Portrait of the porn star as a young millennial

duke porn

News that there is a Duke University freshman who acts in pornographic films was always going to make the Internet catch fire.  But the recent revelations, which have taken every site from Jezebel to Reason to the Huffington Post by storm, also have offered a frightening picture of the economic choices faced by an entire generation of Americans.

The student in question, calling herself “Lauren” for the sake of protection, told RealClearEducation:

People have this perception that if you cannot pay for college, financial aid will take care of you, and that perception is wrong. If you are very low income, you can get a full ride to Duke, no problem. If you are middle- or upper-middle class, you will get screwed in the process. So many middle-class students have not gotten sufficient financial aid because, on paper, their families look like they have money. Just because I’m not poor doesn’t mean I can afford $60,000 a year for college. Other students from middle- and upper-middle class families have said the same thing.[…]

I think it’s very poignant that, nowadays, if you’re middle class, the only way to pay for college is to take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans. We need to provide a better financial future for our students. I shouldn’t have to go broke, I shouldn’t have to go into debt at 18 years old to pay for an education.

Lauren is eminently correct, and it’s sad that it took her being a tabloid curiosity for this narrative to be heard.

We are talking about a girl who made what, from any perspective, is a heroic and responsible choice by refusing to settle for an education that was less than what her academic achievements merit. She got into Duke and, therefore, had every right to go. Some have treated her means of paying for the experience as a scandal. The real scandal is that we have permitted elite educational institutions, which are supposed to be based on merit, to price themselves into luxury goods for anyone who isn’t either extremely rich or extremely poor.

Lauren’s experience could well count as a metaphor for the experience of the millennial generation and the predatory loan bubble that has so damaged them. The world is full of women’s studies majors with elite degrees who end up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and confronted by disappointing job prospects. This one happened to avoid the last bit by having sex on camera for money. Lauren herself apparently feels empowered by the experience, and therefore I won’t presume to lament her fate, but there are plenty of co-eds who wouldn’t have the same reaction. A career in porn should not be the prerequisite for joining what Charles Murray calls “the cognitive elite.”

How did it get this way? Several answers present themselves.

Colleges suffer from a third-party payment problem. Tuition tends to be paid by institutions (the government, banks) that face massive perverse incentives, among them a lack of regard for how much efficiently those funds are actually spent. Rather, these same institutions expect to profit handsomely from bigger loans and to be bailed out if those loans prove toxic. What’s more, because student loan debt cannot be discharged, they are shielded even from concern about students declaring bankruptcy.

What’s more, because colleges don’t face pressure from financial institutions to control rising tuition, they are free to expand in irrelevant areas like hiring more administrative staff without much concern for fiscal prudence. What’s worse, when they do cut costs, it tends to be from parts of the budget that shouldn’t be cut; for instance, by relying on visiting adjunct professors to teach. As Matt Yglesias put it:

The issue is that schools are finding that they can get away with charging high prices. Since colleges are non-profits, ability to charge high prices doesn’t lead to dividend payouts or the acquisition of big cash stockpiles. The money gets spent. And the trend lately has been to spend it on administrators.

Ultimately, colleges are immune from being held accountable for the results they produce. A women’s studies major like Lauren, even from Duke, is not going to be as competitive in today’s job market as a computer science major. But colleges have an incentive to maximize the flow of subsidized loans, not to ensure they provide good returns on investment. Not even appeals to “the value of a liberal arts education” could justify the situation, given how most “studies” departments ignore the Western canon in favor of trendy material that is useless outside the academy.

Most of these sorts of problems could be fixed by a sufficiently hard-nosed approach by federal lenders, along with some sort of relief for current debt holders, but it may take more horror stories like Lauren’s for that to happen. Pornography might have provided one elite college student a way out of debt, but that’s no excuse to sit by and watch while her entire generation gets screwed.

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