[Note to TomDispatch Readers: I’ve long had a weakness for commencement addresses, or at least for what they might be rather than what they usually are, which is why, I suppose, I’ve written them relatively regularly myself. Since no actual college or graduating class has ever asked me to give such a speech, I’ve addressed the graduates of 2014 and other years from what I’ve called “the campus of my mind.” This year, given the increasing strangeness of our American world and the rising debt under which college students labor, I couldn’t resist doing so again. Tom]
You’ve Been Scammed!
Kept Politicians and Demobilized Americans in a System Without a Name
It couldn’t be a sunnier, more beautiful day to exit your lives — or enter them — depending on how you care to look at it. After all, here you are four years later in your graduation togs with your parents looking on, waiting to celebrate. The question is: Celebrate what exactly?
In possibly the last graduation speech of 2015, I know I should begin by praising your grit, your essential character, your determination to get this far. But today, it’s money, not character, that’s on my mind. For so many of you, I suspect, your education has been a classic scam and you’re not even attending a “for profit” college — an institution of higher learning, that is, officially set up to take you for a ride.
Maybe this is the moment, then, to begin your actual education by looking back and asking yourself what you should really have learned on this campus and what you should expect in the scams — I mean, years — to come. Many of you — those whose parents didn’t have money — undoubtedly entered these stately grounds four years ago in relatively straitened circumstances. In an America in which corporate profits have risen impressively, it’s been springtime for billionaires, but when it comes to ordinary Americans, wages have been relatively stagnant, jobs (the good ones, anyway) generally in flight, and times not exactly of the best. Here was a figure that recently caught my eye, speaking of the world you’re about to step into: in 2014, the average CEO received 373 times the compensation of the average worker. Three and a half decades ago, that number was a significant but not awe-inspiring 42 times.
Still, you probably arrived here eager and not yet in debt. Today, we know that the class that preceded you was the most indebted in the history of higher education, and you’ll surely break that “record.” And no wonder, with college tuitions still rising wildly (up 1,120% since 1978). Judging by last year’s numbers, about 70% of you had to take out loans simply to make it through here, to educate yourself. That figure was a more modest 45% two decades ago. On average, you will have rung up least $33,000 in debt and for some of you the numbers will be much higher. That, by the way, is more than double what it was those same two decades ago.