Kevin Carey hates college. Or rather, he hates the higher education industry, the system, the establishment. An encounter on page 39 of his new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere indicates one reason why. Carey sits down at a Starbucks in Washington, DC, with a junior at George Washington University, “Hugh,” a working-class kid with a “neat ginger beard” who wears a “standard collegiate uniform of hoodie, jeans, and sneakers.” The chat turns on Carey’s question: how much money has Hugh borrowed to pay for college?
“Eighty-two thousand dollars,” he said. “By the time I graduate, a hundred and ten.”
Carey has two reactions. First, the raw amount shocks him. It shocks me, too. I secured a loan to cover tuition at UCLA in my fourth year, and the episode bothered me from beginning to end. I didn’t want any debt at all, and I worked part-time throughout my undergraduate years. When I signed that paper, I felt a handcuff tighten on my wrist. You will laugh when you hear the total: $1,800.00. At that point, UCLA cost less than $1,000 per year, so I didn’t need much, though cost of living in West Los Angeles was high. But still, debt didn’t seem right, not at age 21 and with no regular job.
No Censure for Hugh
With that memory, I can’t get my head around Hugh’s burden. It’s inconceivable, it’s insane. That brings us to Carey’s second reaction. Hugh mutters these numbers as if he were listing his height and weight, and that casual attitude shocks Carey even more than the six-figure dollar amount does. He’s barely 20-years old, well short of graduation and with no job prospects lined up, but he doesn’t appear to recognize the risks of his decisions. Carey writes, “I don’t think he entirely understood what it meant to have a six-figure indenture hanging around his neck.” He assumes everything will work out. He works hard, Carey notes, he’s ambitious, and he’s done all the right things: kept out of trouble, attended a good college, and remained goal-oriented. Why shouldn’t everything end up okay? Debt is just one of the hurdles high-achievers must leap.
In a way, Hugh’s cluelessness follows from the aspiration that landed him in deep debt. You see, while finishing high school in Rhode Island, Hugh fixed upon a career in international relations. But the job market in that field is tight, so candidates must attend a selective school and earn a high GPA. George Washington University fit the profile, and it has the added attraction of a uniquely pertinent location, Foggy Bottom, home of American diplomatic thought.
But annual costs at GW are $60,000, and so Hugh had to max out on federal loans and add more from Sallie Mae. Those funds will get him to graduation. After that, he plans to work for a Swiss firm that runs international science conferences, then take the Foreign Service exam and begin a career as a foreign diplomat. That’s the projection. Nothing in Carey’s description indicates Hugh takes the monthly financial drag into his planning, or that he has a back-up plan should this streamlined one collapse.
Carey has no censure for Hugh, but he should. After all, High could have saved $100,000 by attending a public college, two-year or four-year, in his home state, then transferred to GW for junior and senior year. Besides that, we can blame Hugh (and his parents, perhaps) for selecting a sole career path from Day One of college, and that one a competitive long-odds pursuit. We shouldn’t allow 17-year-olds to solidify their aims and limit their options so early. Unless they choose a field in which all graduates of Tier I-III schools are hired upon graduation (speech therapy, for instance), every youth needs to keep his options open. To let Hugh attach so exclusively to international relations is to give in to follow-your-passion sentimentality without regard to consequences.
But that doesn’t fully explain why this vignette in The End of College imparts Carey’s anger at the higher education system. Yes, the obvious blame goes to the $60,000 sticker price of GW. If it were lower, so would Hugh’s debt. But the guilt runs deeper than that, though Carey only implies it. If Hugh graduates on time, gets his preferred job, passes the exam, and winds up a successful diplomat, all the while delaying gratification and paying his bills, the system swill have worked for everyone involved. Hugh had some lean and hungry years, but he did what he loved. If, however, a job at the Swiss firm never materializes, nor anything similar at another organization, or if a personal circumstance pulls him back to Rhode Island or keeps him in DC where he gets by with service jobs, then the whole plan will have proved a disaster for him. If he couldn’t make his loan payments, he might be stuck in a financial quicksand for 20 years. The dream of foreign service would end. Taxpayers might have to cover his loans. The banks would add another default to their books and feel more political pressure to stop these profitable loans that pass risks on to others.
GW, the Only Sure Winner
But no matter what Hugh’s fate, one party thrives: GW. It gets paid before Hugh faces crucial thresholds. Hugh leaves campus before financial success or failure happens. This is the systemic culpability of higher education. GW has no financial incentive to discourage Hugh from borrowing so much money and choosing a dicey major. In fact, if the low-prospect offering of international relations is what lured Hugh to GW instead of to another school, then GW must count the field a triumph.
This is just one of many abominations Carey recites in the book. The “limited learning” that happens from freshman year to graduation pops up in discussions with Richard Arum, and Carey mentions the overemphasis on research and other standard complaints, too. What makes the book different from other critiques is Carey’s insistence on a looming historical answer to them all: none of them matter.
All the problems we find in higher education today are real and damaging, Carey agrees, but they have no future. Digital technology has arrived, and in spite of all the false starts and annoying hype, it is going to transform higher education and nothing can stop it. Carey terms this new formation “the University of Everywhere.” In the near future, the physical campus will give way to the virtual campus. Resources “that have been scarce and expensive for centuries will be abundant and free,” he predicts (p. 5). The whole notion of admission to college will become a curious anachronism. Instruction will be personalized and individualized, much of it enacted by artificial intelligence, not a human being. Carey gets euphoric about this cheaper, easier, and more efficient higher education: “Students will be part of a rich global community as small as a half dozen people working intently together and as large as millions of students contending with timeless questions and monuments of human thinking at the same time” (p. 6).
No Help for the Curriculum
For some conservative and libertarian critics who have for years decried the distortions of higher education, the first response to Carey’s vision may be: “You mean all our efforts to expose and dispel liberal bias have been pointless?” If digital technology breaks the monopolistic grip the higher education industry has had on the higher education of American youth, then right-oriented reformers and commentators, if would seem, shall find their labors unnecessary.
Sadly, this isn’t the case. The break-up of traditional campuses and the spread of digital modes of delivery will affect the personnel of higher education, reducing the dissemination of progressivist ideology through the teaching corps. But it won’t affect the content of the curriculum, not on this score. A traditional course in U.S. history may stack the syllabi with Howard Zinn-like materials, and an innovative virtual course in U.S. history may do the same. Bias and indoctrination can happen through a screen as easily as in a lecture hall. Carey’s University of Everywhere doesn’t change this need for conservative reform at all.