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Colleges Are Full of It: Behind the Three-Decade Scheme to Raise Tuition, Bankrupt Generations, and Hypnotize the Media

Thomas Frank argues that journalists have failed when it comes to holding universities accountable for the rise in college tuition:

What I mean to say is that the tuition price spiral is part of the larger history of inequality, just as is the ever-rising price of Andy Warhol paintings, or the ever-growing size of the McMansion, or the ever-weightier catalogs issued by Restoration Hardware—and, of course, the never-increasing wages of American workers. As the rewards that can potentially be won by members of the white-collar class have gone from meh (in the egalitarian 1970s) to Neronian (today), it feels natural that the entrance fee for membership in that class should have escalated in a corresponding manner. The iron logic of inequality works the other way as well: Although a college degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee a life of splendor, not having one pretty much makes a life of poorly compensated toil a sure thing. Finding ourselves on the receiving end of inequality is a fate we will pay virtually any price to avoid, and our system of higher ed exists to set and extract that price.

PUBLISHED: June 10, 2014
LENGTH: 16 minutes (4150 words)

Fast Food, Minimum Wage, and an Industry Engineered for the 'Interchangeability of Workers'

Thomas Frank on striking fast-food workers, many living in poverty:

Now, everyone knows how poorly fast-food jobs pay. They also know why this is supposed to be okay: fast-food workers are teenagers, they don’t have kids or college degrees, and it’s an entry-level job. Hell, it’s virtually a form of national service, the economic boot camp that has replaced the two years our fathers had to give to the armed forces.

Every one of these soothing shibboleths was contradicted by what I saw in North Carolina. These days, fast-food workers are often adults, they often do have children, and I met at least one college grad among the protesters in Raleigh. Why are things like this? Because a job is a job, and in times as lean as ours, the Golden Arches may be the only game in town, regardless of qualifications and degrees.

What people who repeat these things also don’t know is how much effort has gone into keeping fast-food pay so low, despite the enormous profits raked in by the chains.

PUBLISHED: Dec. 6, 2013
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3605 words)

Academy Fight Song

"The higher education mantra is possibly the greatest cliché in American public life." Thomas Frank argues that greed has taken over at most universities in the U.S., causing costs to spiral out of control, administrators to proliferate, and professors' work to be outsourced to instructors with no benefits or job security:

"We don’t pause to consider that maybe we’ve got the whole thing backwards—that the big universities expanded in their heyday to keep up with industry demand, not to build the middle class. Instead, what everyone agrees on is this: higher education is the industry that sells tickets to the affluent life. In fact, they are the only ones licensed to do this. Yes, there are many colleges one can choose from—public, private, and for-profit—but collectively they control the one credential that we believe to be of value. Everything about them advertises it. The armorial logos, the Gothic towers, even the names of the great colleges, so redolent of money and privilege and aristocracy: Duke and Princeton and Vanderbilt. If you want to succeed, you must go to them; they are the ones controlling the gate."
PUBLISHED: Aug. 30, 2013
LENGTH: 23 minutes (5777 words)

Longreads Member Exclusive: The American Nonconformist in the Age of the Commercialization of Dissent

This week's Longreads Member pick is "The American Nonconformist in the Age of the Commercialization of Dissent," a 1992 essay by Thomas Frank from The Baffler, the magazine he cofounded with Keith White in 1988. 

Frank writes: 

"In republishing this bit of juvenilia from 1992—my very first exploration of an idea that I reworked and reconsidered a number of times over the years that followed—it is worth remembering some of the context. This was before the web, for the most part; it was right about when 'alternative' was beginning to hit the culture, and a lot of the stuff I describe here was new and surprising at the time. Today, of course, most of it seems utterly unremarkable, so far has what I used to call the commercialization of dissent advanced. It's not something I really even think about anymore, except for the most outrageous iterations—like the ski helmet I bought last week, a model called 'Mutiny' by 'R.E.D.' And even then I'm too exhausted to bother belaboring the ironic contrast of this bragging rebelliousness with the millionairiest sport there is. I'm off to even more ironic fields. See you there."

p.s. You can support Longreads—and get more exclusives like this—by becoming a member for just $3 per month.

PUBLISHED: Jan. 4, 2013
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2897 words)

Dead End on Shakin' Street

Why the sudden proliferation of "vibrant" communities in the United States? And what does it even mean?

"Is Rockford, Illinois, vibrant? Oh my god yes: according to a local news outlet, the city’s 'Mayor’s Arts Award nominees make Rockford vibrant.' The Quad Cities? Check: As their tourism website explains, the four hamlets are 'a vibrant community of cities sharing the Mississippi River in both Iowa and Illinois.' Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Need you even ask? Pittsburgh is a sort of Athens of the vibrant; a city where dance parties and rock concerts enjoy the vigorous boosting of an outfit called 'Vibrant Pittsburgh'; a place that draws young people from across the nation to frolic in its 'numerous hip and vibrant neighborhoods,' according to a blog maintained by a consortium of Pittsburgh business organizations.

"The vibrations are just as stimulating in the component parts of this exciting new civilization. The people of creative-land use vibrant apps to check their bank accounts, chew on vegetarian 'vibrancy bars,' talk to one another on vibrant cellphones, and drive around in cars painted 'vibrant white.'"
PUBLISHED: July 16, 2012
LENGTH: 16 minutes (4121 words)