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Ponzi-tively Outrageous

by Lydia Rommel



I am grateful to be at Oberlin. But sometimes I can’t help but think of a man named Charles Ponzi, and how gleefully he would have grinned at the blind mouse students of the modern liberal arts college. A Ponzi Scheme is a form of fraud in which new investors are promised a high return at little risk, and their money is used to pay previous investors. Often, investors won’t withdraw their money for a long time, and the mastermind lies about profits being made. It functions only when there is consistent input of new investors, and if everybody believes they are getting the high returns they were sold on. I now have almost a year of college under my belt, and my cynical side has begun to see parallels between the Ponzi scheme and the American liberal arts education.

More and more, high school graduates feel that a university education is compulsory, buying into the idea of a great reward. The ‘investors’ buying into the scheme here are students, and the college system can only continue to function because of the constant influx of their money. And though it is an Oberlin student’s worst nightmare to support the capitalist chains which restrict our society from a co-operative socialist freedom (...or something), we are surprisingly complicit in the scheme.

Most of my classmates who aren’t in STEM have no idea what they’re majoring in. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when a degree is worth more than an education—you show up because it’s expected of you. A 2017 Harvard study found that between 2007 and 2010, the percentage of nationwide job listings requiring a degree rose by 10%. Nine out of ten jobs that required a degree did not differ in duties or responsibilities from jobs that didn’t require a degree. This is not because jobs became more difficult, but because employers began to overvalue credentials. Oberlin students adopted that same perspective when choosing colleges: didn’t we end up here partly because of the reputation, the aesthetics, the image that an Oberlin degree calls to mind? This echoes the poor investor’s entry into a Ponzi Scheme: pursuing greater rewards, often superficially or image-driven, ignoring the risks (such as 6 figures of student debt) to attain it.

To temper my previous criticism, I’d like to acknowledge that we are obviously learning here at Oberlin. And our personal goals may be just that, to educate and better ourselves. But simply because we are American college students, our individual goals will not change the fact that our tuition money and our presence here supports the capitalist employment cycle. Colleges can try to set themselves apart from it, but it’s undeniable that they aren’t just there to mold young minds, but to certify them for labor. It has always been true that information is public property, especially now with accessible internet resources, so holding a degree doesn’t automatically make you smarter or more well-informed, it just makes you marketable.

We all buy into it, every day. But how much of our learning could be self-facilitated if we weren’t burdened by the necessity of a degree? Most of us lack the drive and discipline to teach ourselves, and that’s not necessarily our fault. The job market in the United States is such that we aren’t taught to value learning, but position and progress. What does my true learning matter if I have nothing to show for it? And even if a handful of people embrace a combative viewpoint, what does it matter (if they have nothing to show for it)?

Ponzi schemes typically collapse when investors realize they’re being conned, when the authorities get involved, or when the economy experiences a downturn and investors try to withdraw their contributions. College enrollment has been dropping since 2019, and has not picked back up with the return of in-person classes. The job market, which represents the general economy in our liberal arts Ponzi analogy, is also in a highly competitive and unfriendly place. Though colleges are far from a financial crisis of the sort that would topple their scheme, the decrease in applicants in context of the inaccessible job market is akin to investors trying to pull out amid a sinking economy. Realistically, colleges are so deeply entrenched in the market and in donors’ pockets that the lowered applicants won’t matter. But as a member of the so-called ‘investors,’ it’s consequential to know how we affect this scheme, which does not have our best interests at heart.

If this article has left you feeling hopeless, just remember how the wicked Charles Ponzi died: after being imprisoned for decades, he suffered a heart attack, started going blind, then had a brain hemorrhage that paralyzed his left leg and arm, and finally died with no friends at his bedside. Though macabre, it’s a nice reminder that it’s not always the mastermind who ends up on top! But since Oberlin students can’t just mysteriously cause horrible illnesses for those who run the college system, we’ll have to start with ourselves. Consider your place in this greater scheme: who are you supporting, and do all your actions correspond to your values? What are your values? Are you learning for yourself, or for someone else? Thinking critically about your position in this context, and maybe it will start to feel less hopeless.

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