[Paleopsych] CHE: William Strauss and Neil Howe: The High Cost of College: an Increasingly Hard Sell

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Oct 22 02:15:12 UTC 2005

William Strauss and Neil Howe: The High Cost of College: an Increasingly Hard 
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.10.21

[Their book, Generations, has influenced my thinking more than but a handful of 
others. The basic idea is that America is such a country of change that parent 
of each generation are free to react to the mistakes of their own parents. This 
takes the form of a four-generational cycle: civic (GI and Millennial), 
adaptive (Silent), idealist (Boomers), and reactive (Lost and Gen-X). Their 
book shows how all of American history fits into this pattern, with one 
exception. The war was so devastating that a whole generation was skipped. To 
find a civic generation before the GI, you have to go back to Mr. Jefferson's 

[These patterns illustrate, once again, that most change is "the result of 
human action but not of human design" (Hayek quoting Ferguson). It also means 
that, much as I (Boomer) may detest the coming civic generation, there's not 
much I can do about it. And it means that if I'm stuck in a particularly bad 
time, all I have to do is wait.

[What to look for: if the rest of the world either doesn't have a cycle of 
generations or one at odds with the American one, this will show American 
exceptionalism. (I forget what Strauss and Howe said about Europe. In the Stone 
Age, change was much too slow for anything like this to have happened.) If the 
rest of the world moves in sync with the American cycle, this will be proof of 
American domination at an especially deep level.]

    Last spring's television season of The Apprentice featured a
    competition between the "Net Worth" and "Magna" teams (alias "Street
    Smarts" and "Book Smarts"). It was a battle between people who spent
    their early 20s outside of college -- and who have profited nicely
    from that decision -- and academic achievers who spent that same time
    in college. Even though a college graduate ultimately won, throughout
    the program the Street Smarts more than held their own.

    If Donald Trump had intended to tweak colleges, he made his point --
    and raised the question of whether the high cost of traditional higher
    education is worth the money. The answer that you often hear, that it
    nearly always is worth the money, may soon come under fire from a new
    generation of students and their parents.

    Getting their diplomas has paid off financially in the past for most
    graduates, but how long will it continue to do so? Since the early
    1980s, tuition and fees at private and public colleges have grown
    faster than inflation each year -- often more than two or three times
    as fast. To obtain a four-year private-college diploma, a typical
    family sending off a freshman this fall is looking at a price tag
    close to $120,000, not counting books, transportation, and other

    Meanwhile, the amounts that today's students are borrowing are clearly
    rising. According to a report by the American Council on Education,
    the number of student loans made annually has more than doubled since
    1993. As of 2004, 70 percent of private-college students receiving
    B.A.'s had taken out student loans, with a median amount of $17,125.
    Just over 80 percent of all students receiving professional degrees at
    private institutions (in fields such as law, medicine, and dentistry)
    had student loans, with a median amount of $71,317. Many have debts
    way above those medians, of course, and the report confirmed that
    students from the lowest-income families are borrowing the most.

    Yet even those numbers fall short because they don't account for
    off-the-books borrowing. Banks extended $11-billion in loans to
    students in 2004. Many families are also taking out home-equity loans
    to pay college expenses, tethering future income to the vagaries of
    the housing market.

    Many of today's recent graduates begin work life with total
    debt-repayment obligations that leave them with monthly interest
    burdens higher than what banks consider responsible. Young people who
    start out with such burdens, especially from low-income families, may
    have trouble establishing households, buying homes, and reaching the
    earnings they expect.

    The common assumption is that a college education "always pays," but
    that assumption is based on retrospective data from the late 90s and
    earlier on the relative earnings of adults now in their mid-20s, 30s,
    and 40s. According to census data, when adjusted for inflation, the
    median earnings of workers age 25 and older with only a bachelor's
    degree have fallen for four straight years. Today's heavily indebted
    college graduate does not necessarily have an edge over someone of the
    same age who spent those same four years building a résumé, gaining
    experience, establishing connections, and earning and saving money.
    Imagine what would happen to colleges if word starts to spread, over
    the next 5 to 10 years, that many of those who chose to forgo higher
    education are more successful at age 30measured by incomes, homes,
    savings -- than their better-educated but heavily indebted peers.

    We have long studied the patterns of different generations and see two
    significant factors at work today as well. The first is the arrival of
    a "Millennial generation" of college students, those born in 1982 and
    after. They are quite ambitious, on the whole, and more focused on the
    long-term future than students were a decade or two ago. According to
    a survey by Teenage Research Unlimited, three-quarters of today's
    teenagers plan to attend college for the purpose of helping them
    launch careers, while less than one-quarter seek what has mattered
    most to many of their parents: college as an escape and a meaningful

    As long as a college degree remains a necessary credential for a
    career, demand will remain strong. But if that perception starts
    weakening -- if Millennials perceive professors as being so stuck in
    the last century on matters of ideology, attitude, and technology that
    they can no longer teach the knowledge and skills necessary for
    financial success -- then colleges should watch out. Many will see
    their admissions pools shrink, their acceptance yields decline, and
    their dropout rates rise -- perhaps sharply.

    The second, and more decisive, generational change involves parents.
    In recent years administrators have had to deal with pushier-than-ever
    parents, who demand to know how a college will help their 22-year-old
    "child" land that prestigious, highly paid position at the end of the
    long K-16 path in which those moms and dads have invested so much
    love, time, energy, and money. The good news for colleges is that most
    of those parents have a deep faith in the value of a college
    education. Many are boomers who attended college during the late 1960s
    and early 70s. Despite -- or maybe because of -- those tumultuous
    times, people who went to college back then retain a positive attitude
    toward the traditional college experience, which they have yearned to
    relive through their children. The result has been a relative lack of
    attention to questions of cost and value. As increases in tuition have
    outpaced inflation year after year, boomer parents have offered little

    That all may change very soon. Over the next few years, more parents
    accompanying high-school seniors on campus tours will be Gen Xers,
    born in 1961 and after. By 2015 they will be the overwhelming majority
    of campus parents.

    That first batch of Gen-X moms and dads will be those who attended
    college in the 80s and early 90s. Between the late 60s and then, the
    annual survey by the University of California at Los Angeles of
    college freshmen showed a steep decline -- from nearly 80 percent to
    about 40 percent -- in the proportion who felt that "developing a
    meaningful philosophy of life" was an important goal of college, and a
    steep rise, almost exactly in reverse of those numbers, in the
    proportion who felt that "being very well off financially" was an
    important goal. Gen Xers also were told by one academic report after
    another how poorly educated they were as a generation, what a "rising
    tide of mediocrity" they and their schools represented.

    Married Gen Xers with children are among America's most conservative
    voting blocs. They are fiercely protective of their children, in
    school and elsewhere. On their own and through PTA's, they are doing
    all they can to make sure that schools don't fail their own sons and
    daughters the way (they were told) their schools had failed them.
    Hence, at the grass roots, Gen Xers have propelled school choice,
    vouchers, charter schools, home schooling, and the
    standards-and-accountability movement.

    And now they are coming, with their children, to college.

    When we have raised the issue, we have found that, far more than
    boomers, Gen Xers are likely to recall college in hindsight as a waste
    of time and money. Their recollection of their own college years has
    morphed into a profound skepticism bordering on cynicism, a demand for
    standards and accountability, and a keen interest in the bottom line.
    Considering what they have done as school parents, it's not hard to
    predict how they will behave as college parents. This get-real
    generation will focus on standards, transparency, measurable results,
    accountability, and (especially) cost. They will ask, perhaps very
    pointedly, whether courses and the professors who teach them are worth
    the money. After carefully checking out the college dorms, food, gyms,
    and career-counseling services, they will ask about "ROI" (return on
    investment). Some will wonder whether class discussions focusing on
    issues of the 60s and 70s, still so intriguing to many boomer
    professors, teach anything their kids need in the workplace.

    Many will ask why, in recent decades, whatever the economic climate,
    higher education has relentlessly risen in cost relative to inflation.
    At colleges with large endowments, many will ask why, especially in
    those years that endowments have grown significantly, keeping tuition
    low hasn't been given a high priority in the use of endowment funds.
    Many will ask whether student loans are, in fact, "financial aid" or
    rather just an inducement to enroll -- much as car loans are not "car
    aid" but a mere inducement to buy a car.

    If you are a boomer administrator, you might want to assemble a
    meeting of staff members in their late 30s or early 40s who have kids
    in middle or high school. Ask them those questions, and you might be
    startled by the answers. When we speak at colleges, we find that such
    questions resonate with Gen-X administrative-staff members, who
    readily acknowledge that they and their peers will be a hard sell when
    their own kids are ready for campus tours.

    Perhaps those Gen-X staff members can help you find ways to prove to
    Millennial students and Gen-X parents that your educational product is
    worth the money. Perhaps they can help you provide measurable
    standards comparable to what Gen-X parents expect from their public
    schools. That might include solid data on what recent graduates do,
    what they earn, how large their loans have been, and how quickly they
    pay the loans off. They might help you update your marketing
    strategies. That might include new ways to convince students and
    parents of the importance of learning what your college teaches and
    about the quality of the experience -- and student body -- you offer.

    Finally, and most important, you should do whatever it takes to hold
    the line on tuition. Today's colleges are walking a tightrope on
    tuition, and the rope is getting thinner every year. The longstanding
    assumption about the collegiate earnings premium is due for a
    high-stakes reassessment in this new era of high tuition, high debt,
    and parents with a keen eye on the bottom line.

    William Strauss and Neil Howe are co-authors of Millennials Rising
    (Vintage Books, 2000), Millennials Go to College (LifeCourse Books,
    2003), Generations (Morrow/Quill, 1991), and other books about
    American generations.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list