Is college a scam? Read a fascinating thread about why people think so. Also, a new book examines the impact of student debt on families.

Want to Understand What Americans Resent About Higher Ed? Take a Tour Through This Reddit Thread

“What do you personally view as a scam that everyone else accepts otherwise?” a Reddit user asked earlier this week.

The answers, as you might expect, were all over the place: credit repair companies, the funeral industry, inkjet printers. But it wasn’t long before someone chimed in with: “College in America.” And then a torrent of frustrations followed.

Some of the complaints appear small on the surface: about costly parking, costly meal plans, costly textbooks, and fees of all kinds. But it’s clear that, to these commenters, those things carry more meaning than just thinking $600 is too much to pay for a parking pass. They speak to larger concerns about value and worth, about unchecked powers, about arrogance and greed.

They are the kinds of things that start to add up to a deeper perception problem — one that’s reflected in recent research and polls by places like Gallup and the Pew Research Center that found Americans’ confidence in college faltering and their dissatisfaction growing.

Read deeper in that Reddit thread, and the grievances go on — well beyond issues of cost. People don’t like students being forced to live on campus. Or how transcripts are held “hostage” until accounts are paid. They really don’t like being asked to donate to their university when they still have student loans to pay. They complained about priorities: how “pristine and modern” athletics facilities go up while the math building stays “extremely outdated and crappy.”

What comes through is people feeling misled, often, and overcharged, always. There’s no trust, and certainly no loyalty.

“You know how everyone you looked up to your entire childhood (family, teachers, adults in general) told you college would pay off?” one person wrote, amid an account of struggles to get job interviews. “Guess what, they had no idea what they were talking about.”

Not Just a Partisan Gap

Admittedly, Reddit is just one little corner of the Internet, and one that is optimized for complaining. But the responses on the thread echo concerns we heard on our road trip in August.

One thing that’s striking in the Reddit thread, and in our conversations, too, was how little political divisions came up. Yes, we did talk to people worried about the liberal agenda — and the recent Pew research shows a growing partisan divide on views of higher ed. But the reasons for people’s disconnect and distrust go far beyond that.

One of the first people we met was Kenya McKnight, a CEO of a public benefit corporation in Minneapolis. She’s won fellowships. She’s advised metropolitan transportation planners. She’s worked to advance economic development in her community. She’s done all this without a college degree.

To her, college isn’t so much a scam but more like a game. A degree doesn’t signal intelligence, she told me, but it’s an important tool to accessing opportunity because of how society views it. She wishes work experiences would count more.

Mark Salisbury, a former college administrator living in the Quad Cities, sees colleges fueling anger by how they set prices. Paying for college doesn’t work like other purchases, he argues, where you might say you have a certain amount of money to spend and then go looking for the best value.

Parents and students are mostly in the dark about the wide range of prices colleges charge, and how decisions are made about who is charged what. At the same time, he said, colleges talk to you like their value is limitless. (That reflects the arrogance of colleges, Mark said, “like they are priceless.”)

So consumers have a hard time judging either side of the equation, cost or value, for one of the biggest purchases they will ever make. Eventually, he said, “they just get pissed.”

Widespread Mistrust

Skepticism and disconnection are themes researchers at the Aspen Institute have come across, too. Brittney Davidson, a senior program manager there, started out trying to understand who wasn’t going to college and why. The economy is booming, employers are struggling to find all the qualified workers they need, and tens of millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed.

So why aren’t people enrolling in training programs at their nearby community colleges? One of the key findings: “There is widespread mistrust in higher education.”

Among the things colleges need to do better are communicate about outcomes and set expectations, the Aspen researchers found after talking to people in Chicago, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Brittney told the story of a woman who completed a program in cosmetology and then hated the work. The job wasn’t what she expected, and the pay wasn’t either. Her college, she said, hadn’t prepared her for the realities of the career. She felt misled.

When she talks to her friends, then, her message about the college becomes: Buyer beware! Meanwhile, the college is counting her as a success. She got her credential.

Another thing that Brittney said became very clear in their conversations: people rely heavily on their peer networks for information about college. One bad experience can tarnish an institution’s reputation in an entire community, and it can ruin their perception of higher education as a whole.

So that woman’s cosmetology completion? “That’s not a win,” Brittney said. “It’s poisoning the well.”

— Sara Hebel

The Definition of Middle Class

Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist at New York University who had made a career out of studying the culture of finance, realized eight years ago that her next big project was right in front of her. To see what finance was doing to the American middle class she just had to talk to the students — and the families — shaping their economic lives around paying for college.

She then embarked on an ambitious project of 160 in-depth interviews with parents and students taking on debt for higher education. Her new book, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost, is the result.

From her introduction:

Indebted argues that the problem of paying for college today involves such profound moral, emotional, and economic commitments that it has, in fact, redefined the experience of being middle class. implies, and touches more parts of our lives than we usually consider.

This means that the public issue most often labeled “student debt” is far more encompassing than our conventional framing implies, and touches more parts of our lives than we usually consider.

Listen to a fascinating, long conversation Zaloom had with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes for his podcast “Why Is This Happening.”

This New Yorker piece digs into Zaloom’s book while putting it in the context of the last few decades of American higher ed.


USC officials discussed how much wealthy parents could donate when their children applied, records show

Emails show the school explicitly weighed how much money applicants’ families could donate when determining whether to admit students. (Los Angeles Times)

Photo by AJ Mast for The Hechinger Report

Luxury private student housing further divides rich and poor on campuses

Privately developed university student housing has become a multibillion-dollar industry, with new apartment buildings featuring pools and clubhouses. (The Hechinger Report)

Michigan State University to pay record $4.5M fine in Nassar scandal

“What happened at MSU was abhorrent. …. so was the university’s response to their crimes,” U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said. (The Detroit Free Press)

Analysis finds the majority of flagship universities fall short of their promise of an affordable education

Only six state flagship universities are affordable for students from low- or middle-income backgrounds, according to new research from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

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