How to provide higher learning at a lower price


I have a modest proposal for making the college experience more affordable, accessible, excellent and just plain better.

It’s called indentured servitude.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, indentured servitude was your ticket to America if you couldn’t afford a ticket. And most folks couldn’t — because passage to America back then cost the equivalent of about seven years’ wages. So instead of spending half a lifetime scraping up the dough, you signed a legally binding contract with a ship’s captain, in which you agreed to work your tail off for him for seven years (actual times varied). When you got to the future land of the free, the captain would sell your contract to anyone who needed for your skills and services. The buyer would then provide you with what passed for three hots and a cot in, say, 1715, and set you to work on his farm or in his business. (Working and living conditions generally sucked, but then so did working and living conditions on the other side of the pond.)

At the end of the term you were free to move about the country and pursue life, liberty, happiness and real estate.

Here’s how it would work in higher education: Say you wanted to go to the University of Colorado. Instead of paying tuition, room and board, CU would pay for everything and even provide you with a small monthly allowance of walkingaround money. But upon acceptance, you would sign a seven-year indenture agreement with CU — one year service for every semester — with a year off if you graduate.

Upon graduation, CU will sell your contract of indenture to any company or individual in need of your skills and services. The buyer would provide you with what passes for three hots and a cot today (in the company dorm and mess if the buyer is IBM or Apple, in the back of a warehouse if it’s Amazon, etc.) and set you to work providing added value and profit.

The benefits of this arrangement for all parties concerned — you, your mom and dad, CU and the buyer of your contract — boggle the imagination.

Benefit #1: CU is going to find you a job upon graduation. How many universities do that (aside from West Point)?

Benefit #2: Your parents will not have to spend half a lifetime saving up the dough to send you to college, or alternatively; 

Benefit #3: You won’t still be paying off your student loans when the roll is called up yonder.

Benefit #4: After seven years you will be entering the job market with seven years of experience.

Benefit #5: CU will take a ferocious interest in your academic success. Today if you flunk out, you’ve wasted your time and money. But if you flunked out as an indentured student, you’ve wasted CU’s time and money. CU will have skin in the game. Yours. So CU will help you be all that you can be. Or else. Think of it as in loco parentis with a tiger mom.

Benefit #6: CU won’t have to keep begging the state of Colorado for money, because it will be making out like a bandit by selling indenture contracts to the Fortune 1000. Do the arithmetic. As things now stand, CU grosses about $200,000 for every out-of-state student who earns a bachelor’s degree (four years of tuition and fees of $33,000 to $35,000 a year, plus four years of room and board at $13,000 a year), and about $120,000 from Colorado residents who pay in-state tuition.

But it could easily sell a computer science major’s contract of indenture to IBM or Apple for say $350,000 ($50,000 a year for seven years) and make $150,000 per graduate. IBM and Apple would be ecstatic at being able to get the services of superbly trained programmers for $50K a year. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a computer programmer is $74,280 — and that was in 2012.) But doesn’t the Constitution ban “involuntary servitude”? It certainly does. But what we’re talking about is voluntary servitude.

But isn’t indentured servitude, well, un-American? Au contraire! Between 1620 and 1775, more than half the white immigrants to the American colonies — some 400,000 souls — arrived indentured. Indentured servitude is as American as apple pie, the NFL draft and community service.

But — worst case scenario — what if CU can’t find anyone to buy your contract? What if McDonald’s doesn’t need any more medieval art history majors on the burger flipping line? What if Starbucks is no longer in the market for baristas with grievance studies degrees? In that case, CU would sell your contract to your mother for $1. You would move back into your old room. And spend the next seven years cleaning it.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.


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