wanted: fair trade education

Of late, I found myself on several university campuses in an entirely new capacity: not as a grad student, not as a TA, not as an adjunct professor, but as a parent of a soon-to-be rising undergraduate. The university’s quintessential consumer-extraordinaire.

I found this something akin to one day shoveling coal into the furnaces that powered the Titanic and the next day (or decade) getting an invitation to frequent the Lido deck. The only problem: my experience in the bowels of that boat gave me reason to question the soundness of the ship. Which set me inevitably to grumbling about how those exorbitant tuition dollars I’m supposed to hand over get spent.

And it’s all downhill from there.

As an undergrad, and even as an early grad student, I walked around my college campuses feeling all dewy-eyed about the great halls of academe. The naiveté of youth must fade, thank god, but I never expected to feel quite the way I did on these recent campus tours.

As I endured five identical tours at five different universities, the slime of my own cynicism grew so prolific I feared I might leave a trail of it on the sidewalk behind me.

When the proud tour guides led us through the brand spanking new athletic and workout facilities, each expected me to ooh and aah with my son, but I could only wonder how a regiment of state-of-the-art ellipticals, positioned with an optimum view of the mountains, could supersede the need for a crew of composition instructors who can afford something more than Ramen for dinner.

We toured the newly turfed athletic fields, the mall-sized food courts, and a slew of smart classrooms in recently erected business school buildings. As one guide gushed on about the still-under-construction suite-style luxury dorms, I oozed a thick smear of cynical sludge on the ceramic tile just inside the sliding double doors of the brand-new student center. Do you give free massages too? I wanted to ask.

I’ve followed the problem of student-as-customer and lamented the progression of edutainment for years, but now it feels ever more personal because as a parent, I’m expected to buy–and buy into–these things.

I looked around for the cavalcade of high-paid administrators who had built these amusement park-empires, but they must have been cloistered in their towers for the afternoon—eating steak tartar out of silver dishes, no doubt.

Then the guide announced: “They do a great job preparing you for grad school here. So when you go, you’ll be ready.”

“When you go?” We heard this at several schools. When did grad school become an expectation? For which careers? All of them?

I’ve got to hand it to them. This is a clever sales tactic—kind of like creating brand loyalty for Camel cigarettes among elementary-aged kids. Persuade the new students that a bachelor’s degree won’t cut it before they’ve even had a chance to move their Xbox Ones and PS4s into their freshman dormitories.

No one mentioned how these unemployed college graduates would pay for grad school after four (or five?) years spent selling everything but their organs to pay for tuition. Another student loan perhaps? Or for top-tier students, a low-paid TA-ship with a loan on the side?

And then we got to the “excellent” part of the presentations: the teacher/student ratio. I had to keep moving because a puddle of goo had begun to form around my feet. Again and again I heard promises about personal attention, accountability and the family that is the university community.

“Really?” I said under my breath from my curmudgeon’s place in the back row. What happens to that ratio if we calculate professor to number of classes taught instead of number of students in each class? Then we also have to count the students and the grading for the three additional classes the professor teaches at the community college down the road to make ends meet.

If the professor has 25 students in each class and three classes at each institution, that’s 150 papers to grade for every assignment. How’s the ratio looking now? Does that instructor have time or energy to meet with my child about his latest paper grade?

So much for “family.”

Before going on these tours, I imagined I would heckle the tour guides about adjunct labor in a way that would educate other parents who may not be aware of this hiring practice. You will be so disappointed to hear that when the time came, I lost my nerve…entirely.

I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t arrive prepared that each tour would feel so much like a Disney ride – a sanitized explication of university life intended to celebrate and sell, the script delivered by volunteer student-guides who showed us only the pretty parts of campus with uninterrupted smiles that dared me to contradict them. I believe the student-guides were genuine in their enthusiasm. I understood the families on the tours had signed up for just this kind of show–as had my son. I didn’t have the guts to ruin it for any of them.

So, in my pathetic way, I asked about adjuncts in a low voice from the front row—or worse, I slunk up to the guides after the tours were over and asked: did they use adjuncts?

They were ready for me.

Every one of them said, “Yes, we do employ adjunct professors” with more interminable smiles. But then, “No, I don’t know what percentage of the faculty they make up.” Two guides assured me that adjuncts are good teachers too, so I shouldn’t worry.

All of the guides invited me back to Admissions where they could answer my question more thoroughly…and collect my contact information to ensure the child of a parent who would probe into such sensitive matters would never go to that school.

No, that last part only happened in my imagination. But it’s true I didn’t pursue my question at Admissions. It’s true I feared it might reflect poorly on my son’s application.

And suddenly this felt like a really creepy business. Was I being paranoid? Probably, but I found myself in a vulnerable position: At the public universities, my son must compete for admission. At the private ones, he must compete for a financial package that will make the difference between our affording the school or not.

I need the sales people in admissions to like us, not usher us out the door for fear I might make a scene.

Voting with my wallet has always felt like a common sense strategy to me. I don’t buy meat or produce at the grocery store because I don’t like big agriculture. I buy fair trade coffee because I care about who picked and processed the beans. But where can you buy a fair trade education?

We need more parents to ask this question. If a school has fat administrators, skinny adjuncts and a long line of brand new stair machines, maybe that’s not the kind of place to drop your life’s savings.

Except I’m a captive consumer. I don’t know where I might find anything different.

Despite my griping, I’m excited about this next phase of my son’s life. I anticipate the day he’ll come home from college on a break and tell me about the cool class he’s taking and the awesome professor who teaches it. We’ll chat about it over dinner. He’ll recommend books for me to read from the syllabus.

But then we’ll wonder: Is that professor on food stamps?

And that sucks. For everyone.

Right now, the Fair Trade Movement focuses primarily on farming, food and home goods. But the fact the movement exists at all illustrates the will among Americans to make ethical purchases. Forget U.S. News & World Report. Wouldn’t it have been cool if I could have asked the tour guides, “Where does your school rank at Fair Trade USA?”

That is, of course, if I could muster the gumption to speak up.

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