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.