Analysis: Understanding the higher education bubble through Caddyshack

Statistics are boring, at least 85 percent of the time. Even the compelling ones tend to make your eyes glaze over. This little statistics-filled essay about the higher-education bubble aims to keep you interested, though, by relating said higher-education bubble to something we can all identify with: the 1980 movie “Caddyshack.”

“Caddyshack” is a lot of things. It’s hilarious. It’s a loosely-plotted, deeply-flawed yet brilliant American classic held together, somehow, by a dancing gopher. It also happens to be a museum-quality time capsule concerning consumer prices.

If you pay attention, “Caddyshack” is full of all kinds of wonderful, offhand price indicators. For example, we learn that a bottle of Coca-Cola was decidedly overpriced at 50 cents in 1980. Adjusting for inflation, that’s a little over $1.30 today. A snack bar menu at Bushwood Country Club advertises cheeseburgers for $1.75 ($4.50 or so today), hot dogs for 75 cents (roughly $2 today) and potato chips for 40 cents (about $1.05 today). If you’ve been to a golf course lately, or an airport, or a 7-Eleven, none of these inflation-adjusted prices should strike you as remotely shocking.

“Caddyshack” also serves as a unique commentary on the way college sticker prices have spiraled out of control. The thin plot involves a quest by the main character, Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) to pay for college. Danny is a kid from a working-class Catholic family. He recently graduated from high school with admittedly lousy grades. He lives in a fairly large city which is located somewhere in Nebraska — for reasons known only to the writers (Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis and Douglas Kenney), and despite the palm trees dotting the film. It’s impossible to say which city exactly, but The Cornhusker State is sorely lacking in major metropolitan areas. Omaha and Lincoln seem like the only plausible candidates.

During the summer, Danny is a caddy at Bushwood, a haven for Nebraskan WASPs. On a typical day, he earns something like $30 plus tips, so call it $35. That’s over $90 in today’s dollars — not too shabby for a day carrying golf bags. By way of comparison, the modern-day minimum wage for 8 hours of work is $58.

In the opening scene, Danny’s father chides him about college. If Danny doesn’t go, his father warns, he’ll soon find himself working in a lumberyard.

We next see Danny caddying for Ty Webb (Chevy Chase), an eccentric of sorts, and a scratch golfer. Danny tells Ty what his father has just told him: it’s either college or the lumberyard. Danny also mentions that college will cost $8,000 per year, and he knows his parents don’t have that kind of money.

According to Danny, the school he will attend if he can amass the funds is called St. Copious. Reports are that there are only two girls on campus, both nuns. Piecing together the evidence, then, St. Copious appears to be a small Catholic school located either in the city where Danny lives or within a reasonable driving distance.