Young people see university education as their ticket to the good life. They know this is so because this is what they have been told and they see that many people with university educations do indeed have a sweet life. What they don’t see, at that stage, is all the university graduates who can’t get jobs in their chosen field or who struggle financially for the rest of their lives - plus they have an enormous debt. The kids who left school and worked in minimum wage jobs, but with no debt, may in fact end up better off. Frank refers to students as cash cows to be exploited by predatory universities. There is an enormous power imbalance between a 17 year old student, on the one hand, and, on the other, a tertiary institution pushing its own agenda and a system pushing what will grow to become an unfathomably large student loan debt. There are obviously many cases where this is not the case, but need to be aware that these issues happen. Frank says:
Now, consider the seventeen-year-old customer against whom this predatory institution squares off. He comes loping to the bargaining table armed with about the same amount of guile that, a few years earlier, he brought to Santa’s lap in the happy holiday shopping center. You can be sure that he knows all about the imperative of achieving his dreams, and the status that will surely flow from the beloved institution. Either he goes to college like the rest of his friends, or he goes to work.
He knows enough about the world to predict the kind of work he’ll get with only a high school diploma in his pocket, but of the ways of the University he knows precious little. He is the opposite of a savvy consumer. And yet here he comes nevertheless, armed with the ability to pay virtually any price his dream school demands that he pay. All he needs to do is sign a student loan application, binding himself forever and inescapably with a financial instrument that he only dimly understands and that, thanks to the optimism of adolescence, he has not yet learned to fear.
The explanation is simple. The textbook publishers use every trick known to the marketing mind to obsolete their products year after year, thus closing off the possibility of second-hand sales. What’s more, textbook publishing is a highly concentrated industry—an oligopoly—which means they can drive prices pretty much as high as they feel like driving them. Meanwhile, the professors who assign the textbooks and who might do something about the problem don’t have to pay for them.
Actually, that explanation isn’t simple enough. The truth is that rip-offs like this abound in academia—that virtually every aspect of the higher-ed dream has been colonized by monopolies, cartels, and other unrestrained predators—that the charmingly naive American student is in fact a cash cow, and everyone has got a scheme for slicing off a porterhouse or two.