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Saturday, March 24, 2018


The admirable activism of high school students, on display today in nationwide marches, got me thinking about the absence of activism on college campuses.  What differentiates today from fifty years ago – 1968?  The answer that came to mind was:  the draft, and student debt.

The devastating experience of the Viet Nam War, which almost broke the U. S. Army, moved military leaders to switch to an all volunteer military, with higher pay and something resembling career opportunities.  This suited America’s imperial stance in  the world, inasmuch as empires always need professional armies that can be deployed over long periods of time without excessively troubling the general citizenry.  The success of the switch is evidenced by America’s ability to engage in virtually constant military adventures without crippling objections on the political front.

The rise of student debt, which has reduced the more privileged sector of the population to a condition of modern debt peonage, is more complicated, but, I am persuaded, it is an essential cause of the political quiescence of today’s college students.

To get a handle on the situation, I decided to look at the rise in the tuition cost of my own alma mater, Harvard College.  In 1950, the year I started my education as a Freshman, Harvard tuition was $600 a year.  By 1968, when the Viet Nam War was in full flower, the tuition had increased to $2000, which is $1390 in 1950 dollars, more than double.  And in 2016, the last year I could find, Harvard’s tuition was $43,280, or $4374 in 1950 dollars.  So, adjusted for inflation, Harvard’s 2016 tuition is more than seven times as much as 1950 tuition.

In 1950, when I was a Freshman at Harvard, I got part time jobs paying sixty to seventy-five cents an hour, except for the spectacular job inventorying a Robert Hall clothing store at $1.25 an hour, which came around for one night twice a year.

To earn my tuition at that rate would have taken me maybe 900 hours of work.  A semester with exams was 16 weeks, a year was 32 weeks, so 20 weeks when I was out of school at 40 hours a week, for 800 hours, and 15 hours a week during school time for 480 hours would probably have earned me enough to pay tuition, room, and board.  In short, I could have worked my way through college at the most expensive college in America.

By 1968, working for the then minimum wage of $1.60, it would have taken me 1250 hours to earn my tuition, and more to cover room and board.  I would have had to go into debt at least somewhat to make it through.

By 2016, when the minimum wage was $7.25, it would have required almost 6000 hours of work to earn the tuition, which is to say 250 days working twenty-four hours a day!  Note that if the campaign for a national minimum wage of $15 an hour were to succeed, it would still take 2885 hours of work – 56+ hours a week year round – to earn the tuition, never mind the room and board.

Forgive me if I sound like an old fogey, but the current Harvard education is not seven times as good as the 1950 education [indeed, in some respects, I would imagine it is inferior.]

What has happened?  Young college students have been relieved of the threat of military service and burdened with a totally unmanageable debt that requires them to keep their noses clean and take safe good paying jobs.  It is not for nothing that 30% of Columbia’s graduating seniors take jobs on Wall Street.


s. wallerstein said...

I was a student in the 60's and I will not deny that fear of being drafted played a role in my activism against the War in Viet Nam.

However, that's not the whole story. I got involved in leftwing politics in 1964, long before I was aware of the escalation of the War in Viet Nam and long before I began to fear being drafted. As a matter of fact, if you talk to ex 60's activists, I bet that you'll find that most of them began to get involved before the draft became a tangible threat to their lives.

In fact, I first got involved in the civil rights movement as did many of my contemporaries, and there was a general rejection of what we called "the system" or the
"establishment" or just plain "them" or "they".

It really is difficult to put myself again in my mindset of 1963 or 1964, which in any case was more a confused set of ideas of rebellion than a definite philosophical commitment. We did not want to live like we saw our parents: conformist, social-climbing, afraid to speak out and to live authentically, suburban and middle-class, etc.

s. wallerstein said...

One more point in support of my idea that the draft was not the major factor behind the 60's protest movement: the 60's university student movement was an international phenomenon, perhaps the most well-known manifestation being the French student protest in 1968. French students did not fear being drafted, nor did German students nor did Italian students nor did Mexican students nor did Chilean students nor did Argentinian students.

Why did a student protest movement occur in so many countries in 1968? I don't know nor do I know why protests occurred in most European countries in 1848. Maybe the mysterious workings of the zeitgeist.

LFC said...

The student protests in 1968 also occurred in parts of Asia, I believe. In Pakistan, for example, they led to the departure of the pres., Ayub Khan (who was replaced by Gen. Yahya Khan, not a real improvement) and they also radicalized the movement for autonomy in what was then E. Pakistan (what became Bangladesh in Dec. '71).

[Hat tip for the above to S. Raghavan's book 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (which I reviewed on my no-longer-active blog several years ago).]

I do think the draft was a not insignificant factor in some of the U.S. student protests, though I agree w/ s.w. that it wasn't the only factor. The history of the era, like that of every period, is complicated once one digs beneath the surface. Causation is not always easy to untangle, and ditto for assigning weights to different causes. Haven't read T. Gitlin's bk on the '60s, but wd be interesting to find out what his take on that particular question is.

Lastly, I'm not sure it's altogether accurate to talk about an absence of activism on college campuses. There is some activism, it's just that, as a glance through the Gitlin column that Wolff ran here as a guest post the other day suggests, it's often an activism too inward-looking, for lack of a better word, to get the approval of a lot of outside observers.

Charles Pigden said...

Why is a Harvard education seven times more expensive nowadays than it was 68 years ago given that it is probably NOT seven times better? What does the money go on? Also are your calculations affected by what I suspect is a fact, namely that the real minimum wage has fallen wrt to the average wage (though perhaps not wrt the mean wage)?

LFC said...

@ Charles Pigden

College tuition generally in the U.S. has risen significantly faster than inflation in the last decades (not sure going how far back). I haven't read the research on the reasons. Almost certainly, though, there are more administrators at Harvard, as at other univs., than 68 years ago, w their growth doubtless outstripping the increase in the number of students at least at the undergrad level (the size of the undergraduate student body is larger than 68 yrs ago, but prob not strikingly so; I don't know the exact figures). So number of administrators has risen and their salaries have gone up, so have faculty salaries though perhaps not as fast. More of the staff (non-faculty, non-administrator) positions are prob unionized than in 1950, though I doubt that accounts for much if any of the cost increase.

In 2016, the last yr given in the post, only a minority of the undergrads paid the full sticker price (of 43,280). The majority got financial aid defraying either part or in some cases all of the cost, depending on parental resources etc. Again, I don't know the specific figures.

Student debt is a problem everywhere, though it may actually be less of a burden on average on undergrads at (well-endowed) places w substantial financial aid programs than at other institutions.

mesnenor said...

I'm sure the ratio of administrators per student at Harvard today dwarfs what it was in the 50s. Administrators per faculty member with a teaching load is also undoubtedly much higher.

Harvard today is best thought of as a large hedge fund with a sideline in higher education.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

For as long as I can recall, there has been a paperback book called something like "Officers of Instruction" that lists all the prople who have positions of some sort at Harvard. The college is not much bigger, if at all, than Harvard plus Radcliffe were sixty-eight years ago when I arrive as a Freshman, but what was then a slender volume is now a huge bloated fat book, crammed full of the names and contact info of people who have never seen the inside of a classsroom.

David Palmeter said...

When I started law school at the University of Chicago in 1960, tuition was $1,050 per year ($350 per academic quarter). The median household income in the US in 1960 was $5,620). Tuition was just under 20% of the median household income.

Today, tuition at U of C Law School is $62,000 and the median household income is $59,000--105% of median family income.

Brian Leiter, whose blog I follow (that's how I found yours), is the Karl Llewellyn Professor Law at Chicago. Llewellyn was one of the leading American Realist legal theorists--or as he would say, "jurisprudes." He taught a course for first year students, Elements of Law, that was one of the most enduring learning experiences I ever had.

Now Mr. Leiter is a first rank legal scholar, and as a philosopher he clearly surpasses Llewellyn who, so far as I know, rarely if ever moved out fairly strict legal scholarship. But I doubt if he would say he was five times better than Llewellyn.

What's the explanation? I'm not sure, but the comments citing administrative costs are certainly onto something. The cost of higher education has outpaced the cost of health care for the past half century. Something is terribly wrong. The total absence of any explanations or exposes whether by book or magazine article is a mystery to me. I'd like to see a congressional investigation into the matter.

Anonymous said...

I don't think we need to appeal to the mysterious workings of the Zeitgeist. A more humble word does the work just fine: fashion.

It was fashionable to be rebellious. One smoked pot because that was it. Rock was groovy. Long hair, beards. Free sex. Anti-war protest and have access to the girls' dormitories. It didn't really matter. For once in history it was chic to be revolutionary and carry Ché Guevara's image in one's t-shirt.

Charles Pigden said...

With makes the puzzle more puzzling is that in the US as in many other places a lot of teaching nowadays is done by adjuncts teaching assistants and other untenured and exploited unfortunates, who are not in a position to demand adequate pay. You would expect that this ongoing injustice would at least have the upside of reducing student fees, but apparently this is not the case.

Charles Pigden said...

That should be: *What* makes the puzzle more puzzling ...