The Spirit-ification of higher education

Nathan Adlam
Age of Awareness
Published in
4 min readMay 12, 2020


Image courtesy of Pixabay on Pexels

Pay for what you use, and nothing more

Both sides of the political aisle can agree that student debt in the United States is out of control. This is a crisis damning the so-called American Dream because though it’s not completely their fault, students who take on this massive debt seem to be unaware of the gravity of the student loan situation.

As of February 2018, 44 million Americans (1 in 4 American adults) collectively held a total of $1.5 trillion in student debt. As in, 1,500,000,000,000 dollars.

The average student loan borrower leaves school with a debt of $37,172. In one survey, 19% said they delayed marriage because of student loan debt. 26% delayed having kids. 86% said student debt is a major source of stress. And 65% reported having less than $1000 in their bank account.

Ok ok, we get it. Student debt is causing problems. It’s creating major stress for 86% of those 7095 students interviewed for a survey between October 9 and October 24, 2018, by the Student Debt Crisis on behalf of Summer, a social impact start-up focused on helping student loan borrowers manage their student loan debts.

Many universities charge exorbitant administrative fees, simply because they can. Colleges offering a smorgasbord of perk programs, deluxe dining halls, and fancy buildings drive up administrative costs as costs for instruction remain stagnant. In 1990, public research institutions had a faculty-to-administrator of ratio of 2:1. In 2012, that number was around 1:1. This is what we’re paying for. We’re paying for the same classes that our grandparents went through, at prices nearly four times they were back then, as well as the salaries of twice the administrators of 30 years ago.

People will continue to fork over enormous sums of money for these degrees. Not because it’s anything close to a good value, but because you’re paying for a brand. If a college were to actually lower its tuition rates, people might associate that with lower quality, removing any incentive to do so. Graduating from a prestigious university is just your resume wearing Lacoste. Sure, it might look nice, but it says nothing about the person wearing it.

Having Professors who are Nobel prize-winners or have planets named after them doesn’t necessarily mean they are better professors, or you will learn more from them. All of the technical information I learned in college I no longer use, and I can tell you, there is absolutely no difference if I had learned it from a community college professor down the street. Now I can just walk around with some swagger with a University degree that I no longer use. Oh well.

Education is too highly accessible to be this price. It is a massive bubble that when someone finds out how to serve a la carte, will pop. Someone will come along, maybe a group of disgruntled professors who are sick of seeing no part of the record revenue that their University is reaping, and put together an institution with Spirit-Airlines-style pricing, where you only pay for what you need. None of your tuition will go towards fancy new buildings made for recruiting new students or other administrative programs that have nothing to do with your field of study.

It doesn’t have to be a four-year program, and it doesn’t necessarily have to require real-estate. Consider it an apprenticeship. Create a useful, practical curriculum, partner with companies who are interested in recruiting young talent, and use existing infrastructure to teach students how to think critically in real-life situations.

People will be amazed by this, and then soon after, balk at how poor the perks of this education are, as it is with any pay-for-what-you-use service, and we will be back at square one. As we do with Spirit Airlines these days… do you have to pay for the air you breathe?

Or would they? Would anyone complain about getting a laser-focused, distraction-free education? When I went through engineering school, I was required to take some non-engineering electives. History of American Popular Music and History of the Mafia were nice diversions from the drudgery of engineering coursework, but in hindsight, kind of seems like racketeering, kind of like the Mafia used to do. We’ll take care of you, but you have to follow our rules, and that’s going to cost money.

But what about the stuff in college that you don’t learn in the classroom? What about football saturdays? What about the parties with your best friends you barely remember? Doing your own laundry for the very first time?

Of course, those things are priceless. Going to college is a great excuse to leave home. If what we’re paying for is the experience, then what kind of experiences could the average student have for $100,000 over four years? I can imagine a few memorable experiences I could make with that much money.

College doesn’t need to be free, though that is the standard in some highly-developed nations. But it shouldn’t be a source of stress for around 86% of student-loan borrowers. Higher education would be a bigger benefit to society if it were more practical and less like a country club.

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book: Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights



Nathan Adlam
Age of Awareness

English teacher, engineer, expat… writing about things I am passionate about. Author of Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights.