Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“How the Contemporary University Is Destroying America, Part III,” By Bruce Frohnen

Part III: Destroying the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Many critics have pointed out that faculty and administration at the typical contemporary university spend much of their time attempting to turn our children into Social Justice Warriors hostile to their own culture and civilization. Less commented upon is the university’s habituation of our children (and their parents) to governmental intrusion into their financial habits and business decisions, including decisions regarding how much and even whether to work. The current financial aid system, rooted in a corrupt relationship whereby the federal government subsidizes untenable tuition prices, ends by enslaving students to a set of bureaucratic rules and structures that teach them to look over their shoulders and calculate the end-value of work in light of administrative regulations and payments. In effect, our universities are teaching our children to become calculating wards of the state instead of independent workers and entrepreneurs.

A parent’s first exposure to the sea of paperwork associated with college admissions is likely to cause bewilderment, embarrassment, and even nausea. The wish that one could throw the forms out the window and simply work and pay for college is natural and virtuous, but hopeless. Even the “bargain” schools today—indeed, even most “public” universities—are priced out of the reach of even quite well-off parents. Only the very rich can afford to go it alone when it comes to their children’s education. When room and board is added to tuition payments, “full freight” costs begin to hover around $60,000 per year for an Ivy League education, and $15,000 per year for even the most reasonably priced of good public universities like the University of Virginia—at the University of California the figure is closer to $20,000 per year.

What, then, is a parent, or student, to do? The educratic Brahmins who run our university system will tell you that college remains a relative “bargain” because of all the good things it provides. Americans have bought into the myth that only college can bring upward mobility, and this story retains some of its strength even in today’s economic climate. If one attends a relatively prestigious university, one will get a much better job than someone who did not attend college—or, increasingly, one who attended a less prestigious university. This is the way the economy works when everyone is told that only “losers” do not go to college. As important, administrators have a more convincing fallback position: they argue that financial aid makes a degree in some sense affordable.

Many universities, of course, offer substantial scholarships. Whether provided on the basis of academic performance, sports acumen, or “diversity” standards related to race and ethnicity, such scholarships do help many students and their families. That said, few students receive anything close to full support in this manner. What is more, many of the more prestigious schools offer little if anything of this kind to nondiversity students. This leaves students and their parents at the mercy of the financial aid system.

The sad truth is that the financial aid system has very little mercy for students or their parents. According to the Wall Street Journal, the average class of 2015 graduate came out of college with about $35,000 in student loan debt. About 17 percent of those students also have parents who went into debt on their behalf—to the tune of about $30,000 on average. The students, of course, are paying off those loans (over $400 per month) out of a much lower income than their parents. What is more, they have very little choice, once they enter the financial aid system, but to surrender any chance of lowering their debt load; earning “too much” money during school will only increase tuition charges and reduce financial aid.

Americans on unemployment, social security, or various forms of welfare payments have experienced the problem of disincentives to earn. As many commentators have noted, the welfare state trains its wards to be dependent, lest they lose their support; thus people on assistance stop working at a certain income level, or even altogether, so that they will not put various payments and benefits at risk. This is tragic where lower income Americans are concerned. It harms the economy, the lives of the people dragged into dependency, and the culture as a whole as jobs go unfilled and people give up on working their way out of poverty. Now this same twisted logic, with the same twisted incentives, is being applied to the vast majority of our children—and to a significant extent to their parents as well.

At the end of it all comes yet another regulatory manipulation: loan forgiveness. Those who finish college with a mountain of debt (that is, most graduates) may find themselves faced with the option of doing what they really want to do for a living or spending time pretending to care about some politically correct cause in order to lessen the financial burden. No doubt saying this makes your author sound like a heartless brute who cares nothing for the planet, for poor people, or for that vague catch-all of the left, “social justice.” In truth, many fine programs are on offer for graduates who essentially want to volunteer their time for a while after college. That said, most of these programs are aimed at turning graduates into Social Justice Warriors themselves—advocating for political positions of various kinds or working for the government. Sadly, even the good programs (such as a number of related programs devoted to bringing motivated, educated graduates into low-income areas to teach) are finding themselves objects of increased attention from government and social justice types. And, because they are considered to be benefitting from governmental largesse (because many of their participant-workers are receiving student loan assistance of one kind or another) the view is that it is right for them to be forced to reconfigure their programs to fit the current trends in social justice activism, rather than “merely” provide useful service. As many of us have feared for decades, the “nonprofit sector” increasingly is becoming itself a ward of an intrusive state anxious to enforce loyalty to its political program in exchange for various forms of assistance and forbearance.

The university was once thought of as a gateway to financial as well as moral and cultural independence. A liberal education used to be combined with the maturity and life-skills one can gain from spending time in an atmosphere devoted to learning and becoming acculturated to the rights and duties connected with one’s way of life. Thus, college once helped young people mature, enabling them to take their place as productive adults. It helped them gain the confidence and character as well as the knowledge and skills to set out on their own to forge a meaningful life in commerce, the professions, or the arts. Increasingly, university life is yet another gateway to dependence on regulatory structures that inculcate habits of obedience to petty rules even as they undermine normative understanding of the common good and how to serve both it and one’s own community within the broader nation.


Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.

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