Is College Worth The Cost, Part II

              fortier financial quote photo“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.”  – Marcus Aurelius

 In our last note we asked the question “is college worth the cost?”  For some context let’s attempt to explore the history of a cultural tradition, so we can start to connect some of the dots in our economic solar system.  Perhaps a subtle change in perspective might help us to more effectively guide our children towards their future.  Isn’t that what genuine planning is all about?

A little girl eagerly watches her mom cook the traditional family roast and asks, “Why do you always cut off the end of the meat?”  Her mom replies in an authoritative tone, “That’s how my mom always did it, sweetie.  It’s our tradition. Now pay attention if you want to learn.”  Wanting a better answer for her daughter, and now herself, she decides to call her mother and ask the same question.  Her mom replies in an authoritative tone, “Sweetheart, that recipe has served our family well for generations, and that is how my mother always did it.”  Both now possessed with a curiosity sparked by the silly question of a small child, three generations of ladies take a journey to the nursing home of the little girl’s great grandmother.  They were each eager to have an answer to a question nobody dared ask for over 75 years.  The little girl quickly asked, “Great-grandmother, why do we always cut off the end of a perfectly good piece of meat?”  The great-grandmother replied, “Sweetie, when I was a child we were very poor.  We only owned one small pan so my mother would have to cut off the end of the roast so it would fit.  You’re not still preparing that way are you?”

There was a time not long ago when natural limitations demanded the efficient use of scarce resources.  In an age when massive debt and perpetually expanding Federal Reserve balance sheets gives the appearance that money truly does grow on trees, it’s a world that seems impossible to imagine without having experienced it.

Long before there were printing presses or the Internet, humans struggled to have “idea sex”.  Reproducing new ways of navigating the world was every bit as critical to the advancement of our species as physical reproduction.  The wisdom gained by previous generations had to be manually inscribed on papyrus and was not easily shared or distributed.  This basic resource limitation spawned the need for traditional higher education institutions.

Since books weren’t easily copied, libraries were formed to house these precious gems of knowledge.  Lectures had to be given to large bodies of people to efficiently accommodate the distribution of written knowledge.  I’m told that to this day prominent professors are still referred to as “readers” in the hallowed halls of Cambridge.  This narrative explains why our traditional academic institutions are perceived as historic intellectual temples, and their exponentially rising cost structure depends greatly on the preservation of this image.

There’s something about the status quo that we unconsciously cling to despite knowing change is both inevitable and necessary.  Maybe we derive a certain sense of security in holding on to traditions and recipes for living.  The world is always seeking to pass along life’s recipe to us.  Through manipulative marketing and misguided persuasion, it attempts to influence what we should value.  For a variety of reasons, the recipe’s authors are heavily invested in the continuation of this practice.

Some of the author’s of our past have been the diamond industry, lenders, big box home improvement retailers, politicians, and more recently academia to name just a few.  In the 1930’s the diamond industry successfully managed to convince young couples that an over priced piece of carbon signified “love”.  In the 1950’s Fannie Mae launched the most successful ad campaign in history by associating 30 years of debt with an American “Dream”.  A dream we began to wake up from in 2008 only to seemingly fall back asleep.  In the 1980’s home “improvement” chains successfully convinced us that spending money we didn’t have on a master bath was an investment in our future.  Since the beginning of time, politicians have used the tax code to steer short-term behavior in shortsighted ways.  We’ll explore this in more depth in the next note.  Academia has allowed us to believe that the ticket to job security is a hefty price tag to accreditation.  To the 7 out of 10 Americans responding to surveys about being insecure about our economic future I have a question: Why are we still cutting off the end of the roast, and who actually benefits when we do?

Our kids may one day be approaching us with some tough questions about many of the recipes we attempt to impose on them.  I’m hoping to reflect on my answers now rather than risk getting caught unconsciously defending silly traditions.

Change is only as frightening as we allow it to be.  I don’t know how you negotiate it, but my guiding theme is a fairly simple one.  Pack as light a burden as the majority allows while remaining opportunistic during the many economic manifestations made possible by the ranks of the insane.

To learn more about alternative ideas concerning the possible future of higher education consider reading “The nearly free university” by Charles Hugh Smith.  If you want to visit a lower cost modern intellectual temple, check out the iTunesU app online by holding an entire library in your hand on any tablet device.  If you have other ideas to share I’d love reading about them.

In the next issue we’ll examine the center of our financial universe, home ownership, as we consider the question “Was it us who became owned by the American Dream?”

In case you missed it, CLICK HERE to listen to Brad’s interview “On The Relevance Of College” with Garland Robinette on WWL 870AM’s “Think Tank” show.

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