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Debt and Disillusionment: How College Is Like the Airplane Game

Whatever we tell students about education being the path to a good job, the truth is that there are remarkably few seats at the front of the plane.

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For the last decade and a half, I’ve been teaching ethics to undergraduates. Now — admittedly, a little late to the party — I’ve started seriously questioning my own ethics. I’ve begun to wonder just what it means to be a participant, however minor, in the pyramid scheme that higher education has become in the years since I went to college.

Airplane Games

Sometime in the late 1980s, the Airplane Game roared through the San Francisco Bay Area lesbian community. It was a classic pyramid scheme, even if cleverly dressed up in language about women’s natural ability to generate abundance, just as we gestate children in our miraculous wombs. If the connection between feminism and airplanes was a little murky — well, we could always think of ourselves as modern-day Amelia Earharts. (As long as we didn’t think too hard about how she ended up.)

A few women made a lot of money from it — enough, in the case of one friend of mine, for a down payment on a house. Inevitably, a lot more of us lost money, even as some like me stood on the sidelines sadly shaking our heads.

There were four tiers on that “airplane”: a captain, two co-pilots, four crew, and 8 passengers — 15 in all to start. You paid $3,000 to get on at the back of the plane as a passenger, so the first captain (the original scammer), got out with $24,000 — $3,000 from each passenger. The co-pilots and crew, who were in on the fix, paid nothing to join. When the first captain “parachuted out,” the game split in two, and each co-pilot became the captain of a new plane. They then pressured their four remaining passengers to recruit enough new women to fill each plane, so they could get their payday, and the two new co-pilots could each captain their own planes.

Unless new people continued to get on at the back of each plane, there would be no payday for the earlier passengers, so the pressure to recruit ever more women into the game only grew. The original scammers ran through the game a couple of times, but inevitably the supply of gullible women willing to invest their savings ran out. By the time the game collapsed, hundreds of women had lost significant amounts of money.

No one seemed to know the women who’d brought the game and all those “planes” to the Bay Area, but they had spun a winning story about endless abundance and the glories of women’s energy. After the game collapsed, they took off for another women’s community with their “earnings,” leaving behind a lot of sadder, poorer, and perhaps wiser San Francisco lesbians.  

Feasting at the Tenure Trough or Starving in the Ivory Tower?

So, you may be wondering, what could that long-ago scam have to do with my ethical qualms about working as a college instructor? More than you might think.

Let’s start with PhD programs. In 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, U.S. colleges and universities churned out about 55,700 doctorates — and such numbers continue to increase by about 1% a year. The average number of doctorates earned over the last decade is almost 53,000 annually. In other words, we’re talking about nearly 530,000 PhDs produced by American higher education in those 10 years alone. Many of them have ended up competing for a far smaller number of jobs in the academic world.

It’s true that most PhDs in science or engineering end up with post-doctoral positions (earning roughly $40,000 a year) or with tenure-track or tenured jobs in colleges and universities (averaging $60,000 annually to start). Better yet, most of them leave their graduate programs with little or no debt.

The situation is far different if your degree wasn’t in STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) but, for example, in education or the humanities. As a start, far more of those degree-holders graduate owing money, often significant sums, and ever fewer end up teaching in tenure-track positions — in jobs, that is, with security, decent pay, and benefits.

Many of the non-STEM PhDs who stay in academia end up joining an exploited, contingent workforce of part-time, or “adjunct,” professors. That reserve army of the underemployed is higher education’s dirty little secret. After all, we — and yes, I’m one of them — actually teach the majority of the classes in many schools, while earning as little as $1,500 a semester for each of them.

I hate to bring up transportation again, but there’s a reason teachers like us are called “freeway flyers.” A 2014 Congressional report revealed that 89% of us work at more than one institution and 27% at three different schools, just to cobble together the most meager of livings.

Many of us, in fact, rely on public antipoverty programs to keep going. Inside Higher Ed, reflecting on a 2020 report from the American Federation of Teachers, describes our situation this way:

“Nearly 25% of adjunct faculty members rely on public assistance, and 40% struggle to cover basic household expenses, according to a new report from the American Federation of Teachers. Nearly a third of the 3,000 adjuncts surveyed for the report earn less than $25,000 a year. That puts them below the federal poverty guideline for a family of four.”

I’m luckier than most adjuncts. I have a union, and over the years we’ve fought for better pay, healthcare, a pension plan, and a pathway (however limited) to advancement. Now, however, my school’s administration is using the pandemic as an excuse to try to claw back the tiny cost-of-living adjustments we won in 2019.

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines an adjunct as “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” Once upon a time, in the middle of the previous century, that’s just what adjunct faculty were — occasional additions to the full-time faculty. Often, they were retired professionals who supplemented a department’s offerings by teaching a single course in their area of expertise, while their salaries were more honoraria than true payments for work performed. Later, as more women entered academia, it became common for a male professor’s wife to teach a course or two, often as part of his employment arrangement with the university. Since her salary was a mere adjunct to his, she was paid accordingly.

Now, the situation has changed radically. In many colleges and universities, adjunct faculty are no longer supplements, but the most “essential part” of the teaching staff. Classes simply couldn’t go on without us; nor, if you believe college administrations, could their budgets be balanced without us. After all, why pay a full-time professor $10,000 to teach a class (since he or she will be earning, on average, $60,000 a year and covering three classes a semester) when you can give a part-timer like me $1,500 for the very same work? 

And adjuncts have little choice. The competition for full-time positions is fierce, since every year another 53,000 or more new PhDs climb into the back row of the academic airplane, hoping to make it to the pilot’s seat and secure a tenure-track position.

And here’s another problem with that. These days the people in the pilots’ seats often aren’t parachuting out. They’re staying right where they are. That, in turn, means new PhDs find themselves competing for an ever-shrinking prize, as Laura McKenna has written in the Atlantic, “not only with their own cohort but also with the unemployed PhDs who graduated in previous years.” Many of those now clinging to pilots’ seats are members of my own boomer generation, who still benefit from a 1986 law (signed by then-75-year-old President Ronald Reagan) that outlawed mandatory retirements.

Grade Inflation v. Degree Inflation?

People in the world of education often bemoan the problem of “grade inflation” — the tendency of average grades to creep up over time. Ironically, this problem is exacerbated by the adjunctification of teaching, since adjuncts tend to award higher grades than professors with secure positions. The reason is simple enough: colleges use student evaluations as a major metric for rehiring adjuncts and higher grades translate directly into better evaluations. Grade inflation at the college level is, in my view, a non-issue, at least for students. Employers don’t look at your transcript when they’re hiring you and even graduate schools care more about recommendations and GRE scores.

The real problem faced by today’s young people isn’t grade inflation. It’s degree inflation.

Once upon a time in another America, a high-school diploma was enough to snag you a good job, with a chance to move up as time went on (especially if you were white and male, as the majority of workers were in those days). And you paid no tuition whatsoever for that diploma. In fact, public education through 12th grade is still free, though its quality varies profoundly depending on who you are and where you live.

But all that changed as increasing numbers of employers began requiring a college degree for jobs that don’t by any stretch of the imagination require a college education to perform. The Washington Post reports:

“Among the positions never requiring a college degree in the past that are quickly adding that to the list of desired requirements: dental hygienists, photographers, claims adjusters, freight agents, and chemical equipment operators.”

In 2017, Manjari Raman of the Harvard Business School wrote that

“the degree gap — the discrepancy between the demand for a college degree in job postings and the employees who are currently in that job who have a college degree — is significant. For example, in 2015, 67% of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, while only 16% of employed production supervisors had one.”

In other words, even though most people already doing such jobs don’t have a bachelor’s degree, companies are only hiring new people who do. Part of the reason: that requirement automatically eliminates a lot of applicants, reducing the time and effort involved in making hiring decisions. Rather than sifting through résumés for specific skills (like the ability to use certain computer programs or write fluently), employers let a college degree serve as a proxy. The result is not only that they’ll hire people who don’t have the skills they actually need, but that they’re eliminating people who do have the skills but not the degree. You won’t be surprised to learn that those rejected applicants are more likely to be people of color, who are underrepresented among the holders of college degrees.

Similarly, some fields that used to accept a BA now require a graduate degree to perform the same work. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “in 2015–16, about 39% of all occupational therapists ages 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of educational attainment.” Now, however, employers are commonly insisting that new applicants hold at least a master’s degree — and so up the pyramid we continually go (at ever greater cost to those students).

The Biggest Pyramid of All

In a sense, you could say that the whole capitalist economy is the biggest pyramid of them all. For every one of the fascinating, fulfilling, autonomous, and well-paying jobs out there, there are thousands of boring, mind- and body-crushing ones like pulling items for shipment in an Amazon warehouse or folding clothes at Forever 21.

We know, in other words, that there are only a relatively small number of spaces in the cockpit of today’s economic plane. Nonetheless, we tell our young people that the guaranteed way to get one of those rare gigs at the top of the pyramid is a college education.

Now, just stop for a second and consider what it costs to join the 2021 all-American Airplane Game of education. In 1970, when I went to Reed, a small, private, liberal arts college, tuition was $3,000 a year. I was lucky. I had a scholarship (known in modern university jargon as a “tuition discount”) that covered most of my costs. This year, annual tuition at that same school is a mind-boggling $62,420, more than 20 times as high. If college costs had simply risen with inflation, the price would be about $21,000 a year, or just under triple the price. 

If I’d attended Federal City College (now the University of D.C.), my equivalent of a state school then, tuition would have been free. Now, even state schools cost too much for many students. Annually, tuition at the University of California at Berkeley, the flagship school of that state’s system, is $14,253 for in-state students, and $44,007 for out-of-staters.

I left school owing $800, or about $4,400 in today’s dollars. These days, most financial “aid” resembles foreign “aid” to developing countries — that is, it generally takes the form of loans whose interest piles up so fast that it’s hard to keep up with it, let alone begin to pay off the principal in your post-college life. Some numbers to contemplate: 62% of those graduating with a BA in 2019 did so owing money — owing, in fact, an average of almost $29,000. The average debt of those earning a graduate degree was an even more staggering $71,000. That, of course, is on top of whatever the former students had already shelled out while in school. And that, in turn, is before the “miracle” of compound interest takes hold and that debt starts to grow like a rogue zucchini.

It’s enough to make me wonder whether a seat in the Great American College and University Airplane Game is worth the price, and whether it’s ethical for me to continue serving as an adjunct flight attendant along the way. Whatever we tell students about education being the path to a good job, the truth is that there are remarkably few seats at the front of the plane.

Of course, on the positive side, I do still believe that time spent at college offers students something beyond any price — the opportunity to learn to think deeply and critically, while encountering people very different from themselves. The luckiest students graduate with a lifelong curiosity about the world and some tools to help them satisfy it. That is truly a ticket to a good life — and no one should have to buy a seat in an Airplane Game to get one.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.