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