Melvin's busy making spacecraft, but as soon as he's on his break he'd love to hear your analysis of heteronormative role play in modern media.

Melvin’s busy making spacecraft, but as soon as he’s on his break he’d love to hear your analysis of heteronormative role play in modern media.


Of course, it already is unnecessary, but try telling that to the liberal arts majors who seem to be providing most of the vocal power for the latest rallying cry/hashtag. No less formidable a force than the President of the United States has made “college affordability” his latest pet cause, arguing that the marketplace of education should be subject to something other than natural laws.

Things cost what they cost. Prices, with exceedingly rare exceptions, are inversely correlated to quantities bought. When the price of gas rises, it might not affect your own driving habits perceptibly, but one person in a hundred or a thousand is going to say, “Screw it, I’m taking the bus.” And if Chico’s decides to knock a few bucks off the price of its Magique pull-on ankle pants, they’ll sell more pairs to more fashionable if budget-conscious women. Raising prices means lower demand. Meanwhile sales (in the sense of “discounts”) increase sales (in the sense of “revenue”.) This is so obvious that pointing it out hardly counts as cogitation.

College was historically expensive, which is why a) for centuries, hardly anyone went and those who did were rich, and 2) in the last couple of generations, parents started creating college funds for their progeny. Save today, spend on Junior 18 years from now. It wasn’t easy, but supposedly nothing worthwhile is.

As a quantifier of how far we’ve advanced as a society, we’re reminded that university attendance is way up and that a larger ratio of our college-age colleagues are heading for tertiary education than ever before. This is supposed to be a pure representation of prosperity, akin to rising per capita income or declining infant mortality. In a future utopia, 100% of high school seniors will attend Harvard, Yale, or the safety school of their choice (probably Penn.)

What percentage of age-appropriate people should be attending college? Far less than do now. The evidence is overwhelming:

  • The college graduate who works at a retail job, far from being a tragic anomaly, has gone beyond cliché and turned into a quotidian feature of life.
  • Just about every personal finance blogger on the planet – i.e., people who think they have some sort of qualification for talking about money – carries tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and doesn’t even seem embarrassed by the situation.
  • Tuition has outpaced inflation by about 150%. We’ll explain why this is in a minute.
  • The most uncomfortable truth of all, for baccalaureate holders who want reality to be something other than what it’s currently constituted as: qualified blue-collar workers aren’t merely getting by, they’re prospering. Nor are they going into debt to do it.

Regarding the 3rd point above: when the federal government began the nationalization of education financing, that put downward (political) pressure on interest rates. After all, what’s the point of bureaucrats getting involved at the behest of our elected representatives if they can’t lower rates for the benefit of the voting public? Interest rates went from what the market would bear – i.e., where the lowest rate lenders were willing to offer matched the highest rate students and their parents were willing to pay – to something lower than that. Sallie Mae has no incentive to turn a profit in the same manner that independent lenders would, knowing that taxpayers can and will make up the difference.

The schools still operate with respect to the balance sheet, however. The University of Michigan might not be a for-profit venture in the same sense that DeVry or the University of Phoenix is, but the former still has an endowment to maintain and expenses to pay. Out of tuition and gifts mostly, and tuition monies are less subject to whim and variance than donations are. So…

If you’re a university, why not increase tuition far beyond its historic norms? You have tens of thousands of potential incoming students, all of whom have been convinced (or convinced themselves) that what you’re selling is indispensable. Throw a dead cat (its body donated by the biology department, where smart kids are learning marketable skills) and you’ll hit a professor (its body taking up space in the humanities department) who will argue that college education is a public utility of comparable import to electricity and water. The only difference is that the local power company is probably a mandated monopoly that’s forced by law to charge below-market rates that cover expenses and allow for a modest profit. Meanwhile, universities don’t operate under such constraints. If every university in the United States decided tomorrow to double its tuition, students would grumble, lead protests, wear Che Guevara shirts, listen to Rage Against The Machine, maybe even burn effigies of Richard Nixon, but they’d still get their parents to pay. Largely because they can’t see nor comprehend the price tags. I still have enough to pay for this week’s pot and hummus wraps, right? That’s all that matters. Besides, I don’t have to start paying back until I graduate.

Perverse incentives, again. Now you’ve just given Johnny Undergrad motivation for spending money and time on a master’s degree and deferring life even longer.

Debt will kill you, often creating a hole in 4 years that you can spend 8 times as long digging out of. It doesn’t matter: education remains a drug more desirable than the purest batch of crack. Maybe that’s the problem, a semantic one. “Education” implies a universal good, like “health” or “prosperity”. But education is what you get when you absorb and retain practical knowledge. Which indicates true education – knowing that Shakespeare intended Prospero to be an autobiographical character in The Tempest, or knowing that the duration of a vehicle’s spark line is based on total primary circuit resistance and coil voltage available?

Now, knowing which of those will remedy a weak fuel/air mixture and get someone’s car running smoothly? Okay, which of those can you learn only in an inexpensive community college or trade school? Finally, which will impress an employer (excluding deans of college English departments), and make a tangible difference in the world?

Stop complaining, and stop moving in a direction other than forward. When a significant portion of college students realize they’ll be better off elsewhere, those colleges will notice. When parents begin to acknowledge that the math will never pencil out on their daughter’s performing arts degree, purveyors of higher education will have no choice but to communicate more effectively to their clientele exactly what they’re getting for the money. And hopefully, our demagogues in charge will realize that the stated goal of higher enrolment shouldn’t be an end unto itself.

A Message To Graduates Everywhere

You don't want to peak early. But you probably will.


Congratulations. You coasted through high school – 94% of which requires you to do little more than be present – and now the next chapter of your life begins, to quote a tiresome saying. Or, if you prefer, you can just extend the current chapter and defer adulthood.

If you think a college education is the one good or service in the world that doesn’t stand up to cost-benefit scrutiny, where price means nothing, you’re too dumb to go to college (or for you parents out there, have your progeny go to college) anyway.

How much higher can the universities make you jump? We recently spent a few seconds seeing what a generic accredited 4-year school, Arizona State, charges incoming non-resident freshmen who want to spend 4 years languishing in the liberal arts program. Including on-campus housing, and assuming no fee increases until 2017 (as if), it adds up to $152,588.

What if Arizona State raised that number to $250,000? Or $350,000? Would you shrug your shoulders, say “Hey, it’s an investment in the future/An education is priceless”, perhaps complain to your elected officials about skyrocketing costs and organize a protest?

Or you could take a step back and think, “Maybe the math doesn’t work out on this.”

Universities and the DeBeers Company are the only producers in all of commerce who have adopted the following (wildly successful) sales pitch:

What we’ve got is so important, you have no choice but to buy.

COROLLARY: In fact, you’re lucky we deign to sell to you.

A diamond isn’t forever, and neither are most college educations.

No, really. Unless you didn’t happen to notice that divorcées and underemployed college graduates are two categories of human that not only exist, but flourish. If marriage can be the triumph of hope over experience, so can overeducation. A poorly suited spouse will wreck your life, as will a poorly suited degree.

A B.A. in English literature is – what’s the word? Useless.

How dare you say that. Besides, that’s not true. I can teach.

Are you really going to teach? Furthermore, is that even an ambition, or just a defense against an uncomfortable accusation?

Even if it is your lifelong dream to teach (and the timidity of so modest a dream is a topic for another time), you do understand that you’ll be setting yourself up for a life of miniscule pay and massive debts, right? Or have you not applied the math you learned in the 4th grade, and determined what you’ll be getting into, financially speaking?

Of course you haven’t, because you’re not that bright. Despite what everyone’s been telling you, and despite how going to college somehow serves as reinforcement of your status as a smart person. Look, we’ve seen your emails and comments. Most of you think punctuation is like oregano, to be used only sparingly, not consistently.

Here’s the Control Your Cash College Entrance Questionnaire. It has 78 fewer questions than the SAT, and we can grade it instantly.




1. Do you have an aptitude for math and/or science?

Yes         No


2. Okay, how about for craftsmanship? This could be anything that gets your hands dirty and that provides a tangible result – carpentry, working on cars, helping your uncle install ceiling fans, whatever.

Yes         No





University is not the only option. You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to do plenty of lucrative and/or worthwhile jobs. There are thousands of examples. Here are four:

You can hawk real estate with a high school diploma (and a realtor’s license, which takes a few weeks to earn and does not require a demanding course of study). You can be a roustabout on an oil rig, and you’ll immediately be in the top half of American workers by salary. You can enlist in the Air Force, which will teach you much more marketable skills than college will and will pay you for the privilege. You can get a job selling appliances at Sears, which might sound awful to you, but a) you’re 18 and b) if you go to college to study something that carries no prospect of financial reward, you’re going to be working retail in 4 or 5 years anyway. At least this way, when you’re 22 you’ll have enough experience that you should have moved up by now. You’ll also have zero student debt.

As much as you think tertiary education can improve your life, consumer debt can hamper it. Education broadens your horizons, you’re telling yourself? Great. Debt narrows them at every turn.

“Want to do x (move to Alaska, backpack Asia for 3 months, buy a new and reliable car, put a down payment on this cheap house that I found)?”

“Sorry. I can’t afford it.”

Borrow money to defer life for 4 years, and there’s a lot you won’t be able to afford. Then and later.

None of the above jobs has to be a career, either. The Air Force is the only one that comes with an obligation, and even that lasts only 3 years.

Stop believing the hype. People hear the phrase “college isn’t for everyone” and they think it means “college is for everyone but the dumb.” When we say someone “isn’t college material”, it’s usually intended as an insult. It shouldn’t be. Some of the stupidest people on the planet parade through the halls of academia. Many of them never leave. Your average long-haul driver at the roadside diner will give you more stimulating conversation than your average adjunct professor of sociology. Also, the former is far more likely to offer to pick up the tab.

Can you find something satisfying and rewarding to do for a living? Will you be able to do it without dreading certain bills that’ll come at the end of the month (unless you planned to not incur those bills in the first place)? Can you do it while building wealth, and thus options, for you and your loved ones? If you can do all three, that’s true intelligence.

Financial Retard of the Month, Assuming She Exists

History’s 2nd-greatest monster (Michael Vick is still #1.)

If you’ve got $10 to donate, and had to give it to an individual rather than a formal charity with a fundraising department and a celebrity spokesperson, whom would you choose?

  1. A 7-year-old pediatric AIDS victim?
  2. The disfigured victim of a hit-and-run accident?
  3. Kelli Space, an able-bodied, perfectly healthy, 20-something college educated woman who rang up $200,000 in student loan debts?

If you answered anything other than A or B, you’re part of the problem. Believe it or not, Kelli Space[1] borrowed this obscene amount of money to educate herself at Northeastern University. Even more incredibly, she begged for money and found enough idiots to contribute $12,000. Including at least one person who donated $1000.

Ms. Space buries it in on her website, but guess what her degree is in?

Civil engineering. She’s the only engineer on the planet who can’t find work. Can you believe that?

Of course you can’t. We lied. Her degree is in sociology, a word derived from the Greek for “unemployable leech who refuses to be productive.” And which embarrasses those who major in it to the point where they go out of their way to hide it.

Ms. Space is secretive about where she works, where she lives, how much money she makes, and what she looks like. (The only photos we can find of her appear to be straight out of a Corbis gallery.) Also, we can’t find her on LinkedIn, which is odd for a college-educated 23-year old who needs to make connections and is savvy enough to have been featured on major websites.

Nor could we find her on Facebook. And of the four Kelli Spaces who show up on US Search, the youngest is 35 years old. In at least one interview she claims to have been asked to write about education for The Washington Post, but the next article we see from her there will be the first.

Alright, the more we research this the more we’re convinced she isn’t real. But “Kelli” entered the public arena over a year ago, being featured on Gawker as an example of someone whom the education-industrial complex has abused by lending her money she couldn’t afford to pay back. If you go to her website (which WhoIs.net shows is owned by EduLender, a company that streamlines college aid forms and which “Ms. Space” has partnered with), there’s a donation form that takes you to PayPal. It wasn’t worth the minimum $5 donation for us to see if PayPal will indeed process the transaction.

If the purpose of the Kelli Space story is to rile people up on both sides of an issue, fomenting antagonism between the “she made an innocent mistake” crowd vs. the “she needs to be an adult” contingent, it worked. And if the purpose is to get the inflammatory curmudgeons at Control Your Cash to devote a blog post to questioning the value of post-secondary education, it worked in spades.

We’ve already demonstrated how incurring student loans is a path to anything but riches. Even a huge percentage of lawyers are still paying off their student loans well into their 30s. Not that the practice of law contributes to overall human happiness any more than whatever a liberal arts degree qualifies its recipient for, but at least lawyers (unfortunately) make decent salaries.

Is a college degree really worth it?
That’s like asking “Should I invest my money in a stock?” “It depends” is the only satisfactory answer.

The aggregation of human knowledge throughout history has two major components – discovery, and debunking. Don’t underestimate the latter. In centuries past, at different times, the smartest people on the planet were convinced that

  • the Sun is stationary;
  • light travels through something called ether;
  • you can turn lead into gold with enough heat;
  • your body has 4 major fluids that need to be kept in balance – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. (By the way, this belief predominated for 2000 years.)

Or more recently,

  • an economy is too complex to be entrusted to anyone but the intellectual elite, and;
  • an education is the most important thing in the world, to be achieved at all costs.

It isn’t. For plenty of hardworking, earnest, ambitious high school graduates, the worst thing they can do is pile on more years of book-larnin’ that come with a crippling price tag. There are trade schools whose tuition is barely 1% of the cost of a 4-year degree at Northeastern, and that’s not even factoring in the inevitable interest payments that come with financing a university education. At some point, an economically independent person blessed with even the least common sense learns to strike a balance between potential (that college degree that we’ve decided is more important than health or well-being), and actual (getting out in the marketplace and doing something that earns money.) If it takes The Legend of Kelli Space to bring that truth to light, then maybe “she” has found her purpose after all.

[1] Anagrams include “peace kills” and “please lick”. Are we sure her name isn’t a pseudonym? Heck, maybe her entire story is false. There’s no video evidence of her, merely audio evidence on some radio show that no one listens to. She’s the Osama bin Laden of upside-down college graduates. In the event that it turns out this entire thing was a hoax, consider us de-pantsed. Until then we’ll assume her story is true, especially since we’ve already documented similar ones.

**This article was featured as a Top Personal Finance Post of the Week-November 4, 2011 Edition**