Penn State and accessibility

Granola Shotgun is my favorite new blog. I’m not even sure who the author is, and it seems as if the author intentionally buries his identity. (Attractive in an era of self-promotion.) I find nearly every post to be golden.

The latest on education is great, because it profiles Rutgers but applies equally to Penn State and 90 percent of its peers.

The short version: Penn State is unaffordable (and thus inaccessible) because administrators and trustees who hypothetically govern them spend way out of proportion to what’s necessary to deliver high quality instruction. We spend big, and we accumulate big debt. Penn State gets to pass that cost along to families in the form of (a) parents putting what would have been a life savings into 529 accounts and leaving far less for their retirement and (b) students accumulating loan debt. Then Penn State gets to blame the state for marginal differences in allocations and guilt-trip alumni into funding scholarships and endowed professorships and so forth. The opposite of a virtuous cycle ensues.

My old friends Shirley and Gerry (now, sadly passed) went to the same university that I did, some decades before me. I was informed that right after World War II Rutgers was a low budget collection of make shift buildings scattered around various parts of New Jersey. Classes were held in an old razor blade factory, a defunct brewery, and disused stables. The professors were top notch, but the facilities were bare bones. Most students lived at home and commuted to school by public transit. The few men who lived on campus occupied former military barracks. Young women of good reputation didn’t live alone in those days.

Gerry paid for his tuition each year by working as a busboy at a resort in the nearby Pocono Mountains during the summers. Two months of low wage work paid for a year of college expenses. Think about that… Shirley’s parents saved and paid for her schooling largely in the hope that she would marry well. Gerry went on to become a lawyer so the plan worked.

By the time I got to Rutgers the university had already built all sorts of extravagant facilities. In 1994 the new 41,500 seat football stadium had gone up for a mere $28 million. In 2009 it was expanded to 52,400 seats for $102 million. (That’s $10,300 per additional seat.) The university floated bonds to finance these projects. That’s $130 million of debt that needs to be paid back with interest. And that’s not including the $2.2 million salary for the head football coach. The same financial trajectory was followed for new dormitories and other buildings.

In-state tuition at Rutgers in 2016 is $14,131 per year. Room and board is $12,054. Books are $1,350. And the university estimates an extra $3,751 for additional expenses. That’s a total of $31,286 per year. Coincidentally Rutgers has the highest student loan debt load of any state school in the country.

The minimum wage in New Jersey is currently $8.38. Let’s take $31,286 per year and divide it by $8.38 per hour. My old friend Gerry would have needed to work for over twenty three months of forty hour weeks with no time off (before taxes) to earn enough to pay for a year at Rutgers if he tried to recreate his college budget today. The difference between the financial reality of 1950 and the present is simple. Discretionary spending and debt have exploded. None of this has anything to do with education. None of it.

Stop buying so much stuff.

Can we live with less?

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