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How to Pay for College (and Not Lose Your Shirt)

These stunning disparities result from collective choices. As Lieber rightly notes, falling state appropriations “account for nearly 80 percent of the price hike at public universities.” At the same time, the tax-exempt status enjoyed by private universities, which allows endowments to grow tax-free and makes alumni donations tax-deductible, amounts to a vast and growing public subsidy. According to one recent calculation, Princeton University’s tax exemption produced a subsidy of $105,000 per student per year. Compare that with the public-education spending of $12,300 per student at Rutgers, a state university, and $2,400 per student at Essex County College in Newark. Over all, the mostly rich students at the wealthiest 10 percent of colleges pay just 20 cents for every dollar spent on their educations, whereas the generally poor and middle-class students at the poorest 10 percent of colleges pay 78 cents on the dollar. All of this reflects policy decisions produced by political power.

Politics also drives the rising hierarchy among jobs. Finance, which today dominates top incomes and is dominated by graduates of elite schools, was in the 1960s neither better paid nor more highly educated than other private-sector work. Top executives and management consultants, typically super-educated workers with soaring incomes, were again much less well-paid at midcentury. And while the reasons for these transformations (and countless parallel ones) are complex, financialization, deregulation and a systematic attack on unions — all politically motivated policy choices — have unquestionably played prominent roles.

When Lieber laments, early in the book, that “college tuition is not the responsibility of the government,” he is therefore both right and wrong. While it is true that government has not assumed the responsibility of paying for college, it is also true that government is responsible for the enormous costs of college, the immensely and increasingly regressive distribution of these costs, and the rising pressure on families to pay them to the “best,” most elite colleges. Lieber’s book clearly does not celebrate any of these trends, but it also averts its gaze from the mechanisms behind them, and it absolutely neglects the policies and politics that will be needed to reverse them.

This is where the book’s self-help sensibility feels like a constraint. Lieber recalls a Venn diagram a friend once made, comprising two circles labeled “Things We Can Control” and “Things That Matter.” The overlapping section was labeled “What You Should Focus On.” At the very end of the book, Lieber applies this counsel of quietism to his own subject: “There is a system at work here. Why not treat the process of trying to beat it … as a family project that is actually fun?”

Self-help is true to its name. Its model of individual empowerment invites collective, political disempowerment. But when the problems addressed are irreducibly political and therefore collective problems, the genre’s frame renders them insoluble. In the end, even the appearance of individual empowerment rings false, replaced by the angst and defeatism that Lieber warns against. This is the true price that we pay.

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