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When my mom treated me like a dummy

My mom sent me off to an Ivy League school and treated me like an idiot. Thank God.

Let me explain.

So at the beginning of the most recent episode of his podcast, The Portal, Eric Weinstein goes off about Universities. The price of college attendance has gone up, there are fewer full faculty members for each student, higher ed's ability to deliver desirable employment has diminished and the institutions do their best to saddle students with debt.

It's that last part that really, really gets to Weinstein.

He argues that graduates should organize debt unions and collectively bargain with banks, saying that any one of them has very little bargaining power but collectively they would have the industry at their mercy.

It's an analysis that does my former organizer heart proud.

One of his big points is that over the last several decades, universities have hired more and more administrators and fewer actual teaching, researching faculty. He describes it as a sort of wealth transfer from the young to the lazy old.

Prior experience

This sounds right to me. I'd like to fact check him here, but I have good reason to trust my gut on its truthiness as well.

But it is complicated.

Here's my take: For three academic years I was on staff at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. My salary was paid by student fees which were set, admirably so, by the students themselves. I thought this was fairly cool, but one thing I noticed was that there weren't really great controls on how much fees students levied on themselves, other than the occasional giant blowback from some conservative students, which always made everyone feel bad.

I always suspected a lot of students liked the fees in general (in that they liked the activities and events they funded) but might have been happier with more restraint. It was like: they went up fast and then occasionally had brutal cuts. It always seemed to me like there should have been a better way.

You also noticed that there were ways certain administrators would manipulate students to fund their own pet projects — one in particular was very good at this when I was there.

Anyway, student fees were just one piece of student costs. And the point is that I was there on campus, where it did seem like the campus was awash in administrators doing work of questionable value. For example, at the time I was working there, there was both a Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs and a Dean of Students (each with their own corresponding staff).

It was anybody's guess what the Vice-Chancellor did other than wear a nice suit and speak at gatherings, but it was very hard to believe that both of these roles were needed.

From where I sat, I constantly felt surrounded by people whose main concern seemed to be making sure that they had a job next year and maybe even, if they played their cards right, got some people under them.

It was always a temporary thing for me. I was ready to go as soon as I arrived, led there by prior mistakes, which is just to say that I had a disinterested perspective.

The three years I spent among the professional staff of a major university seemed to support Weinstein's point. A lot of fat could have been trimmed without impinging on university life.

So what was my point up at the top?

Idiot, it is me

I came out of college with a decent amount of debt, but not one bit more than I had to. My mom left everything about college to me except financial aid. She took all of that over. She filled out all the forms and made all the arrangements.

And I didn't object because I don't like boring things and all those numbers are very boring.

When I got to campus, she told me I qualified for work study so I should get myself a job in order to have spending money. The rest was sorted out and they'd give me a bill when I left.

They did.

I never had any idea that at any time I could have gone to the financial aid office and gotten more money. If I had known, I'm not sure what I would have done. But I didn't even know how it worked because my mom treated me like too big of an idiot to handle my own future earnings, and after all, I was. So she didn't tell me how financial aid worked.

Thank goodness.

Every year the price of an education grows faster than the rate of inflation, which means that since I graduated quite a few years ago it was much, much less expensive for me to go than students who graduated more recently.

And it wasn't cheap.

So I had it rough but more recent graduates have it much, much worse.

If your student debt is painful, listen to Weinstein. Together, you own Sallie Mae and all her little banker cronies. All you need to do to exercise that power is organize a board meeting.

—Brady Dale
August 6, 2020

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