the profits from their predation and have no reason to curb their greed based on income from the middle and lower classes. They're contributing little or nothing to our long-term stability and success. They have no concern for the future.