The Great College Hoax

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As steadily as ivy creeps up the walls of its well-groomed campuses, the education industrial complex has cultivated the image of college as a sure-fire path to a life of social and economic privilege.

Joel Kellum says he’s living proof that the claim is a lie. A 40-year-old Los Angeles resident, Kellum did everything he was supposed to do to get ahead in life. He worked hard as a high schooler, got into the University of Virginia and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history.

Accepted into the California Western School of Law, a private San Diego institution, Kellum couldn’t swing the $36,000 in annual tuition with financial aid and part-time work. So he did what friends and professors said was the smart move and took out $60,000 in student loans.

Kellum’s law school sweetheart, Jennifer Coultas, did much the same. By the time they graduated in 1995, the couple was $194,000 in debt. They eventually married and each landed a six-figure job. Yet even with Kellum moonlighting, they had to scrounge to come up with $145,000 in loan payments. With interest accruing at up to 12% a year, that whittled away only $21,000 in principal. Their remaining bill: $173,000 and counting.

Kellum and Coultas divorced last year. Each cites their struggle with law school debt as a major source of stress on their marriage. "Two people with this much debt just shouldn’t be together," Kellum says.

The two disillusioned attorneys were victims of an unfolding education hoax on the middle class that’s just as insidious, and nearly as sweeping, as the housing debacle. The ingredients are strikingly similar, too: Misguided easy-money policies that are encouraging the masses to go into debt; a self-serving establishment trading in half-truths that exaggerate the value of its product; plus a Wall Street money machine dabbling in outright fraud as it foists unaffordable debt on the most vulnerable marks.

College graduates will earn $1 million more than those with only a high school diploma, brags Mercy College radio ads running in the New York area. The $1 million shibboleth is a favorite of college barkers.

Like many good cons, this one contains a kernel of truth. Census figures show that college grads earn an average of $57,500 a year, which is 82% more than the $31,600 high school alumni make. Multiply the $25,900 difference by the 40 years the average person works and, sure enough, it comes to a tad over $1 million.

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