Is Higher Education a Pyramid Scheme?

Yves here. This post discusses in some detail the exploitation of graduate students. The stark contrast with their shabby pay and the ever levitating tuitions and endowments of prominent higher education institutions is an ugly look, but those members of the ever-growing adminisphere must be paid, and well too.

By Rebecca Gordon. Originally published at TomDispatch

For the last decade and a half, I’ve been teaching ethics to undergraduates. Now — admittedly, a little late to the party — I’ve started seriously questioning my own ethics. I’ve begun to wonder just what it means to be a participant, however minor, in the pyramid scheme that higher education has become in the years since I went to college.

Airplane Games

Sometime in the late 1980s, the Airplane Game roared through the San Francisco Bay Area lesbian community. It was a classic pyramid scheme, even if cleverly dressed up in language about women’s natural ability to generate abundance, just as we gestate children in our miraculous wombs. If the connection between feminism and airplanes was a little murky — well, we could always think of ourselves as modern-day Amelia Earharts. (As long as we didn’t think too hard about how she ended up.)

A few women made a lot of money from it — enough, in the case of one friend of mine, for a down payment on a house. Inevitably, a lot more of us lost money, even as some like me stood on the sidelines sadly shaking our heads.

There were four tiers on that “airplane”: a captain, two co-pilots, four crew, and 8 passengers — 15 in all to start. You paid $3,000 to get on at the back of the plane as a passenger, so the first captain (the original scammer), got out with $24,000 — $3,000 from each passenger. The co-pilots and crew, who were in on the fix, paid nothing to join. When the first captain “parachuted out,” the game split in two, and each co-pilot became the captain of a new plane. They then pressured their four remaining passengers to recruit enough new women to fill each plane, so they could get their payday, and the two new co-pilots could each captain their own planes.

Unless new people continued to get on at the back of each plane, there would be no payday for the earlier passengers, so the pressure to recruit ever more women into the game only grew. The original scammers ran through the game a couple of times, but inevitably the supply of gullible women willing to invest their savings ran out. By the time the game collapsed, hundreds of women had lost significant amounts of money.

No one seemed to know the women who’d brought the game and all those “planes” to the Bay Area, but they had spun a winning story about endless abundance and the glories of women’s energy. After the game collapsed, they took off for another women’s community with their “earnings,” leaving behind a lot of sadder, poorer, and perhaps wiser San Francisco lesbians.  

Feasting at the Tenure Trough or Starving in the Ivory Tower?

So, you may be wondering, what could that long-ago scam have to do with my ethical qualms about working as a college instructor? More than you might think.

Let’s start with PhD programs. In 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, U.S. colleges and universities churned out about 55,700 doctorates — and such numbers continue to increase by about 1% a year. The average number of doctorates earned over the last decade is almost 53,000 annually. In other words, we’re talking about nearly 530,000 PhDs produced by American higher education in those 10 years alone. Many of them have ended up competing for a far smaller number of jobs in the academic world.

It’s true that most PhDs in science or engineering end up with post-doctoral positions (earning roughly $40,000 a year) or with tenure-track or tenured jobs in colleges and universities (averaging $60,000 annually to start). Better yet, most of them leave their graduate programs with little or no debt.

The situation is far different if your degree wasn’t in STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) but, for example, in education or the humanities. As a start, far more of those degree-holders graduate owing money, often significant sums, and ever fewer end up teaching in tenure-track positions — in jobs, that is, with security, decent pay, and benefits.

Many of the non-STEM PhDs who stay in academia end up joining an exploited, contingent workforce of part-time, or “adjunct,” professors. That reserve army of the underemployed is higher education’s dirty little secret. After all, we — and yes, I’m one of them — actually teach the majority of the classes in many schools, while earning as little as $1,500 a semester for each of them.

I hate to bring up transportation again, but there’s a reason teachers like us are called “freeway flyers.” A 2014 Congressional report revealed that 89% of us work at more than one institution and 27% at three different schools, just to cobble together the most meager of livings.

Many of us, in fact, rely on public antipoverty programs to keep going. Inside Higher Ed, reflecting on a 2020 report from the American Federation of Teachers, describes our situation this way:

“Nearly 25% of adjunct faculty members rely on public assistance, and 40% struggle to cover basic household expenses, according to a new report from the American Federation of Teachers. Nearly a third of the 3,000 adjuncts surveyed for the report earn less than $25,000 a year. That puts them below the federal poverty guideline for a family of four.”

I’m luckier than most adjuncts. I have a union, and over the years we’ve fought for better pay, healthcare, a pension plan, and a pathway (however limited) to advancement. Now, however, my school’s administration is using the pandemic as an excuse to try to claw back the tiny cost-of-living adjustments we won in 2019.

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines an adjunct as “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” Once upon a time, in the middle of the previous century, that’s just what adjunct faculty were — occasional additions to the full-time faculty. Often, they were retired professionals who supplemented a department’s offerings by teaching a single course in their area of expertise, while their salaries were more honoraria than true payments for work performed. Later, as more women entered academia, it became common for a male professor’s wife to teach a course or two, often as part of his employment arrangement with the university. Since her salary was a mere adjunct to his, she was paid accordingly.

Now, the situation has changed radically. In many colleges and universities, adjunct faculty are no longer supplements, but the most “essential part” of the teaching staff. Classes simply couldn’t go on without us; nor, if you believe college administrations, could their budgets be balanced without us. After all, why pay a full-time professor $10,000 to teach a class (since he or she will be earning, on average, $60,000 a year and covering three classes a semester) when you can give a part-timer like me $1,500 for the very same work? 

And adjuncts have little choice. The competition for full-time positions is fierce, since every year another 53,000 or more new PhDs climb into the back row of the academic airplane, hoping to make it to the pilot’s seat and secure a tenure-track position.

And here’s another problem with that. These days the people in the pilots’ seats often aren’t parachuting out. They’re staying right where they are. That, in turn, means new PhDs find themselves competing for an ever-shrinking prize, as Laura McKenna has written in the Atlantic, “not only with their own cohort but also with the unemployed PhDs who graduated in previous years.” Many of those now clinging to pilots’ seats are members of my own boomer generation, who still benefit from a 1986 law (signed by then-75-year-old President Ronald Reagan) that outlawed mandatory retirements.

Grade Inflation v. Degree Inflation?

People in the world of education often bemoan the problem of “grade inflation” — the tendency of average grades to creep up over time. Ironically, this problem is exacerbated by the adjunctification of teaching, since adjuncts tend to award higher grades than professors with secure positions. The reason is simple enough: colleges use student evaluations as a major metric for rehiring adjuncts and higher grades translate directly into better evaluations. Grade inflation at the college level is, in my view, a non-issue, at least for students. Employers don’t look at your transcript when they’re hiring you and even graduate schools care more about recommendations and GRE scores.

The real problem faced by today’s young people isn’t grade inflation. It’s degree inflation.

Once upon a time in another America, a high-school diploma was enough to snag you a good job, with a chance to move up as time went on (especially if you were white and male, as the majority of workers were in those days). And you paid no tuition whatsoever for that diploma. In fact, public education through 12th grade is still free, though its quality varies profoundly depending on who you are and where you live.

But all that changed as increasing numbers of employers began requiring a college degree for jobs that don’t by any stretch of the imagination require a college education to perform. The Washington Post reports:

“Among the positions never requiring a college degree in the past that are quickly adding that to the list of desired requirements: dental hygienists, photographers, claims adjusters, freight agents, and chemical equipment operators.”

In 2017, Manjari Raman of the Harvard Business School wrote that

“the degree gap — the discrepancy between the demand for a college degree in job postings and the employees who are currently in that job who have a college degree — is significant. For example, in 2015, 67% of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, while only 16% of employed production supervisors had one.”

In other words, even though most people already doing such jobs don’t have a bachelor’s degree, companies are only hiring new people who do. Part of the reason: that requirement automatically eliminates a lot of applicants, reducing the time and effort involved in making hiring decisions. Rather than sifting through résumés for specific skills (like the ability to use certain computer programs or write fluently), employers let a college degree serve as a proxy. The result is not only that they’ll hire people who don’t have the skills they actually need, but that they’re eliminating people who do have the skills but not the degree. You won’t be surprised to learn that those rejected applicants are more likely to be people of color, who are underrepresented among the holders of college degrees.

Similarly, some fields that used to accept a BA now require a graduate degree to perform the same work. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “in 2015–16, about 39% of all occupational therapists ages 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of educational attainment.” Now, however, employers are commonly insisting that new applicants hold at least a master’s degree — and so up the pyramid we continually go (at ever greater cost to those students).

The Biggest Pyramid of All

In a sense, you could say that the whole capitalist economy is the biggest pyramid of them all. For every one of the fascinating, fulfilling, autonomous, and well-paying jobs out there, there are thousands of boring, mind- and body-crushing ones like pulling items for shipment in an Amazon warehouse or folding clothes at Forever 21.

We know, in other words, that there are only a relatively small number of spaces in the cockpit of today’s economic plane. Nonetheless, we tell our young people that the guaranteed way to get one of those rare gigs at the top of the pyramid is a college education.

Now, just stop for a second and consider what it costs to join the 2021 all-American Airplane Game of education. In 1970, when I went to Reed, a small, private, liberal arts college, tuition was $3,000 a year. I was lucky. I had a scholarship (known in modern university jargon as a “tuition discount”) that covered most of my costs. This year, annual tuition at that same school is a mind-boggling $62,420, more than 20 times as high. If college costs had simply risen with inflation, the price would be about $21,000 a year, or just under triple the price. 

If I’d attended Federal City College (now the University of D.C.), my equivalent of a state school then, tuition would have been free. Now, even state schools cost too much for many students. Annually, tuition at the University of California at Berkeley, the flagship school of that state’s system, is $14,253 for in-state students, and $44,007 for out-of-staters.

I left school owing $800, or about $4,400 in today’s dollars. These days, most financial “aid” resembles foreign “aid” to developing countries — that is, it generally takes the form of loans whose interest piles up so fast that it’s hard to keep up with it, let alone begin to pay off the principal in your post-college life. Some numbers to contemplate: 62% of those graduating with a BA in 2019 did so owing money — owing, in fact, an average of almost $29,000. The average debt of those earning a graduate degree was an even more staggering $71,000. That, of course, is on top of whatever the former students had already shelled out while in school. And that, in turn, is before the “miracle” of compound interest takes hold and that debt starts to grow like a rogue zucchini.

It’s enough to make me wonder whether a seat in the Great American College and University Airplane Game is worth the price, and whether it’s ethical for me to continue serving as an adjunct flight attendant along the way. Whatever we tell students about education being the path to a good job, the truth is that there are remarkably few seats at the front of the plane.

Of course, on the positive side, I do still believe that time spent at college offers students something beyond any price — the opportunity to learn to think deeply and critically, while encountering people very different from themselves. The luckiest students graduate with a lifelong curiosity about the world and some tools to help them satisfy it. That is truly a ticket to a good life — and no one should have to buy a seat in an Airplane Game to get one.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Ben S

    Academic medicine is about to strangle itself. Tenure is gone because they needed more worker bees. Dean’s taxes make clinical departments pay for education, even though tuition is skyrocketing. Now non-NIH research is going off to private firms who don’t put the I in IRB (Independent Review Board).

    That eliminates the margin academic departments used to pay dean’s taxes. Leaving academic departments at a cost disadvantage to private practice. Precisely as student debt lessens the willingness of the academically-minded to accept a shave on pay.

    I’m working in an academic center where we can’t offer competitive pay to our own graduates. So we’re contracting despite volume demands.

    And the only reason I don’t leave is a generous 403(b) match. That they don’t offer to new hires…

  2. Carla

    “Now, just stop for a second and consider what it costs to join the 2021 all-American Airplane Game of education. In 1970, when I went to Reed, a small, private, liberal arts college, tuition was $3,000 a year. I was lucky. I had a scholarship (known in modern university jargon as a “tuition discount”) that covered most of my costs. This year, annual tuition at that same school is a mind-boggling $62,420, more than 20 times as high. If college costs had simply risen with inflation, the price would be about $21,000 a year, or just under triple the price.”

    I don’t know if Rebecca Gordon will read NC comments, but it seems to this former Humanities major that that last sentence should end, “or about one-third the price.”

    1. hamstak

      I believe what she may have meant was “just under one-third of today’s price ($62,420)”, but the way she worded it was confusing.

      1. Carla

        Yes, I know. But “triple” does not equal “a third.” C’mon.

        Sometimes stupid mistakes can undermine one’s whole argument.

        1. Robert M Murphy

          TOTALLY! 1 little slip definitely trashes all the other valid points!
          /sarcasm tag, for the dense.

  3. Hepativore

    Many universities do not even offer a tenure track anymore, as a lot of schools have an ever-shrinking amount of tenured professors who’s positions are replaced by adjunct faculty as the members of the “old guard” retire or leave.

    In the case of my father, he was basically forced out like many other Wisconsin public university professors after they had their tenure retroactively stripped from them six years ago by governor Scott Walker. This prompted many schools to start getting rid of their older professors now that they were no longer protected by tenure, as age discrimination is also rampant in academia. The administration at UWRF immediately engaged in a massive culling program of all of their now de-tenured staff, basically getting rid of long-term professors who they felt were getting too long in the tooth.

  4. Pat

    There is little left anymore which hasn’t been morphed into a con of the working stiff. This may be one of the worst. Sure Uber is a scam, but being a driver wasn’t sold for decades as the route for hard working young people to change classes. The myth of higher education has had parents saving for almost a century.

    That it has become another means of financialization and dumping ground for professional bureaucratic toadies is just another vomit inducing illustration of our oligarchic overlords’ greed and abuse.

  5. Terry Flynn

    Whilst I agree with most of this, the “somewhat rejection or downgrading” of grade inflation as a problem is not something I agree with – at least in the UK – it IS a problem and I saw it with my own eyes back doing my A levels (last two years of secondary school age 16-18ish before University) in the 90s. The UK is infamous for excessive specialisation in these last two years compared to (say) the Baccalaureate. I got to study three subjects (as most did). However these were mathematics, further mathematics and economics. My 12 or so peers (out of a cohort of 120 boys) did physics not economics so specialised even more (since oddities in the system meant we were “forced” to do mechanics not statistics as the “version” of mathematics A level we did).

    When doing past papers to prepare for examination, to prepare for FURTHER maths we had to do SINGLE maths papers from the 1960s. We saw straight off that loads of stuff from further maths had been ditched and stuff from SINGLE maths was now only done at further maths level. Thus I was always honest that my A levels were not at the same level as someone who did those subjects 20 years previous to me. Yet millennials all vehemently declare that their A levels are worth the same as mine *sigh*. I’ve taught statistics to med students at one of the top UK universities. I’d go as far as saying most were innumerate (yet had to have taken A level maths to qualify for studying medicine). Thus my “I don’t like young doctors” mentality is not JUST the well-known antipathy us “old farts” have toward the young. The problem is very apparent right now concerning the maths of vaccines and the sensitivity/specificity of tests.

    Returning to the main subject – higher education may or may not be a pyramid scheme but it definitely isn’t doing what it is supposed to do. It’s become an “old school signalling method” used simply to make recuitment easier. WHAT these students know is increasingly irrelevant to employers yet can be life/death relevant to patients.

    1. David

      At least in Europe, including the UK, the problem is linked to the obsession with getting the greatest proportion possible of 18-year olds into University. Partly this is, cynically, to reduce unemployment among young people, but partly also it’s based on the idea that, of themselves, higher educational qualifications will benefit the economy, even if they haven’t been earned. But in principle the subject-matter of a degree shouldn’t have changed that much since I was at university fifty years ago, when only ten per cent of the age-group actually went there. In practice, of course, it has, because most people who go to university today would not have been accepted fifty years ago. But in turn this forces schools to over-award qualifications in order to pretend that standards are not going down.

      Sometimes you can see this very clearly. In France, there’s quite a little industry in publishing old school text books. What is sobering is that eleven-year old children of illiterate farm labourers in 1914 were expected to be far more fluent in French, mathematics and history than children three of four years older than them today. And since they now hand out baccalaureates to over 70% of French children at 18 (the percentage goes up every year) nearly all of them exercise their right to go to university and read whatever they like. Both the resulting standards, and the drop-out rate, are catastrophic.

      One word on demanding degrees : I think it began just as a way of winnowing down huge numbers of applicants to a manageable number. But it’s got completely out of control since, of course.

      1. eg

        One quibble — doesn’t this just mean that the drop-out rate has shifted from secondary education to post-secondary education?

      2. vlade

        I keep saying – it’s a fact that half of the population are below average, and no government decree will change it.

        It doesn’t mean you can’t bring the average up (it has happened, even relatively recently cf literacy rates etc.), but that’s much harder and way more work than bringing the goalposts down.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Irish government policy in the 1970’s and 80’s was to focus very hard on investing in vocational training – mid level degrees, often in areas like biotechnology. This was intended to create a bulge of mid level tech workers for incoming FDI investments. The training and degrees were very closely tied to whatever the incoming companies were asking for. This was probably the key element (along with demographic advantages) that led to a very dramatic rise in productivity per person in the 1980’s which led to high growth in the 1990’s.

          This is a key lesson I think that the advocates of expanding education in many countries forgot. If education is not tied to productivity increases, it doesn’t help growth. Ha Joon Chang has pointed out that as soon as you see a shift in educational demand from the best students from science and engineering to medicine and law, you know there is a problem with productivity and labour market expectations. The upper middle classes are abandoning growth, and instead focusing on getting more of the existing pie.

          1. vlade

            investing into vocational education driven by the needs of the industry was very much the German way post WW2. It did go hand in hand with an expectation (more or less holding until 90s, but to a smaller extent even now) that those who go through it will have good jobs for life or close.

            The amazing thing now is that say here, if you’re say a good cabinet-maker or similar, you can make substantially more money than most college-trained-do-boring-job-daily person (IT being one exception). Wife’s brother works for a large building company, and he is desperately trying to get good tile-setters. Starting wages are > $30 US/hour, a good one can easily get $40

            Which a quick google tells me that median US wage for this is <$30, so you have the same pay in lower cost-of-living place.

            But there are just no taker for apprenticeships there. Weirdly, many of the apprentices are in their late 30s or older, when they gave up on their normal day jobs (which may have been even well paid) and want to do something "real".

  6. vlade

    It’s funny, as the paid-for-education actually perfectly show cases the micro ECON101.. I.e. if there’s a surplus, and a middleman can capture the surplus, he will raise the prices until there’s no surplus for the end user.

    In terms of higher edu – if a degree from school A means Y more income over the lifetime of the student, then A will raise its fees until it, in limit, eats almost all of Y.

    Nothing to see here, markets at work.

    1. Carolinian

      And not only is higher education foisting this predatory system onto society but they are also training young minds to accept the status quo. Some of us are old enough to remember when universities were centers of rebellion, not social regimentation. Back then getting students and professors under control was job one for totalitarian governments. When colleges become high priced vocational schools then nonconformity has a much higher price for those with huge loans hanging over their heads or who have parents who have sacrificed all to put them there.

  7. Maritimer

    Back in the 1980s, I had a friend who was a graduate of a very expensive, tony Ivy University. This person went for a job interview and was later called back. The interviewer said that they had found that the University she had graduated from had no record of her. Anyway, she was able to straighten it all out and got the job. But, what if the interviewer had not called?

    I remember at the time thinking: well, how are University records actually kept? All that money spent and the “piece of paper” got lost! At that time I was working in IT. A few years before, I had bought an early clone PC from, guess who, two guys working in the IT department at a major University. This was a back-of-the-truck, no invoice-no sales tax deal. So, I remembered that also. 2+2: If you are going to sell dodgy computers, well you might change, create, etc. some academic records for profit.

    So, are academic records at Universities for sale? Sort of reminds me of all that slice ‘n dice with MBS. I have always felt that given the number of Universities and the number of motivated IT employees………….markets at work

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      Misrepresentation of credentials is pretty common these days, for reasons this article makes pretty obvious, and it’s far worse outside the US. So most US universities work with a nonprofit vetting agency called the National Student Clearinghouse. They handle third party requests to validate both the school’s accreditation and the student’s graduation, as well as issuing watermarked transcripts if needed.

      But their systems are also kind of old fashioned: for example, they required faxed letters from the graduate authorizing release of her/his/itz personal information. Which is prudent in an era of online identity theft, but still a little inconvenient.

      1. Bob

        “Misrepresentation of credentials” is common.

        However that is the case on both sides of the equation.

        Ever seen an honest HR person ?

        If the game is to cheat the worker bee then turn and turn about is to be expected.

        1. Charger01

          Ever seen an honest HR person ?

          That made me laugh. Most HR desk warmers simply need to have a plausible reason for their decisions, full stop.

          Also the phrase “growing like a rogue zucchini” will stick with me. That’s a fine joke.

        2. ObjectiveFunction

          No quarrel from me on that.

          I’ve known some fairly decent HR folks, and recruiters, but at the end of the day, they aren’t being paid to take your side.

          I also love the habit of employers of requiring you to certify that you aren’t under any kind of noncompete from prior employers…. only to put one on you (fortunately these are largely unenforceable in most jurisdictions).

        3. Sub-Boreal

          My favourite example of forged credentials comes from a government Ministry where I worked much earlier in my career.

          My job involved a lot of travel, and I tended to get out of touch with office gossip during the summertime. So I was only vaguely aware that we’d received an email at some point one summer, announcing that our regional unit had hired a new HR director. Later in the fall that year, when I was back in the office more regularly, I noticed that this new guy was nowhere to be seen at coffee breaks and staff meetings.

          Just out of curiosity, I asked co-workers about where our new HR head was. Turned out that when he was hired, it was with a largely fictitious resume, but it was only some months later that his made-up past caught up with him, and he was quietly dumped.

          However, our organization shook off this temporary setback, and the eventual successor was someone who would have aced this test:

          1. juno mas

            The fictitious resume’ ploy has been highlighted here on NC. It seems CalPERS is managed by one of those types.

  8. Cocomaan

    As for the adjunct problem, someone here on NC said it best: tenured professors kicked the ladder out when they reached the top. There’s few people with a more secure job than a tenured professor, but the general attitude among them is “I got mine.” They could be agitating and they do not. They could be forming unions and they do not. They could be doing something other than bitching about administration. They don’t.

    Anyway, a study could be done on relative skills and intelligence between someone who went to a community college, a SLAC, big state school, an Ivy League, etc.

    Call it The Mother of All Higher Ed Studies.

    That would require academia to examine itself honestly, which is probably too much to ask for.

    1. Terry Flynn

      Totally agree. Though I’ll offer an anecdote that whilst APPEARING pro-adjunct, is in fact merely illustrating how tenure should reform. My closest colleague for many years was the “God” of mathematical psychology, Tony Marley. Tony was officially retired from academia and took adjunct role to keep his mind active and keep out from under his wife’s feet!

      Freed from academic institutional politics and able to totally pick and choose what he did, he loved it. He wrote many of his best papers in this time. He was free of “paradigms” and published thoughtful pieces that would never have been allowed of a tenured professor as they were too “slow burn” and/or risky.

      Tony described his adjunct status as “fantastic. I’m like a Research Fellow but without all the pressure and crap”. Kinda made me think about how Tenure should be reformed. which isn’t the subject here but perhaps should be considered alongside the undoubted problems of “shoving everyone into adjunct positions”.

      1. Cocomaan

        Yes, if you ask tenured professors today about their job security, I wonder what they’d say.

        Is tenured what it used to be? Or is the real key to job security this: have money so that you don’t need a job…?

    2. AE90

      Anyway, a study could be done on relative skills and intelligence between someone who went to a community college, a SLAC, big state school, an Ivy League, etc.

      In my experience (as a non-Ivy) the horror of such a comparison among the Ivys is familiar to me. With people I have worked with and for, getting that degree from an Ivy is the equivalent of being “saved” among Baptists. And non-Ivys can not get into that Heaven. That is why they paid (or their parents paid) those ridiculous sums of money to be “saved.”

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Sorry, I don’t know about now, but when I went to Harvard I did learn a great deal, both academically and about how the world worked. I do understand that academics at Harvard have decayed big time due to their pursuit of Chinese students (as in from China) and their willingness to tolerate passable at best English skills, but I believe that’s happened in the last decade (and is at least in part the result of Larry Summers blowing a huge hole in the endowment with his stupid swaps trade). I also am told the other Ivies have not prostituted themselves to anything approaching the degree that Harvard has.

        1. AU90

          This is not an indictment of the education received, far from it. It is my experience with the proposal cocoamaan made above of comparing abilities. It is an attitude I have encountered among individuals. This is also just my experience among people in their thirties.
          I went to state schools, and received a good education among a diverse population, but when I worked with the people I describe above, they had a peculiar sense of failure having to work somewhere where they had to rub shoulders with someone who did not graduate from an Ivy. I’m only talking about these expectations I have observed, and how these people would react to the comparison cocoamaan recommends.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Oh, that’s terrible. I hate snobbery.

            Aside from money, there are lots of kids who are smart but can’t keep up the grades to get into a tippy top school due to family issues: divorce, problems with a sibling (death, drugs), needing to work to support the family, etc.

            1. zagonostra

              Chris Hedges who now teaches in a State prison system but used to teach at Harvard (or maybe it was Princeton) often talks about how some of his current students have “smarts” that far exceed those who go to Ivy League schools…not to suggest that there aren’t really smart students in places like Harvard and deficient students in prison.

              1. Carolinian

                Jared Kushner a possible example?

                And don’t forget Dubya went to Yale. Obviously they aren’t all geniuses.

                1. Daniel LaRusso

                  nothin new here …

                  It’s been known for years that “education” is not the same thing as “intelligence” and those ivy leaguers aren’t necessarily all that. The causes and conditions of their graduation are many,

    3. dave

      I recall a study by Derek Bok that found that if you had the credentials to get into an elite US university and didn’t go, you still ended up pretty much where you would have career-wise if you had gone to the elite school.

      I went to a middle brow flagship state U and many of my classmates had gotten into elite private schools and for one reason or another didn’t go. Now in our 50s, looking at me and my friend’s careers, we’ve done very well for themselves. Yes this is anecdotal but I think it’s worth mentioning.

      1. Heraclitus

        In my opinion, the Ivies are necessary for those who pursue careers in finance or consulting, which more or less require an Ivy or Ivy equivalent background. (Please correct me if I’m mistaken about that). For other people, I’m not sure the effort it requires to get in is worth the benefit.

        I graduated from an Ivy business school twenty five years ago, and judging from my contact with other Ivy grads locally, I get the sense that many of them are always looking for the next job. I understand that these sorts of people will be over-represented at social functions, but still..the world is not exactly beating a path to their doors.

        My undergrad used to be considered an Ivy equivalent, though probably not anymore. I believe that many outstanding liberal arts colleges have lost students from higher income/wealth families to the Ivies over the past thirty years, as the Ivy lock on those high dollar professions like consulting and finance,but also big law, has become more pronounced.

  9. zagonostra

    I have a friend who is an adjunct who teaches ethics to undergraduate students. I think he would almost do it for free. For him it is more a vocation/calling. But then again, he has inherited money so he’s not having to struggle financially. He sees what’s going on and also ponders the ethics of teaching ethics at modern day large University.

    The “giant” (Robert Pirsig) has figured out that some artists, musicians, or people who have a calling, will almost do what they do almost for free.

    1. Terry Flynn

      Wow. Thanks and accords with experience of my similarly “financially secure” retired collaborator (see above). He even started ensuring he rented the apartment across the road from me in Sydney on his “mini sabbaticals” so as to chew the fat with me.

    2. Robert Gray

      True enough. But … ‘some people are luckier than others’. (And while we’re at it let’s not forget ‘nobody said the world is fair’.) Which is why this is really the key to Gordon’s essay:

      > For every one of the fascinating, fulfilling, autonomous, and well-paying jobs out there,
      > there are thousands of boring, mind- and body-crushing ones like pulling items for shipment
      > in an Amazon warehouse or folding clothes at Forever 21.

  10. saywhat?

    Here a scam,
    there a scam.
    Ole MacDonald
    had a farm.
    Ee, yii, ee, we owe.

    If only we all had family farms (ie. a means of subsistence*), then we’d have no need to scam each other.

    *or faith that the Lord will provide, cf Psalm 23.

    1. James Simpson

      Socialism. Ever heard of that? Public goods are provided free at the point of delivery. Like the NHS here in the UK.

      1. saywhat?

        I believe in as much socialism as is needed but I also believe that the more socialism required, the less just the economic system is in the first place.

        And the UK is a good example of that with its high living royalty and concentrated land ownership?

  11. chrimbus

    The “fascinating, fulfilling, autonomous, and well-paying jobs ” mentioned in the piece are increasingly (at least from my vantage point somewhere in the “tech” world) falling under the NC category of ‘ridiculously obvious scams’ (meaning: the point is to scam investors, customers, regulators, etc) to the point that the ideological discipline you tend to get from undergrad / grad school is necessary to get along and go along. After all, unless they are VERY lucky, grad students need to mold their own interests into the shape of what will help along their advisor’s career. (Advising faculty’s interests, of course, get shaped by the kinds of things that can get grants.)

  12. eg

    In the sick way of this world, my browser vomited up an ad on this page for Gates College (a private, for-profit career college local to where I’m currently renting a cottage).

    Student debt is the new indentureship.

    1. AE90

      This looks like a vocational school. Even worse. How are the placement services and outlook, I wonder, for desperate people desperate to change careers.

  13. Steve Ruis

    I remember something from the last hiring committee I was on before I retired. I was examining the transcript of an applicant for a teaching position, who had a Ph.D. I looked down at the courses taken and, much to my surprise, in the vast majority of those courses, the applicant received a grade of P. His grades were, P, P, P, P, P, A, etc. and he graduated with a 4.0 GPA. If one were to look at my academic record, there were no Ps, with each course being given an A-F grade. I had a 3.25 GPA in my upper division work, and a 3.5 GPA in grad school. With an IQ test score in the low 140’s, this was considered normal to the hard-assed professors I took courses from. (I also couldn’t be bothered to grub for grades. I was more interested in acquiring knowledge than jumping through hoops.)

    Possibly part of the difficulty of these new Ph.D.s getting positions is the absolute uselessness of their academic transcripts indicating any of their abilities.

    1. juno mas

      For those wondering, the P is a “passing” grade for a Pass/No Pass course. Brown University (Ivy League) started this concept in, I believe, the 1970’s. Didn’t think it could be used in a graduate program where a Thesis or Dissertation is required.

  14. Rolf

    I would argue that STEM fields are (or will be) in much the same boat as humanities, the only advantage being that graduates with science PhDs still have a boat, albeit a very leaky one, while humanities PhDs have none. Of course, it is almost impossible to tell prospective students (or their parents) the truth about any grim future — everyone feels they will be different. They are brighter, after all, and will try harder.

    The graduate schools of US universities operate very much as pyramid schemes, where the real profiteers are the (tax-exempt) universities themselves (not students, certainly not most faculty), and of course, the banks handling the guaranteed loans. This is particularly true in science and technology departments. The largest fraction of new spending has not been to hire new faculty (who must undergo the crap shoot of tenure review), but to hire new administrators, and new capital spending to showcase deep pockets. But faculty and research staff themselves are nickel-and-dimed. For there to be a new faculty hire, an existing position must be vacated (retirement, death, failure to get tenure). The primary job of tenured faculty is to secure extramural funding, from which the university extracts a substantial fraction as “overhead” and tuition remission. In many research groups, a very significant fraction of the supervision of graduate work is done by postdocs and other graduate students. The actual nuts and bolts research depends on postdocs and graduate students; without them, the entire enterprise grinds to a halt. Faculty may rarely set foot in the lab, and then only to provide tours to prospective graduate students, who are told stories about how acquiring a PhD is the ticket to a job in academia. Of course, a vanishingly small percentage of PhDs will actually find work at the level of their training; for some, the work they do for their thesis is not preparation for their career, but its apex. After the PhD, it is almost certain that a postdoc can be secured: but these pay little (when I was at an elite research university in the south ten years ago, new chemistry postdocs were offered 20K). These postdoc positions last two years maximum, after which another postdoctoral appointment must be secured unless a permanent job offer is in hand. After a few of these postdoc cycles (during which marriage, children, buying a home, etc., may all be delayed), the candidate, now in their 30s or 40s, is broke, exhausted, and still without a real job. I was fortunate enough to secure a permanent research position — but most are not as lucky as I. In Germany, this cycle cannot be continued indefinitely, and after a fixed period post-PhD (WissenschaftsZeitVertragsGesetz), you are out: see the Twitter hashtag #IchbinHanna (I am Hanna).

    Michael Teitelbaum has written for years of the boom and bust cycles of STEM. And it is not just academia who play the STEM game. Robert Charette has written about how tech firms lobby for expansion of H-1B visas, warning of supposed shortfalls in tech. Why? Because those “guest worker” visa-holders are effectively indentured labor: they cannot easily move to another job. If they are terminated, they must leave the country immediately. Ten years ago, Obama called for 10,000 new engineers, and 100,000 additional STEM teachers every year. Who is going to employ them?

    1. Arizona Slim

      Dr. Teitelbaum was a very good friend of one of my former clients. He’s been skeptical of the “shortage of STEM graduates” trope for a very long time.

      1. Thistlebreath

        A tiny bit of research will find dozens of “Silicon Valley” perfectly suitable software engineers, et al, who have aged out.

        It’s “Logan’s Run” in real life.

        Same in H’wd. After 40, good luck.

        Now, where did I leave that Hobbes T-shirt? (not the cartoon tiger).

    2. chris

      We’re desperate for engineers in this country. On paper, we have plenty. In practice, we don’t have enough who are competent and want to do real work. People who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. People who are OK with failing and getting to the best solution. People who want to stay technical and learn more about the craft and nature of their discipline instead of turning into project managers after a couple years.

      We are short PE’s and people who can actually apply what they’ve learned in school in the real world. Graduate school doesn’t solve that problem though. Neither does a visa program.

      1. Glen

        You just described an engineer that would get fired at my company or certainly never get ahead.

        We are manged by Excel spreadsheet by MBAs that treat us like replaceable widgets. They only make decisions to get bonuses, and they don’t care if they wreck the company while they do it. The young smart moral engineers figure this out and get out of the company. The ones who aren’t so moral figure out how to act just like the managers to get ahead.

        I’ve been an engineer in heavy industry manufacturing for forty years, and I am amazed at just how bad the corporate workplace has become. I just came off the factory floor tonight working on hardware and software, and saw your comment and had a good laugh. STEM is, as near as I can tell, one more effort by the MBA types at this company to further wreck the engineering profession.

        My advice to any promising high schoolers at this point looking for a good technical education is go to the colleges in Europe which are free and stay there for your profession rather than come back to the USA and deal with the corporate MBA sociopaths.

        1. chris

          I’ve been an engineer at different companies for 20 years. What I’ve described are the people I’ve been asked to hire and train. We can’t find them.

          But I agree that there are a lot of companies who are run by MBA types that in turn are running good engineers out of the business.

          1. Glen

            I very much agree with your description of a hands-on working level engineer, but this company no longer seems to value engineers that make that career choice. They have systematically tried to to lay off senior engineers, and although they say they want automation, they are also trying to get rid of engineers with software skills that work on the factory floor. I actually am beginning to question our ability to engineer and make safe products going forward – it is truly that bad. And sadly, I no longer think our company is that unusual as far as American companies goes.

      2. Count Zero

        ‘Rather than sifting through résumés for specific skills (like the ability to use certain computer programs or write fluently), employers let a college degree serve as a proxy. The result is not only that they’ll hire people who don’t have the skills they actually need, but that they’re eliminating people who do have the skills but not the degree.’

        I thought that was the scariest part of the whole article. It might go some way to explain the increasing crapification of everything in the USA (& elsewhere) — I am thinking of aircraft carriers and fighter jets but there are many other areas where things no longer get done competently. And it gets worse when people who can’t do the job inevitably get promoted.

  15. Deuce Traveler

    Your Hated Libertarian Lurker here…

    We are creating artificial barriers to upward mobility with degree requirements for decent paying jobs. As 19th century proto-Libertarian Lysander Spooner said, requirements to have a degree to practice in a profession act to prevent the poor from ever stepping into professional society. His work is why the poor are able to work in the legal system for an opportunity to take the bar without a legal degree. I knew the game was rigged years ago when I was talking to a High School librarian who told me that her job requires a Masters Degree in Librarian Studies. She wasn’t amused when I said that I would rather have someone with people skills, an ability to follow instructions on how to organize books using the Dewey Decimal System, and a love of literature; a set of skills many others in the community likely had without having to use six to eight years of their lives and tens of thousands of University money gaining. These ridiculous requirements probably seem normal to those of you who have spent years in Academic circles, but to those of us born poor it seems more of an intentional device to keep the riff raff out of the professional class.

  16. juno mas

    The last paragraph is spot on. That is why community colleges are so important. They give the less than elite a second chance to engage with an educational program, beyond K-12, that allows another opportunity at academic progress. Some take it, some don’t; but the cost is much lower than university. And the exposure to a peer-group much different than high school is a real learning experience for many.

    PS. 70% of the college instructors at my local college are adjuncts. They all have master’s or PhD’s. The cream positions are, of course, administrative positions. Some tenured instructors opt to become administrative Dean’s, to get on the gravy train.

  17. Boshko

    The article seems to draw a line between non-STEM and STEM PhDs and that the latter still have a route to academic job security, tenure and a career.

    I’m not so sure. My brother-in-law is a neuroscience professor at a top medical school. “Tenured” in the sense that he’s an associate professor. But the reality for him and many similar STEM faculty is that they get “soft” funding from the university as opposed to “hard” or guaranteed funding. So that means they may get salary and some start up research funds for a year or two, but after that they’re on the hook to land large multi-million dollar and multi-year grants to fund their research (lab equipment, technicians, post-docs etc.) and employment (salary). The university obviously also takes a cut.

    This soft-funding is standard and creates a precarious existence for researchers who are at the whims of NIH grant-making boards, an entirely other mess in need of its own reform. (It often matters more who you know on the grant-making board rather than the quality of the proposed research question or validity and experience of the investigator.) It’s doubtful that the stress of this existence produces top quality research–which of course must also be published in top-tier journals only to maintain this delicate existence of soft-funding.

    1. Rolf

      Spot on, see my reply above. In hard sciences, if you can’t bring in research funding as faculty, you’re dead. This means you will spend the vast majority of your time chasing funding and generating research proposals (NSF, DOE, NIH, etc.) — all other activities (teaching, actually participating in research, working with students, etc., take a seat far to the back of the bus). And yes, the precarity and stress of supporting one’s career on soft money does not ensure high quality research. It does generate publications, academia’s coin of the realm. In 1990, Nature found a significant fraction of publications had not a single citation 5 years after the fact (

        1. Boshko

          Wow, and that s**tty citation rate is from the top 4500 scientific journals between 1981 and 1985! Imagine how useless the majority of scientific literature is now.

          This is now getting into a different topic, but belated: the incentives of researchers to actually produce useful and quality science. Reproducing results and research is not done or incentivized, despite being fundamental to the scientific process. Same goes for statistical power. John Ioannidis is one of the leading authorities on the paucity of power and reproducibility in scientific research, researcher bias, etc.

      1. Thistlebreath

        Concur. One past interrogation, aka “interview” yielded a phrase I hadn’t heard since a skeezy chum ran a boiler room op: “…around here, we eat what we kill.”

        Translation: either drag in some government/corporate funding to support your work (that also had better glorify your host institution’s ringleaders) or get invited over to a third floor open window to admire the view.

  18. Taurus

    I have direct observations at one of the ivies where I was employed several years ago (in IT).

    My pet theory is that, because of the paucity of teaching opportunities, a number of the 53000 PhD graduates find their way into administration. And because they are smart ambitious people, they work on building their own little airplanes. Based on the idea that captains of planes are paid more. So you wind up with things like “the office of institutional research” with staff of 7 people. They publish the annual fact-book of the school … Another example is the PR department of the school (student body of about 5500) which had at that time 21 people on the roster. The recent growth has been in equity and inclusion offices.

    The administration people are employees at will and consequently have to be “team players “ or else. They are much easier to manage than the herd of cats that is a body of tenured faculty.

    So the institutional dynamic works very much in the direction of keep the academic employees stressed and beef up the administration, emphasizing services and richness of “experience “ over academics.

  19. Sardonia

    Seems like the obvious solution to ending this scam is the exact same one that ended the Airplane scam – “passengers” need to stop boarding.

    The 2 best things one can learn from high school are:
    1 – how to read
    2 – how to realize that college, currently, is a scam, and one has better options via other routes.

  20. chris

    Maybe could we bring back the concept of mandatory retirement for Congress?

    The article doesn’t mention professional degrees or the reasons why the humanities suffer in the modern concept of academia. Ain’t no one paying for ethics grants. Northrop Grumman doesn’t care if you’ve found a new way to translate Beowulf. Leidos doesn’t care if you’ve developed a new way to interpret dreams. Goldman Sacks could care less if you’ve figured out ways to make people appreciate classical literature.

    There is no money or practical interest in the humanities. Until that changes they’ll keep trying to convince people that owning a bicycle with square wheels makes you a better human being. The rest of us will see that while it looks neat you can’t use it for much, shouldn’t spend money on it, and could have enjoyed it without suffering through 4 years of poverty and slave labor to get one.

    Also, the article fails to discuss why so many people are going to graduate school. That has a lot to do with the problems they find after earning a PhD. If you went to grad school because you didn’t want the hassle of finding a job or didn’t know what to do next or the economy was lousy and you wanted to stay in school… then you’re also the type of person who has no idea how to make a successful career in academia.

Comments are closed.