Cruising Into Student Debt

Reading abord a cruiseship.jpg

I once calculated that, for the cost of four years of education at a private American university, a student could take 105 cruises around the world. For the comparison, I chose only cruises that cost about $1,900, as who wants to go through college stuck with an inside cabin? As I imagine it, Cruise College (school motto: “Go Overboard on Learning”) even has some similarities to the landlocked undergraduate experience.
For all I know it may exist, given that higher education is one of the few growth sectors in the U.S. economy.

Despite the decline of American business, private colleges, state universities, night schools, and for-profit continuing education have boomed.

Harvard College will get about 30,000 applications for the 1,700 places in next year’s freshman class. At the same time, there's a strong demand for education at community colleges in economically depressed places, as laid–off workers retool for new jobs.

Beyond colleges with bricks and mortar boards, there is also the flourishing world of online universities, which flash their pop–up banners each time you log onto the Internet. (“Welcome to Faber College: Knowledge is Good.”)

“For profit universities” offer master’s in business administration or degrees in philosophy in exchange for computer clicks and (prepaid) tuition. But you don’t need an online degree from Ace’s Accounting and Appraisal Academy to understand that there are hidden costs.

For years one of the hottest stocks on Wall Street has been Apollo Group, Inc., an education corporation that markets its degree under the flagship of the University of Phoenix.

Its campuses (not to mention leafy computer servers, for online students) are spread across the country and operate in forty states. Among other theorems, Phoenix postulated that continuing educators like their “campus” to be near Interstate exits, and that students usually only will drive twenty minutes to attend class. (It was Mark Twain who said, “Never let college get in the way of the evening commute.”)

Apollo’s stock went public in the 1990s, and reached a pre-crash high of $91 a share, before Wall Street reduced its grade to about $50. Still, it’s a billion dollar company with strong growth, and the University of Phoenix is larger than nearly all state universities, not to mention the Ivy League, with some 470,000 enrolled students.

Faithful to its name, Phoenix believes in the redemption of the American spirit, and it attracts its students with the promise that more degrees will lead them out of their doldrums. Courses are practical, borrowing from the school of knocks.

To “take this job and shove it,” Americans need new skills — as nurses, IT programmers, whatever — and Phoenix (“the drive-thru university”) markets classes at convenient times and places.

The reality of online education, however, is more subtle, as students are not the instruments of a new enlightenment so much as the pipeline of subprime student debt. They are recruited not for their mastery in art or football, but for their ability to fill out bank forms that let Phoenix, like any for-profit school, tap into the vast subsidized gold mine of federal student loan programs.

Imagine, one day, stickers on the back of their Volvos that read “Subprime State.”

For-profit university cheerleaders and even the federal government often brag about the low default rates on student loans. The reason the loans stay current, long after students have flunked out of astrology, is because it’s impossible to walk away from the tuition bills.

Neither a bankruptcy nor an incomplete allows a student an escape from lenders intent on debt collections. (John Blutarksy: “Christ. Seven years of college down the drain.”) Better yet, the ultimate guarantor of the loans is the U.S. government. Knowledge may be Good, but government-backed debt is better.

According to the New York Times, the default rate on student loans was about 7 percent in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available; “In the 2008-9 award year, students at for-profit schools represented 26 percent of borrowers — but 43 percent of defaulters. The median federal loan debt for students earning associate degrees at for-profit institutions was $14,000.”

There is an online Student Loan Debt Clock, which reports outstandings of $855 billion, more than the credit card debt in the United States. It goes up about $3,000 a second, which is 5,684 luxury cruises an hour.

It could be argued that traditional universities have similar Faustian (he coached at Notre Dame) bargains with their students. In exchange for about $200,000, which funds all sorts of professorial sabbaticals and vague courses (“Proust, Prufrock, and Pederasty”), students get undergraduate degrees that can be redeemed for yet more study at the graduate level… should they want to find interesting jobs.

Statistically, an undergraduate degree provides, on average, $50,000 more per year in salary than does a high school diploma, although it is about a wash, were you to invest the tuition money into an S&P stock fund. Engineers are paid more than poets; state universities offer better “returns” than private colleges. It’s hard to date a cheerleader at an online university.

Is Cruise College a better deal than the great American undergraduate experience? I can only speak from personal experience, which is limited. I have only gone on one cruise, while I spent six years in the waters of American and European universities. My quick take: The cruise had better floor shows, but I preferred the college library. The food was about the same. Overall, it would be hard to distinguish those who were drunk at fraternity parties from those merely seasick on board.

And at least the students at Cruise College, for their job networking practicum, can mix with retired American executives.

Because I am a child of mid-century suburbia, I believe in the good of a college education. On the walls of my childhood room were the pennants of various schools, and we covered our grammar school books with the names of great universities. In high school, we laughed at the Woody Allen line: “I was thrown out of there during my freshman year, for cheating on my metaphysics final. You know, I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”

I loved a lot about my university experiences — the seminars, my friends, and something the cafeteria staff called “Chicken Eugène.” Still, I have no doubt that learning has many paths and that, for some, cruising would work as well as Princeton or Cal State. And for universities to be the instruments of financial sleights-of-hand, as opposed to teaching the great books, seems as distorted as the sermons of Elmer Gantry.

Herman Melville wrote: “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” I never read Moby-Dick in college, but I heard that it was a quite a cruise.

Photo by Jonathan Blundell

Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, winner of Foreword’s bronze award for best travel essays at this year's BEA. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine. He lives in Switzerland and has two children at universities.

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The state of upper level

The state of upper level education in the US is an absolute abysmal failure. I'm only in my early 30's. If I were to be 12 years younger and had to go back to the college I attended in he late 90's,I wouldn't be able to afford to do so because the cost since then has more than doubled. Even the local state colleges back home have now become so expensive than the price without a doubt puts education out of reach for vast swaths of the local population.

The tragedy of all this is that a national economy is only as good as the workforce that supports it and if that workforce no longer has the necessary education in order to compete in the global economy then our economy will fall behind.