College: Crony Socialism at Its Worst


College is a giant freakin’ scam!

I don’t know what disgusts me more about college. The medieval muumuus it forces its graduates to wear at graduation? The fundamentalist progressive culture it maintains with all the subtlety and good nature of a rampaging elephant? Or maybe it’s the debt slavery it foists upon any poor soul looking to bring a worthwhile credential to the labor market?

So just in case you’re not quite sure how I feel about college, let me repeat myself.


To show you how ridiculous the current business model for higher education is, let’s apply it to physical fitness. Here’s how physical fitness would work if we did it like we do higher education.

You want to get physically fit. Not just because you want to look better and live longer, but because doing so will entitle you to a massive reduction in your health insurance premiums. Some years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that health insurers couldn’t test a potential customer to determine how healthy he or she was. Doing so created a “disparate impact” or something. So in the aftermath of this ruling, health insurers began using the fitness certificate awarded by state-accredited gyms as a crude way to distinguish low-risk customers from high-risk customers. Those with the health certificate get low premiums. Those without it get high premiums.

Happily for you, there are thousands of state-accredited gyms across the country. Your state, in fact, has one of the best gym systems in the country. But they’re not cheap. And their gold-standard fitness program takes at least four years to complete.

After a month or two of hemming and hawing, you decide to take the plunge. You don’t want to go into debt to get physically fit, but that fitness certificate the gym gives you will guarantee you a lifetime of cheap health care. Studies show that those with a fitness certificate spend half as much on health care in their lifetimes than those without a fitness certificate. And, besides, the gym you chose has Dr. Oz, Bob Harper, Rich Froning, and Tracy Anderson on its list of instructors.

Not long after you begin your fitness program, however, you notice that something is off. For starters, the gym never makes note of your initial physical condition. It has no idea how far you can run, how many pull ups you can do, what your cholesterol numbers are, and what your BMI might be. How will the gym and you know if you’re making any progress? Grades. Just keep passing all the classes and you’ll become increasingly fit, the instructors assure you. “Besides,” they keep insisting, “it’s foolish to get hung up on a bourgeoisie definition of fitness. Our objective here isn’t to have you hit some arbitrary numbers that society has foisted upon its members. Our objective here is to give you something infinitely more important. We want you to leave our hollowed gym with total body awareness.”

Total body awareness. It sounds like a completely bullshit skill, but what do you know? All the cool people say it’s a valid thing. So it’s gotta be, right? And, besides, if you want super cheap health insurance premiums, you gotta prove to the health insurance industry that you have total body awareness.

So you shoulder on, even though the first two years of the fitness program have little to do with engaging in actual physical activity. Oh, sure, there’s Walking 101 and Stretching 101. But most of your time at the gym entails sitting in a classroom listening to lectures about physical activity. For instance, all first-year students are required to take the following courses.

Shirtless Men and Topless Women: How Hollywood Uses Partial Nudity to Transmit a False and Dangerous Definition of Fitness

The Intersection of Race and Perspiration: How Lack of Neighborhood Playgrounds and High Gym Fees Deny Fitness to People of Color

Taking all these frivolous classes is more than frustrating. “When the hell am I going to start doing some freakin’ exercise?” you frequently mutter to yourself. The only thing that makes it tolerable is that these frivolous classes aren’t very demanding. Everyone gets an A, even those who show up sparingly and spend their time in class feverishly pecking away at their cell phones.

Finally, you make it to the third year of the fitness program. You’re psyched. You get to pick a specialty. You pick CrossFit training. You’ve always been a big fan of Rich Froning. and you can’t wait to take one of his courses. But when you look at the course catalog, you notice that Rich doesn’t teach any courses on your level. He only teaches advanced courses for people who already have their fitness certifications. And the same goes for the other famous instructors at the gym. Instructors for your third and fourth years will be the same nobody instructors you had in the first and second years.

Now you’re pissed. Why take a tough specialty like CrossFit training or Ironman training if you never get to work with a famous instructor? So like a lot your fellow students, you opt for a less demanding specialty. You decide to specialize in shake-weight training. Sure it’s a joke of a specialty. But in the end, you get the same fitness certification as the guy who can run a marathon and lift 300 pounds over his head.

At long last, after four insufferable years, you’re finished. You don your cap and gown and some old dude in a cap and gown hands you your fitness certificate. Are you more fit than when you began this journey four years earlier? Who knows? The gym doesn’t test you on the way out. And health insurers can’t test you either (thank you, SCOTUS). What you do know, however, is this: you have a piece of paper that proves you have total body awareness and the health insurers can no longer screw you over with exorbitant health insurance premiums. Woo-hoo! What a blessing—especially now since you have over $25K in fitness loans to pay back.

Let’s Test My Theory

Absurd, isn’t it? Someone is considered physically fit because some accredited gym gives him or her a piece of paper? And to get that piece of paper the allegedly physically fit someone only had to take a certain number of courses? He or she didn’t have to do a hundred sit ups or run a sub six-minute mile or have a total cholesterol level under 200?

It is absurd. But this is precisely how we do higher education. We consider someone intelligent because some accredited college gave him or her a piece of paper. And unless there’s some killer post-college exam a college graduate must take to enter a profession (e.g., the medical board exam, the bar exam, the CPA exam, etc.), we really don’t know how intelligent the typical college graduate is. But employers use a college degree as a crude measure of intelligence (thank you, SCOTUS). Those with a college degree are assumed capable. Those without are assumed less capable.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-education. And college is not a total joke. In fact, there are plenty of Professor Kingsfields out there who embrace the life of the mind and hold their students to exacting standards. And there are plenty of college students who seek out rigorous instruction in rigorous fields and do superbly. But these remarkable souls are surely the minority. How else do you explain the proliferation of remedial math and English classes on campus today? How do you explain the grade inflation that has all but rendered the GPA a meaningless gauge of student achievement? How do you explain all the time students have for protests, football games, and drunken hookups?

The bottom line is this: the college-industrial complex’s definition of education is seriously flawed. It says that college is more than a trade school. I say it isn’t. It says it’s main purpose is to provide students with “critical thinking skills.” I say bullshit. The attribute of critical thinking skills is as phony as the attribute of total body awareness. And if it isn’t, why don’t colleges measure it? Why don’t they give their students a critical thinking test on the first day of college and on the last day of college? Aren’t colleges curious about how their degree programs affect the acquisition of this supposedly awesome skill?

Look, what do I know? I’m just some old fart who got his meaningless degree thirty years ago.

But, hey, humor me. Let’s have a test. Let’s unbundle the college experience. Give students the option of just taking the 12-15 courses that pertain to his or her major. Call it college-lite. They won’t get a degree; they’ll get a certificate. And let’s see if employers notice a difference between certificate holders and degree holders. If employers come to prefer degree holders over certificate holders, my college-lite idea will die a natural death. We’ll have definitive proof that all the football games, all the frat parties, all the walks of shame, all the sit-ins, all the protests, and all the seemingly useless course requirements really do enhance one’s ability to think critically.

Ain’t Gonna Happen

Okay, groovy freedomists, don’t expect my college-lite experiment to take place anytime soon. The college-industrial complex doesn’t want competition. It likes the billions of tax dollars that its current business model sucks up annually. It means more jobs and higher pay for administrators and tenured professors. So it will fight tooth and nail to maintain the accreditation system that locks in the status quo. Keep those Pell grants and federally-backed student loans coming in, baby!

So what do we do about it?

First, understand that people in the public and non-profit spheres are not above using the coercive powers of the state to hobble their competitors. Crony socialism is just as real and as detrimental as crony capitalism.

Second, fight crony socialism. If no bank is too big to fail, why is the college-industrial complex’s current business model too big to fail?

Finally, third, feed the beast as little as possible. Take up a trade if you don’t mind getting dirty. Start a business if you can handle stress. If you rather get a degree, don’t go away to college. Live at home, work part-time, and go to the local state school. And take advantage of whatever is available to reduce the cost of a degree. (Jaime Donovan provided some great examples of this in her guest post earlier this week.) Remember: You need and deserve an education. You don’t need and deserve to go deeply into debt for an overpriced credential that in most instances benefits the college-industrial complex more than you.