This fall, my lovely and brilliant daughter will matriculate at a famous Ivy League college. Naturally, I am brokenhearted. You see, this fabulously prestigious institution, which, for purposes of anonymity, I will call "Fleece U," charges $20,000 a year -- or more than two-thirds the median annual family income -- to provide one's child with a bunk bed, cafeteria meals, and a chance to socialize with the future arbitrageurs and racehorse breeders of America.
Like any thrifty parent, I had done everything I could to discourage her.
For instance, when the college acceptance letters started pouring in last April, I sent them back stamped "addressee unknown," little realizing how determined these places can be when they're closing in on a sale. Brooke Shields called from Princeton to invite my daughter to a taffy pull. Henry Kissinger dropped by in a Lear jet to discuss the undergraduate curriculum at Harvard. I was flattered, but I could see I was trapped, like the time I accepted a coupon for a free margarita and found out I had obligated myself to attend a six-hour presentation on time-sharing options in the Poconos.
And don't tell me about financial aid. I had high hopes for that until I started filling out the application form. Question 12 inquired whether I had, in addition to my present income and home furnishings, any viable organs for donation. Question 34 solicited an inventory of the silverware.
Why does college cost so much? Or, more precisely, just where is the money going? The mystery deepens when you consider that $20,000 a year is approximately what it would cost to live full-time in a downtown hotel with color TV and complimentary Continental breakfast. Alternatively, $20,000 is what it would cost to institutionalize some poor soul in a facility providing 24-hour nursing service.
Certainly the money is not going to enrich the faculty. Except for a few celebrity profs, most college faculty are a scruffy, ill-nourished lot, who are not above supplementing their incomes by panhandling on the steps of the student union. Nor can the money be going to the support staff. Even at the venerable Fleece U, which has an endowment the size of the federal deficit, secretaries' wages are calculated on the basis of the minimum daily caloric requirement of the human female.
Finally, we can rule out the possibility that the money is being used to support poor students who might otherwise go straight into burger flipping. With tuition rising twice as fast as inflation, poor students are no longer welcome at places like Fleece U, even in token numbers. Nationwide, the enrollment of black students peaked in 1980 but is now in decline due to cutbacks in federal aid programs. Meanwhile, the upper middle class is fleeing private colleges and beginning to crowd the working class out of state universities, which -- at the low price of $10,000 or so a year -- are the best bargain since double coupons.
This leaves two possibilities: one is that the money is finding its way into the Iran-contra-Brunei triangle, from which no money has ever been known to reemerge.
The second possibility, and the one that I personally consider most likely, is that the money is going to Don Regan. Not just Don Regan, of course, but G. Gordon Liddy, H. R. Haldeman and, possibly in a year or two, Oliver North. For what do these fellows do after a period of public service followed, in some cases, by a relaxing spell in a minimum security prison? They repair to the college lecture circuit where, as I read recently, Don Regan pulls down $20,000 a night -- the exact amount of my daughter's tuition at Fleece U!
You can imagine how I feel about paying a sum of this magnitude to the man who almost drove Nancy Reagan to join a feminist support group. Yet I am gradually beginning to believe that the college experience will be important for my daughter. I realize that, even if she never opens a book, college will give her an opportunity I was never able to provide in our home: the chance to be around rich people -- almost all of them young and attractive -- continuously, 24 hours a day. Nor do I have to fear that she will lose the common touch. By the time she graduates, there will be at least one desperately poor person in her circle of acquaintances -- myself.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a regular columnist for Mother Jones.
Excerpted with permission from Mother Jones magazine.