Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Downton Abbey Guide to College Tuition

The word out from the Inside Higher Ed survey is that fully 70% of parents will restrict their child's choice of college based on cost. If there's one thing all parents can agree on, it's that college costs too much, and if my own experience is anything to judge by, precisely 100% of parents complain about it. But when your children reach SAT-taking age and the theoretical becomes the practical, the 30% complain in a completely different way than the 70%.

On three separate but equally uncomfortable occasions recently, I've had to listen to a parent complain about having to pay $60,000 a year to send their child (one child of several, mind you) to college. I realize that in some cases this is experienced as a genuine economic struggle for these families, who may be making other sacrifices to manage these costs. But still, paying sixty grand a year for anything is so utterly outside the realm of my own financial reality that I can muster absolutely no sympathy for this problem. (And this is, of course, a scenario that scales up and down the socioeconomic ladder: parents for whom any kind of college tuition is out of the question will legitimately have zero sympathy for another's complaint about paying $15,000 or even $8000 a year). Since saying this aloud, however, amounts to calling someone greedy while admitting that you're comparatively poor, the only real option is to suffer through the complaint.

These complaints from the 30% set moreover arrived in each case with a follow-up wish either that their child were talented enough to qualify for an athletic scholarship, or that the Ivy League institution that recruited that child to play a sport gave athletic scholarships, or that they made less money so that they might qualify for financial aid. This is a bit like Mitt Romney complaining, in the newly-famous 47% video, that he would win the election more easily if he were Latino. It's also a bit like the aristocratic inhabitants of Downton Abbey complaining about the costs of upkeep while members of the housekeeping staff comb their hair for them or serve them a course of quail.

The threat of having to downsize has propelled the Downton Abbey series since it began, but it appears as unthinkable a future to the show's writers as it is to the inhabitants of the house itself, who have always responded to the possibility of moving out of their castle into a more modest home as somewhere between shameful and disgusting. And indeed, why would the Crawley family want to let go of the grandeur, luxury, leisure, and excess of the old ways if they can avoid it? Why pass up on the social glitter of an Ivy League degree if you can manage to pay for it? Why drive a Ford if you can afford a Lexus?

The final episode of the third season left viewers with an especially nostalgic spectacle of old British aristocracy: Scottish castles, pastoral hunting parties, ballroom entertainment. Learning that his host will have to sell the castle because the continued cost of maintaining it is too high finally convinces Lord Grantham to accept the plan devised by his sons-in-law, who insist that saving Downton will take a managerial ethos of increased efficiency. Although we have yet to know the details of this plan, we can imagine what it might involve: a reduction in staff, dismissal of tenants who aren't paying rent, disciplining of tenants who aren't maximizing use of their land, the introduction of new technology to replace human labor. The Crawleys are on a century-skipping fast track from late-stage feudalism to full-fledged neoliberalism. They'll begrudgingly allow the occasional homely feminist or annoying progressive to sit at their table, and even tolerate a devious homosexual valet, as long as it doesn't mean upsetting the income inequality that allows them to keep hold of their $400-million, 25-bathroom home along with the enormous staff required to maintain it.

The historian Daniel Vickers long ago described the economic ideal in early America as one of competence--the ability to remain economically self-sufficient, making enough income to maintain a modest home and simple lifestyle. In So Great a Profitt, James Fichter describes the growing affluence of some families in the decades after the American Revolution who, buoyed by wealth gained largely from investing in global trade, violated the ideal of competence by practicing endless accumulation that allowed them to purchase excessive and indulgent luxuries. Such affluence was perceived as shameful and suspicious. This economic affect of shameful abundance is as utterly unrecognizable to us as it is the Crawleys, who imagine that anything less than Downton must be a terrible, and embarrassing, struggle--like having to attend the local public school, or community college, instead of the University of Downton Abbey.

There are all kinds of misinformed attempts to explain why college costs are so high, most of which are just a distraction from the fundamental reason: the ongoing and systematic cuts to public funding for education. Running in tandem with those cuts for several decades has been encouragement from the financial industry for parents to amass a private mini-fortune through investment funds specifically designated for their children's college costs. Parents have not always borne this level of burden, but it is by now a semi-compulsory feature of neoliberal parenting. The counterpart to this neoliberal program is being carried out at a university campus near you, where you may find state-of-the-art athletic facilities, fair trade coffee and organic produce in the dining commons, and floors upon floors of offices for the bureaucrats who administer efficiency metrics to try to keep labor costs down (by hiring adjuncts and courting MOOCs) while keeping marketing value up (by, for example, falsely inflating incoming student test scores, and ensuring that campus brochure photos reflect country club aesthetics). We'd all be better off if parents saw through such marketing devices and allied with educational activists to restore public funding to education instead of resting their child's collegiate future on a stock market that siphons their money (while giving the bonuses to today's equivalent of the Crawleys) to fill up the gaps ripped open by lawmakers' spending cuts.

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