Indentured Studenthood?

It takes a decade for students to get out from under their loans; is that any way to build a stronger middle class?

President Obama calls it "Middle Class Economics" — better late than never, I guess. Insofar as higher education is concerned, MCE means free tuition — for community college students, that is.

The typical community college student pays about $4,500 in tuition per year. Students matriculating at four-year schools, public and private respectively, pay from $8,000 up to more than $40,000. Add room and board, and the bill runs from just under $20,000 to more than $50,000 per year. In the president's view, if you go to a four-year residential school, regardless of cost, apparently you aren't middle class, ipso facto.

Really? Meet Kristy Crabtree. My freshman student at Gonzaga several years back, Kristy was a quiet girl who didn't attract attention — until her first examinations. Then we all took serious notice. Raised in Millwood, she had graduated from West Valley High School. Kristy, you see, aspired to a bigger world; she dreamed dreams necessarily followed at a four-year liberal arts school.

She came to Gonzaga as one of the first Gates Achievers Scholars. West Valley qualified for Gates scholarships because of its high number of low-income families. Kristy's scholarship made Gonzaga a possibility.

During Kristy's senior year, she told me of her plans to go into the Peace Corps. Sent to Bangladesh, she lived with a Muslim family and experienced a world far removed from Millwood. There she was made aware of refugee displacement problems — so many refugees, and no place to go.

Her Peace Corps tour completed, she sought out a graduate program in international relations, one that would take her back into those troubling problems. Armed with great letters of recommendation, a good education and now Peace Corps experience, Kristy soon was off to New York University. (Note the experiential distance from Millwood to Gonzaga to Bangladesh and then on to Manhattan. Quite a journey.)

Kristy excelled in New York. She was selected Editor-in-Chief of the student association's publication, served an internship at the journal Foreign Affairs and won several school awards, including the Marc Chandler Scholarship, the Dean's Award and the Center for Global Affairs Service Award.

Her graduate degree in hand, she got a job in her chosen field in New York. She was granted her request to work out of Seattle and today is, in her words, "fully ensconced in gender-based violence, working with displaced or conflict-affected populations in Africa and the Middle East."

But here's the thing, Mr. President: While starting a family and traveling almost every month doing important work, Kristy struggles to pay off more than $60,000 in student loans. Apparently she has no place in your middle-class economics.

We need to consider why the cost of four-year colleges and universities has ballooned over the past eight years: Our son is completing a graduate degree at the University of Washington. We checked, and his quarterly tuition back in 2006, his first year as an undergrad at the UW, was just under $2,000. A similar course load today, albeit at the graduate level, comes in at just under $7,000. What's worse, he won't be permitted to pay off his student loan immediately even should he find a way. It turns out that the contract requires that he pay off his balance in no fewer than 10 years. In the interest of corporate America, students must agree to at least a 10-year indentured servitude. This arrangement is supported by the very same administration that is now out and about, calling for "Middle Class Economics."

Joe Biden links tuition increases to faculty salaries. Earth to Joe! On this I can speak firsthand; faculty salaries have little to do with the problem. Public university tuition increases certainly reflect deep reductions of state support. And private school increases? The ever-rising administrative expenses have to figure into the problem — the salary gap between faculty and the senior administrators has widened to historic levels. To remain competitive, many schools are replacing older buildings — another big expense. And then there's the money going to athletics.

Faculty salaries haven't kept pace. And the problem gets worse when you factor in adjuncts (or, in research universities, the so-often-exploited graduate assistants). In many schools, part-time instructors now teach upward of half the total number of courses, yet they work for a pittance, with no job security — a scandalous situation that schools are only now addressing.

There's much to fix, but limiting "middle class" to community college students isn't even a good starting point. Obama's "Middle Class Economics" offers no help for all the Kristy Crabtrees of the world. Indeed, having matriculated at a four-year Jesuit university, she doesn't qualify for "Middle Class Economics" — regardless of her financial need. 

Mr. President, with all due respect, I suggest that you are confusing personal aspiration with social class.♦

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.