THE HIGH COST of the race to the top

By BENNY HORNSBY,

Ya’ know what makes me sick?”  With that rhetorical question, the popular cultural commentator and radio provocateur, Earl Pitts, “Uhmerican,” summed up my response to those who are politicking to forgive college loan debt. 

I speak four languages: English, French, Red Neck, and Blue Collar, and “loan forgiveness” doesn’t make sense in any of them.  I’m not toting that note. Here’s the unabridged version of what else I would say:

“Let’s see if I’ve got this right. Tell me again. Slower this time. You want the government to do what? Forgive and pay up all student loans? OK, let’s break it down: you went off to that big name school that you couldn’t afford, and now you have this ginormous debt hanging around your neck like an albatross for the next 20 years; and you want to look down your entitled nose at people like me, who went to a community college and then worked their way through the Slippery Rock State Colleges of the world, while we pay off your cancelled debt through our taxes. Am I wrong or am I right? Well, friend, good luck with that.”

I don’t care what Merle Haggard says, there’s no such thing as “free Bubble Up and rainbow stew.” No free money.

Somebody, somewhere, pays.

Recently, that old meme of “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime,” got turned on its ear. Now it’s “Give a man a fish every day and he will expect you to feed him for a lifetime.”

Or better: “Let a man see you fishing, and you’ll be fishing for him for his lifetime.”

No, actually, I think this is what they are really saying: “You fish; I’ll sit on the pier and you give me all your fish.”

I have paid some serious tuition in my time, all over the United States. I always paid my own way, except for two degrees the Navy paid for, and they got their pound of flesh.

The world is going nuts.

Democratic Socialism is an oxymoron.

Socialism has failed in every country that tried it.

Look it up.

Margaret Thatcher said that socialism works fine until you run out of other people’s money.

Somebody asked a sailor, “What’s the biggest problem in the Navy, ignorance or apathy?” The kid replied, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Well, I don’t think it’s just a Navy problem anymore. Let’s look at the cold, hard facts. My mama always said that “Liars figure and figures lie.” Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. The figures are staggering and true.

According to the latest estimates, about 43 million Americans currently have government-backed student loans totaling $1.5 trillion dollars.

This is in addition to the estimated $119 billion owed to private lenders. Here’s a comparison: the entire budget for the state of Mississippi for next year (2020) is ONLY $6.3 billion.

According to the Federal Reserve, over half of young adults who went to college last year utilized student loans, and the average loan debt for this year’s college seniors will be around $30,750 ($27,000 for graduates of public institutions and $32,000 for graduates of private schools). Ever more sobering, ex-students over age 62 still owe a total of $68 billion as they go into their “golden” years. It’s more than an existential crisis: the rent has come due.

I’m sympathetic. About the closest I’ve ever come to being broken hearted was when I couldn’t afford to remain at the small, private college in Jackson, Mississippi, that I briefly attended when I was young. I was working a full-time job at night, but just couldn’t afford it.

There was no such thing as government or private tuition loans in those days. I went to a bank in Jackson and asked, but they laughed me out of the building.

I was on my own, working my way through school, and I had the most boring, mindless, drone-like job you could imagine.

Every afternoon, I went to the bus station and met the Grey Hound from Mendenhall where the bank I was working for had a branch.

I picked up all of the checks that had been received at the branch that day, took them back to the main bank on Capitol Street, and key-punched their totals one at a time into the system. No computers in those days. It was called “data processing.”

I couldn’t go home at night until I got the books to balance.

If you lived in that area 55 years ago, I might have worked on your bank account. I’d spend hours looking for ten dollars.

All this for a few cents over minimum wage. I would have kept this job, though, if it had paid enough to keep me in school.

I always felt like I was smart enough to attend one of those big-time colleges and be a “ring knocker.” 

I’m as vain as anybody else, and I’ve always passed any test somebody put in front of me. 

A little later, I was on a ship that was in overhaul in the old Boston Navy Yard, right by the USS Constitution, the oldest ship in the Navy.  On Sundays, when I didn’t have the fire watch, I would ride the MTA trolley over to Tremont Temple Baptist Church, just across the Boston Common and James River from Harvard College. The Sunday School class I attended was full of Harvard students, and I just liked to sit in the back and listen to them talk. We were from two different worlds. They looked at me like I was a lab specimen, an exhibit in a zoo; and I wondered if they would drown in a rain since their noses were so high. When class was over, they would go back to their Descartes, their Nietzsche, their Sartre, their Occam’s Razor; and I would go back to my three hots and a cot. I learned a lot, though, just listening, and I had a side gig:  my little clothes locker back on the ship was packed with books, and I read them.

It does cost lots of money to attend college. Take California, for example, the last place I went to school and got a degree for which I paid. Much of this “Forgive the College Loan Debt” movement seems to be coming from the Left Coast, anyway. California has three-tier public set-up: community colleges, state colleges, and the university system. Tuition is officially free in the community colleges, but the “fees” are pretty hefty. Last year in the college system, like San Diego State University where I went to school, tuition, room, and board came to $28,224. Across town, at the more “exclusive” University of California, San Diego, the same thing cost $39,515. There’s a great view of the ocean, though. The same package at an elite private school, like the University of Southern California (USC), up in LA, would have cost almost $80,000.

I don’t know if a student could work enough hours to pay those kinds of costs. Of course, if you had someone to buy your way in, you wouldn’t have to worry. I see where Felicity Huffman got 14 days in jail for paying someone to cook the books on her daughter’s SAT score. I don’t know much about her, but I do like her husband, the actor, William H. Macy, especially in “Fargo” where he played a car salesman who hired Steve Buscemi to kidnap his wife for ransom. And what about the guy who paid $250,000 to get his son admitted to USC as a phony water polo recruit? They even staged some fake photos in their backyard swimming pool. The dad got four months in the slammer for that one. The best (worst?) one, though, was the Canadian mother who paid $400,000 to get her son admitted to UCLA as a fake soccer recruit. I read where they’ve indicted a total of 35 parents in similar scams so far. But such seems to be the “gestalt” of higher education for some people these days: elite universities, exorbitant costs, useless majors, and then loan forgiveness. So, what are some solutions?

I can think of a few. If I were to advise a young person how to avoid excessive debt, I might say:  Make good grades in high school and earn scholarships. Pick a school you can afford; it all balances out in the end. Take advantage of every federal or state scholarship program, like Pell Grants, that you don’t have to repay. Go to school close to home. Live at home. Don’t buy that Camaro, yet. Try one of our excellent community colleges. Every credit hour you earn will transfer to a public university in Mississippi. Get a job. Go to school a semester, and then work a semester. Go with your head and not your heart and major in something where you can actually get a job.  And, horror of horrors, are you really college material? Maybe you don’t even need to go to college. Maybe you need to go into the workforce for at least a while and try some different things. A caveat: career training can be excellent, but you can run up some serious debt in proprietary schools.

Here’s a thought: When I was stationed at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, there was an excellent school, St. John’s College, just over the wall where the entire curriculum is based on the “Great Books.” They also have a branch in Santa Fe. Every course is built around the primary sources, the “great books,” in that field. The graduate and professional school (law, medical, etc.) admission rate for their students is out the top. Why not gather an eclectic collection of books and study on your own? That’s what I did during 20 years at sea.

In many ways, we live in a heartless meritocracy, characterized by the collapse and implosion of traditional values and common sense. In Sophocles’ play, “Oedipus Rex,” written during the “Golden Age” of ancient Greece, the first democracy,  Oedipus (lame) solved the riddle of the sphinx to save the youth of Thebes (Q. What creature walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs at noon, and 3 in the evening, and is weakest when on 4 legs? A. Man: baby crawls; adult; old with a cane).  Somebody needs to solve the riddle of entitlement that plagues our world today. The real “lost generation” was not in pre-Depression Paris. It’s here and now. Wake up, America!

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby, a native of Lumberton, is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: villefranche60@yahoo.com. Read previous columns online at bennyhornsby.com.