Should you go to college? The answer used to be self-evident: college was a path to upward mobility, a ticket to middle-class adulthood. Higher education played a particularly critical role for women looking to secure independence through financial stability. But increasingly, stories about college focus on the relentless burden of student debt and efforts to channel students toward majors that will help them beat the ugly job market. In this installment of The Curve, Anna Clark, Susan Feiner, Nancy Folbre and host Kathleen Geier do the math, exploring the role that colleges play in breaking or boosting the class hierarchy in today’s economic landscape.

Anna Clark: You can’t use the word “debt” without stumbling on its double meaning. A seemingly simple term for money owed, it is steeped in morality. “Forgive us our debts” goes the Christian prayer, meaning “sins.” As David Graeber points out, our language of business depends on our language of ethics. “Reckoning,” “forgiveness,” “accountability” and “redemption” refer to both the state of our soul and our credit status. Our understanding of who owes what to whom defines our vocabulary for right and wrong. History is as much a story of lenders and borrowers as it is a story of rich and poor.

It is no coincidence, then, that most of us find it hard to talk about owing money. Americans believe that if we work hard and make smart choices, we’ll succeed, no debt required (except, perhaps, for a mortgage)—and along the way, we will be good people. When we borrow heavily to pay for college education—perhaps the most significant step we take toward good work and financial stability—guilt and shame are common feelings, to say nothing of panic and fear.

With fast-rising tuitions and stagnant wages, fewer of us are immune from borrowing to pay for our university education. And delaying or forgoing college while we save is a difficult option: according to the Center for American Progress, weekly earnings for workers with a bachelor’s degree were $1,066 in 2012, compared to $652 for workers with a high school diploma. Those without a degree are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed. For many, going to college, then, is simultaneously a rational economic choice and an economic disaster.

Count me among them. I’ve been paying off loans for my undergraduate and graduate education since 2007. I was an in-state student at the University of Michigan, and I attended the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College; I paid my own way through both of them. I’m proud of this—again, that morality and money connection—but pride doesn’t pay the bills. I took extra semesters at both schools, totaling seven years in higher education, but I also worked nonstop, had a few small scholarships and paid what I could on my tuition along the way. No unpaid internships for me: I hustled in the dorm dining hall and the hospital gift shop; I gave tours of the campus and of the natural history museum; I knocked on doors for an environmental group and made sandwiches at Potbelly’s; I went bleary-eyed with boredom as a corporate go-fer and bleary-eyed with exhaustion while weeding and watering as a campus groundskeeper. To my mother’s horror, I was frequently the paid subject of medical and psychological research experiments. These days, I’m working through a get-out-of-debt plan that is meaningfully moving me along. I refuse to believe I will be a debtor my entire life. But it’s slow: with interest, after eight years of payments, I still owe about $66,000 on my student loans.

Facing this, it’s hard to comprehend that there was once a time when a summer of work at a minimum-wage job paid for a year of tuition at a terrific in-state university, with money left over. As Greg Schoofs points out, twelve weeks of a low-wage job in 1976–77 would have earned me a full year of tuition at the University of Michigan. These days, the same job earned only 25 percent of my tuition. Over the past thirty years, reports CAP, “average tuition for a four-year college has increased more than 250 percent”—accounting for both public and private schools—while average family income increased only 16 percent. The cost of public universities is rising at about twice the rate of their private nonprofit counterparts.

Going to college can be simultaneously a rational choice and an economic disaster.

What happened? Public universities were designed to be accessible to people without wealth, but tuition and fees rose out of proportion with wages, in part because of drastic cuts from state governments. Just since the recession, universities saw a 28 percent decrease in public funding per student. Many schools work hard at increasing financial aid options, but loans are part of the typical package. That means costs carry forward into adult life for nearly 40 million of us, bringing with it insecurity, headaches and, yes, guilt.

There’s also a disturbing gender dimension: while 71 percent of college seniors graduating in 2012 had loan debt averaging $30,000, women have a larger slice of their income taken up by debt payments—you can thank the pay equity gap for that. Twenty percent of recent female graduates pay more than 15 percent of their take-home salaries on student debt. (That includes me.) Even controlling for factors like hours worked, major and occupation, there is a 7 percent gender gap in wages. “Women and men pay the same amount for their college degrees, but they often do not reap the same rewards,” the AAUW report reads. Add to this equation the fact that women typically have longer lives, with their older years supported by less money in savings, investments and retirement, and you have a proper fiasco on your hands.

There are people trying to intervene. This summer, President Obama extended a cap on student loan payments to about 5 million people. And Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed a bill, supported by the president, that allows people to refinance student loans with both banks and the federal government at today’s lower interest rates—potentially a huge relief for me and thousands of others who, in seeing most of our payments eaten up by interest, feel that we are spinning our wheels. Warren’s bill would also cap interest rates for undergraduate loans at less than 4 percent—a smart plan, because student loans, unlike any other loan, cannot be forgiven. (Again, note that word: “forgiven.”) You can’t escape through bankruptcy, or even death.

Warren’s bill was filibustered by Republicans in June, and in September the GOP blocked another attempt to bring it for a vote. Warren said she’ll keep pushing it. I hope so. Because debt forces brutal choices.

The minimum payment on my student loans is $7,224 a year—that’s no small change for a single and self-employed freelancer. I try hard to pay more than that, in hopes of becoming free of it. Fantasizing about what I could do with this money if I weren’t shoveling it off to Citibank and Discover—save for retirement? cease being a renter? pay for dental insurance? consider having a child someday? help out my siblings and friends?—upsets me. But at the same time, I know I’d be worse off without my degrees, even with the debt that came with them, like heavy barnacles attached to a ship. There seems to be no choice but to keep blinders on, stick to a payment plan that is as ambitious as I can afford, and hustle. It’s the only good thing I can do.

Susan Feiner: Despite the a huge literature on US higher education, we know very little about the 265 public comprehensive universities (PCUs) that serve nearly 40 percent of students enrolled in four-year public post-secondary colleges and universities. Most of the PCUs are essentially open admission, requiring neither high grades nor strong standardized test scores. These are the institutions that, by making admission less selective and attendance more affordable, extended the opportunity for higher education to masses of middle-class, working-class and minority students. The PCUs offer a wide range of undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts and sciences and the professions, with masters-level programs most often in applied areas like business, nursing, social work, teaching and engineering. These are not glittery research palaces; they’re not home to nationally competitive sports teams; and they’re not selective, ivy-covered campuses.

Students at PCUs are frequently working adults who can’t cross the state—much less the country—to go to college, or first-generation college-goers who need to live at home while attending school. Thus the PCUs provide higher education opportunities to millions who lack the academic achievements needed to gain admission to selective state research universities. In the aggregate, the PCUs are majority minority. Of undergraduates at PCUs, 70 percent are female, black, Hispanic, Asian-American, Pacific Islander or Native American. It’s even more dramatic at the graduate level: 80 percent of graduate students at PCUs fall into the categories listed above.

State funding decisions threaten the access and opportunity the afforded by PCUs. Since the recession, the “great cost shift”—which moves the burden of paying for higher ed from governments to individuals—in public higher education has intensified. A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents the state-by-state impact. Forty-eight of the fifty states (all but Alaska and North Dakota) are spending less per student, with the average state spending $2,026 (23 percent) less per than before the recession. Since the 2007–08 school year, the annual published tuition at four-year public universities has risen 28 percent. But the increases in tuition only offset part of the revenue lost due to reduced state funding. Public colleges and universities have cut faculty positions, eliminated course offerings, closed campuses, shut computer labs and reduced library services.

Declining state aid affects all of the 6.8 million students enrolled in four-year public higher education. But the impact of the budget cuts fall disproportionately on women, people of color and first-generation college students, because states do not distribute aid to post-secondary education at anything like parity across the campuses. Once a state makes its allocation for public higher education, the state’s higher-education authority (chancellor, Board of Trustees, State Council on Higher Education) divvies up that money across its campuses.

Between the 2006–07 and 2011–12 academic years, the 265 PCUs lost $1 billion in state funding. In 2006–07, the states allocated $11.6 billion to these schools; in 2011–12 they received $10.6 billion. At the same time, enrollment at the PCUs rose by 209,526 students.

This is the pattern across the states. The PCUs, accessible institutions by design, enroll more female and minority students. These schools—which serve students who need more support—started out with bare-bones faculty, facilities and support staff, and now they receive even less state funding. Students and their families suffer.

The average state is paying 23 percent less per public university student than before the recession.

Declining state aid to public higher education, with its unequal impact on the poorer schools, is compounded by other financial decisions made by state higher education officials. One would think that as state aid for public higher education declines, the imperative would be to preserve the institutions’ operating revenue. But that’s not what’s happening. Let’s take a brief detour through some accounting terminology to understand it.

At for-profit institutions, the difference between assets and liabilities is net worth. The analogous accounting category for public institutions is “net assets.” Net assets can be restricted, in which case they must be spent on specific projects: a donor’s gift specifies “spend this $50K beefing up the library reading room,” or school officials sign a contract to replace a dorm boiler.

Unrestricted net assets are different because they are not tied to any specific activity. Unrestricted net assets represent readily accessed funds that are completely discretionary—there are no donor restrictions associated with them.

Between 2006 and 2012, unrestricted net assets at PCUs increased by $470 million, bringing those accounts to just over $1 billion (from $624 million in 2006). So even while the PCUs lost a billion in state funding (which caused them to cut their budgets), they piled up another half-billion in unrestricted net assets by spending less on faculty, support staff, libraries, labs and other aspects of instruction.

Administrators often claim that “these funds are spoken for,” but that’s not accurate. Even if the governing board has earmarked portions of the unrestricted net assets for future projects, the fact that the external auditing firm put the funds into the unrestricted category means there are no binding contracts for those projects.

Since public comprehensive universities rarely have large donors, they increase their unrestricted net assets by reducing spending on core academic functions. The decision to do this compounds the depressing effect on educational spending created by declining state aid.

The situation at the University of Maine is illustrative: unrestricted net assets have climbed to $183 million over the past six years. In every single one of those years, the governing body and administrators on each campus insisted that there was no money, that budgets had to be cut, that no alternative to laying off faculty, shuttering programs or firing staff existed. But every year unrestricted net assets grew. Even now, the administration is calling for another round of massive cuts. But will the auditor’s report show that unrestricted net assets grew again in the last fiscal year? We don’t know, because the system has said it will not release the auditor’s report until after the cuts have been announced and implemented.

The value of post-secondary education varies substantially by race and gender—on average, women with bachelor’s degrees earn $990 per week while men with bachelor’s degree earn $1199 per week; a black woman with a bachelor’s degree earns $886 per week. But if they didn’t go to college, they’d be stuck in really horrible jobs paying poverty wages—$550 per week on average. Public higher education offers life-changing experiences and opens doors that were previously closed. That’s why the higher education institutions that serve women, people of color and lower-income people are being destroyed from above.

Nancy Folbre: Once upon a time, a college degree provided a ticket to ride a comfortable, if not luxurious, ferry boat to economic security. Not any longer. The ticket is still valuable, but largely because it purchases a life preserver that can help you stay afloat, while those without one tread water to avoid drowning.

During much of the twentieth century, college-educated workers were a scarce commodity. Most people with access to higher education could expect a reliable rate of return on investments in their own skills. In the golden age of human capital, the labor market richly rewarded educational credentials.

In their well-received 2008 book, The Race Between Education and Technology, Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz asserted that the big problem was increasing the supply of educated workers sufficiently to meet the labor market’s demand for them.

How times have changed.

The more recent Race Against the Machine, by MIT management professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, tells a very different story. They argue that even educated individuals are racing to cope with their own potential obsolescence. The digital revolution is offering bigger rewards for specialized skills such as software design—but lower rewards for the general skills in problem-solving and critical thinking that a college education provides. As the demand for these general skills declines, increased immigration and outsourcing have made it easier to businesses to draw upon a larger global supply of college graduates. In a process that economist Richard Freeman terms “human capital leapfrogging,” developing countries have invested heavily in public higher education. In 1970, despite representing only about 6 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounted for 29 percent of the world’s college students. By 2005–06, the US share had dropped to 12 percent. Almost 75 percent of global enrollments in tertiary education were in developing countries, including China, India and Mexico.

In the golden age of human capital, the labor market richly rewarded educational credentials. Not anymore.

As a result, the same economic pressures that hurt blue-collar workers in the manufacturing sector in previous decades are now hammering young professionals and managers. As recent research by the Progressive Policy Institute shows, the absolute earnings of college graduates ages 25–34 working full-time remain about 86 percent what they were in 2000.

Evidence of mismatch between educational credentials and job requirements became apparent even before the Great Recession of 2007. In 1970, only 1 in 100 taxi drivers and chauffeurs in the United States had a college degree, compared to about fifteen in 100 today; a similar trend is evident in other occupations such as bartending and firefighting. Andrew Sum and Paul Harrington of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University estimate that in 2010, fewer than half of all BA holders ages 25 and below held a job requiring a college degree.

This trend validates what is termed a “queueing” theory of the labor market, in which those with more education go to the head of the employment line, whether their skills are actually needed or not. College graduates are not necessarily any better at pulling espressos than high-school dropouts, but they are more likely to get hired anyway.

This helps explain why the relative gains to a college degree remain high.

The promise that a college degree will pay off derives primarily from two rather depressing trends, recently described in The Chronicle of Higher Education—first, a reduction in the earnings students forgo by attending college (since young people in that age group have such a hard time finding decent jobs) and declines in the average earnings of the non–college educated that have outpaced those of their more credentialed peers.

The younger generation inhabits an age of tarnished opportunity. In August 2014, the unemployment rate for Americans younger than 25 was 13 percent, compared to 4.6 percent for those 55 and older. A recent study that followed more than 1,600 students through their senior year at twenty-five four-year institutions found that more than half struggled to find decent jobs; many lived with their parents and still leaned on them for money.

Such descriptions often elicit a morality tale: professors no longer set sufficiently high standards; students opt for easy majors like communications instead of toughing it out in engineering; they party all the time and don’t study enough. But professors have not suddenly become lax and students have not suddenly become lazy. This kind of finger-pointing looks suspiciously like an effort to validate the fairy tale that the labor market always rewards strong effort and valuable skills.

As a college professor with skin in this game, I think students should study hard and think strategically about the skills they acquire. But I also think they should—and increasingly will—identify themselves as members of a working class that is collectively disadvantaged by neoliberal economic policies based on blind faith in market forces.

Human capital will never entirely lose its value. In Race Against the Machine, Brynjolfsson and McAfee cite a 1965 National Aeronautic and Space Administration Report explaining why astronauts were so useful: “Man [sic] is the lowest-cost, 150 pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system that can be mass-produced by unskilled labor.” The big question is whether these nonlinear all-purpose computer systems can work together to configure an economic system that treats them as valuable outputs rather than merely as cheap inputs. That kind of economic system would invest heavily in education whatever its private rate of return in the labor market. It would also devise ways of productively utilizing workers even when the global forces of supply and demand rule them redundant. It would make full employment a priority.

Kathleen Geier: Earlier this year, the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century ignited a long-overdue public debate about economic inequality in our society. But there’s a major problem with the nationwide conversation on inequality that resulted: it’s been far too abstract. Economists, who dominate inequality discussions, have a tendency to rattle off dry statistics about trends and correlations. Their contributions are indispensable, but their focus on the big picture tell us frustratingly little about what economic inequality looks and feels like. College, for example, has long looked like a stepping stone to upper mobility. But a striking new book looks closer, peering inside individual lives, and shows the modern university to be a crucible of class reinforcement.

Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2013), the extraordinary book by sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, takes the form of a case study, allowing the authors to capture intimate details of their subjects’ lives that a more quantitative approach could never access. And the unusual setting of their study—an economically diverse of college women all living in the hothouse atmosphere of a college dorm—throws class conflict into high relief, which makes it an ideal environment for studying how class works as a system.

The college setting is important for another reason. Though mainstream economists frequently argue that higher education is the chief remedy for American inequality, Armstrong and Hamilton build a compelling case that college is more part of the problem than part of the solution. The sobering message of their book is that the modern university does a better job of promoting social stratification than advancing social mobility.

When they originally conceived of their project—a five-year study tracking the fates of fifty-three incoming female students who spent their first year living in the “party” dorm of an anonymous large public university (“MU”)—Armstrong and Hamilton intended to focus on sexuality. But they soon realized that class, not sex, was the bigger story. The students they followed were an economically heterogeneous lot, ranging from the daughters of CEOs to working-class women from small towns who were the first in their family to attend college. All of the students entered college expecting that an undergraduate education would bring economic prosperity, but by the end of the study period, fully half of the women were on a path of downward economic mobility. Even more telling was that the women’s economic trajectories had sorted out almost perfectly according to their class background. The authors contend that the chief culprit for this dismal outcome is the college itself. They argue that MU and other large state universities “organize the college experience” in a way that “systematically disadvantages all but the affluent.”

Much of what makes Paying for the Party such a riveting, even heartbreaking, book is its abundance of novelistic detail. What grabs you are the people, and the way their stories vividly illustrate the cruelties of the class system. You meet memorable characters such as Hannah, the nicest, and richest, girl on the floor—but one who nevertheless steadfastly denies her class privilege. Then there’s Whitney, the resident “mean girl,” who uses nasty snubs to deflect from her own desperate social insecurity (she’s one of the least affluent women in her elite sorority). There are also a host of working-class strivers such as Alyssa, who was forced to combine full-time study with full-time work, because her struggling parents depended on her to pay for groceries and other necessities.

The modern university does a better job of promoting class stratification than advancing social mobility.

Then there’s Emma, whose troubling story is in many ways emblematic. An A student in high school, and middle-class, Emma entered college aspiring to a career in dentistry. Five years later, she had graduated, but her economic prospects had declined. Rejected for graduate school, she was working a dead-end, $11-an-hour job and burdened by heavy loans. What happened? The authors contend that Emma’s dreams were the casualty of the university.

How so? Like other public colleges systematically undermined by decades of budget cuts, MU has reverted to an earlier model of higher education: the university as country club. As students, the rich can afford to pay high out-of-state tuition rates; as alumni, they constitute an coveted and influential donor base. By and large, what this decidedly unintellectual sector of the upper class is looking for from college is not academic rigor but the opportunity to expand social networks. They crave a primarily social experience, and institutions like MU are happy to give it to them.

This is where party culture comes in. Economic elites dominate MU’s most powerful fraternities and sororities, which control a vast swath of housing and other university resources. Drinking and party culture shaped campus life so powerfully that it affected every woman Armstrong and Hamilton studied, even those outside the sororities, because there are few prospects for a decent social life outside of the party scene.

But the time-consuming demands of party life and the sororities are so excessive that they leave little time for academics. The school provides a ready solution: undemanding majors of the sort that never have, and never will, be taught at Harvard, including “fashion merchandising,” “sports communication” and the like. These majors require little in the way in skill acquisition; instead, as the authors note, they focus heavily on traditionally feminine traits such as “appearance, personality and charm.”

The “party pathway” proved viable for the daughters of the upper class, but frequently ended in disaster for the less-privileged students, who lacked the class-based resources that make such a strategy sustainable. Unlike the more affluent women, they couldn’t afford to take unpaid internships or move to major cities, where the jobs were. Even more crucially, they lacked the family connections to land positions in “glamor industries” like media and fashion. They also proved wanting in other traits that were vital to success in these fields: the kinds of “tastes, personality and self-presentation” that, the authors say, are typical of upper-middle-class femininity. For example, the socially insecure Whitney lost out on job opportunities because of her lack of cultural sophistication—at industry networking events, she dressed inappropriately and couldn’t chat knowledgeably about wine.

When Armstrong and Hamilton turn away from employment and academic outcomes to shine a spotlight on the role of class in the women’s everyday social and sexual lives, the results are just as eye-opening. Their thick descriptions of the painful, class-tinged social interactions between women on the floor are gripping—see, for example, the section on “being mean nicely,” the technique perfected by the social climbers to freeze out the lower-class women without being rude. Similarly damning are their insights about how campus party culture reinscribes traditional gender roles. For instance, they note that the upper-class women pursue “easy majors” rather than marketable skills because they assume they will be supported by wealthy husbands. There are also an abundance of fascinating observations about the interaction of sex and class, such as the finding that even though the least economically privileged women had the fewest number of sexual partners, they were more likely to be “slut-shamed” (labeled as promiscuous). Even more disturbingly, they discovered that the working-class women were significantly more likely to be victims of campus rape, mainly because they lack the social protections of their higher-income counterparts.

Paying for the Party has some real flaws, most notably its limited time frame (a longer-term study might have produced different results) and its failure to examine race (the women studied were all white). Earlier this year, Ross Douthat wrote a grossly misleading column about the book, portraying it as a morality tale about feckless upper-class sluts setting a bad example for the lower orders. Talk about missing the point! Armstrong and Hamilton never pathologize individual behavior; instead, they indict a thoroughly rotten system. They call for major reforms at the political and institutional level, including significantly increasing financial aid to college students and to public institutions of higher learning; banning, or at least heavily regulating, fraternities and sororities; ending legacy admissions; providing students with better academic and career counseling; and creating more college programs targeted at serving poor and working-class students.

But in our austerity-happy age of soaring economic inequality, whether such policies will be enacted is anyone’s guess. Amstrong and Hamilton don’t sound terribly optimistic. Last year, a reporter from The New York Times asked Armstrong to identify the most surprising thing she learned from her research. She replied, “We didn’t expect this to be as depressing as it turned out to be.”


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