Is College Really Just An Expensive Pyramid Scheme?

Just how similar is the modern college experience to a pyramid scheme?

By Andrea Mew3 min read
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In its purest definition, pyramid schemes are a predatory business model where members on the top recruit members on the bottom. These newer members often pay high costs upfront to the top-level members who brought them in. Pyramid schemes profit from recruitment fees and those upfront investments made by new recruits rather than from actual sales of goods or services. And most pyramid schemes are only lucrative deals for those at the top of the food chain.

We all know the most common manifestation of the pyramid scheme, multi-level marketing businesses or MLMs, where your former high school classmates become girl-bosses and then try to sell you overpriced cosmetics, supplements, or clothing online or at their squad’s parties.

So what’s the deal with people comparing scams like pyramid schemes to something as innocent as a good, old college education? Well, you have the people at the top, the deans, administrators, professors, lecturers, and so on, who make profits from tuition and textbook sales. Then you have the young people at the bottom who are lured in to get pricy degrees that may or may not put them into a viable field, or they’ll go straight back into the education system and continue the cycle.

What’s the ROI on 8+ Semesters’ Worth of Classes, Really?

The education you receive is largely dependent on the degree you’re seeking. Even some of the top colleges and universities that tout themselves as providing the next generation with “a world class education” are actually failing to prepare students for the workforce.

Some of the most useless college degrees are in things like Gender Studies. Harvard, Princeton, Vanderbilt, and most other top colleges and Ivy League universities all offer these majors.

With a Gender Studies major, what job can you get after graduation besides going back into academia?

Now ask yourself, what’s your career path if you major in Gender studies? What job can you take up after graduation besides going back into higher education?

Really telling testimony comes from taking a look at some of the courses that people receive college credit for. Clearly, there are plenty of courses that have tangible educational outcomes, but there are also countless classes that just don’t scream “gainful employment opportunities beyond being shuffled back into the education system” to me. For example:

  • Northwestern University offers a course in “Unsettling Whiteness”

  • Swarthmore College offers a course in “Queering God: Feminist and Queer Theology

  • University of Minnesota offers a course in “Marx for Today”

You get credit for classes that instruct you to examine things like reproductive heteronormativity, productive ablebodieness, or how viable Marxist fundamental concepts are in the current year. You may end up less prepared for the real world as a result! 

Talking about Textbooks…

You pay to attend the university, you pay the professors for their time and textbooks, you might be subjected to additional coursework, and then you stop and wonder what good or service you actually paid for. 

Professors butter up the textbook industry and then publishers start issuing new editions (which cost 12% more with each new release – that’s 4x the rate of inflation!) or creating custom, branded textbooks to increase profits. And don’t forget about the costly access codes that create a paywall between you and your textbook that just feeds back into the publisher’s pockets.

Meanwhile, deans, administrators, professors, and tutors get their lifestyle subsidized by your dollars. The profit structure in the modern college system exists to keep the people at the top comfortable. This is why people accuse college of being predatory like a pyramid scheme.

The Student Loan System Is Predatory Too

There’s evidence that college and higher education have positive effects on a person’s job prospects or their ability to move up in their field. But being left drowning in debt is simply not positive. Drowning in debt is similar to being lost in a pyramid scheme. You get lured in by promises of rigorous degrees that guarantee a better quality of life, but we just all can’t pay what the universities want us to pay to fund their administrators’ trust funds.

So you borrow. You might end up with mountains of debt. Last year, total student loan debt in America hit a record: there were 45 million borrowers who all together owe almost $1.7 trillion dollars. That’s about $38K in debt per person.

41% of recent college grads are underemployed, working in roles beneath their qualifications.

Wow, that’s a lot of borrowers who must all be very well educated and enjoying the fruits of their labors post-graduation cap toss! Nope! Not only are recent grads facing high rates of unemployment, but 41% of recent college grads are underemployed, working in roles way beneath what their degree should have guaranteed them.

College isn’t worthless – yet – but it can certainly scam you out of many years of your life and scam you out of plenty of your hard-earned money. 

Closing Thoughts

Calling everything that hurts the underdog and benefits those on the top a pyramid scheme can dilute the real meaning of an organization that really, purposefully cons people out of their money.

That doesn’t negate the argument that the modern college experience is similar to a pyramid scheme. Paying an arm and a leg for a degree that probably doesn’t streamline you into a career and instead just lines the pocketbooks of bureaucrats, publishers, administrators, deans, and professors is a scam.

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