Analysis: Understanding the higher education bubble through Caddyshack

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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.

Benedictine College fits the bill nicely. It’s a small Catholic school in Atchison, Kansas, some 160 miles from both Omaha and Lincoln. In today’s dollars, the grand total for tuition, room and board at Benedictine is about $30,600 — 283% more than the $8,000 Danny expected to pay in 1980. Factoring in inflation, stuff that cost $8,000 then would typically cost about $21,000 now. That’s a much lower increase of 163 percent. So, obviously, while the cost of living has gone up considerably in the last 32 years, the cost of a private undergraduate education has absolutely skyrocketed.

Of course, it’s kind of mean to pick on poor Benedictine College. The current price there is downright affordable compared to many private schools. If Danny were to attend Creighton University in Omaha today, he’d have to shell out $33,330 annually for just tuition alone. That’s a 317% increase over Danny’s $8,000 in 1980. If Danny plans to pay for room and board at Creighton as well, the cost in 2012 is $42,776, which would be a whopping 435% increase.

The climax of “Caddyshack” involves a high-stakes golf match. About halfway through 18 holes, Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield), who is awful at golf, fakes an injury. Danny decides to fill in for him, thus forfeiting the caddy scholarship he had brown-nosed so hard to earn, but reclaiming his dignity. When Danny is putting on the last green, the score of the match is tied. An ever-increasing bet on the match is a bit hard to follow, but we understand that either Czervik or Judge Elihu Smails (Ted Knight) will owe $80,000 depending on the outcome.

Remember: it’s 1980, and Danny has said that his education at a private Catholic college will cost $8,000 per year. Consequently, the $80,000 wager represented enough for him to spend an entire decade getting his degree. In 2012, with inflation, $80,000 equates to nearly $209,000. This same inflation-adjusted amount would pay for fewer than seven years of tuition, room and board at Benedictine today. At Creighton, it wouldn’t pay for 5 years. (And, for the record, $209,000 wouldn’t even pay for four years at New York University).

What has made the cost of undergraduate education cost so ludicrous? Well, it’s a complicated story — much more complex than “Caddyshack,” and not nearly as entertaining. In a nutshell, though, schools have responded to well-intentioned government efforts to subsidize college education through loans by pushing prices perpetually higher. And these higher prices have caused students to borrow more and more money. The result, in addition to the absurd prices, is over $1 trillion in student loan debt.

Other reasons for increased costs include grossly bloated and inefficient college bureaucracies. Professors are teaching far fewer courses, too. Also, schools are offering too many Bushwood-like luxuries. Creighton, just for example, boasts a 48,000 square-foot athletic facility, complete with batting cages and a suspended two-lane running track. So, students have such frills going for them, which is nice. However, newly-minted college graduates today start their careers with over $25,000 in average debt, which they cannot discharge in bankruptcy, even on their deathbeds. That’s not very nice at all.

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