Just another occasion to feel entirely alienated from American culture and values

Baa Ram U. announced that tuition next year will increase by 9%, making the cost of one year at my university for Colorado residents the princely sum of $7,494.  Unfortunately, the Denver Post buried the lede in the final paragraph, in which the uni’s president notes that “‘If you’re the one writing the check for that $619 increase, that’s what you see, that you’re being forced to pay more money,’ [Tony] Frank said of [the tuition] hike. “That’s not abstract — but what people don’t see is how less of your taxes are being used to buy down the cost of that education.'”

No $hit, Fred.  And yet, we’re still treated to blathering by people–most of whose college degrees have at least 25 years’ worth of dust on them–who want the American people to question the value of a college education.  Moreover, these are in many cases the exact same people who have championed the disinvestment in higher education that started more than thirty years ago.

Interestingly enough, in the very same newspaper in which I read of this tuition increase, I learned from Ask Amy that the average price of a wedding in the United States is now $30,000.  If that number is anywhere near true, then I call bull$hit not just on the Bill Bennett’s of the world, but on the spending priorities of the American people.  When cost of a 4-year college degree costs only as much as one f^(king wedding, that does not suggest to me that college costs too much.  It says that Americans clearly don’t value college enough, perhaps because public universities have kept tuition too damn low for too long and have too effectively disguised the true cost of government disinvestment of higher education.

I hearby call a moratorium on complaints from individuals or their parents about the cost of a college education if they spent more money on a wedding than on their own or a child’s college education.  Enough, I say!  Where are your priorities?  Where are your values?

(And don’t b!tch here about the price of weddings these days.  It is possible to Just Say No to the Marital Industrial Complex.  I did it, and you can too.  My dress cost $89 off the rack.  I got married for maybe $3,000-$3,500 all told 17 years ago, including the volunteer food, time, and labor donated by family members.  And guess what?  I’m still married, to the same person!  Not all marriages are happy, and not all of them last, in spite of whatever ridiculous price you paid for your party, but as my grandmother used to say, “Once you’ve got your education, no one can ever take it away from you.”  Pretty smart for a mere high school graduate, Scott High School, class of ’34.)

Harumph.  Now, get off my lawn!  (Just kidding!  Pull up a lawn chair, grab a beverage, and tell me what you think.  It looks like it might be spring, at least for a day or two here on the high plains.)

43 thoughts on “Just another occasion to feel entirely alienated from American culture and values

  1. Where to start? So many things come to mind:

    If the people paying tens of thousands for weddings also have college degrees, what were we teaching them?! Clearly I have failed miserably in my homosexual Marxist anti American teaching agenda, and have not made a dent in hetero-nucleo-family-fueled capitalism. Back to the drawing board.

    Back when I thought I was straight and tried to marry an opposite-sex person, we paid about $2000 to rent a cottage for a weekend and feed everyone. I wore trousers (probably should have paid attention to my utter horror at the idea of wearing a dress. The part where my sister chased me around the room brandishing lipstick might have clued in the more observant, too). Best party of my life. Failure of marriage in no way correlated to failure to pay $30,000, and we are still friends.

    The fact that a 4year degree at a public uni costs less than a Monster Wedding doesn’t make the former affordable. It’s still too much! I am convinced I would never have got a BA let alone all the rest if I hadn’t lived In a country where it was essentially free for me. but maybe this is what The Man wants – upward mobility only for those already pretty far up the privilege ladder.


  2. Loumac: heh on the trousers/no lipstick straight wedding.

    On the affordability of college: I once taught at a private university that hired a marketing firm to do some research as to how to raise its profile nationally. Their answer? Raise tuition! Yes, that’s right: because the uni had effectively kept costs relatively low for a private uni, people concluded that it wasn’t a very good uni, and didn’t appreciate at all the work the uni had done to try to keep itself affordable to its target population. So they raised tuition, and guess what? Apps and yield went up that same year. So I guess what I was suggesting is that Americans may perversely value more what costs them more–like weddings–and they may discount or scoff at things that cost them relatively less (like a public 4-year degree.)

    I wish we could make college free for all Americans, much like the Cal unis were until Ronald Reagan became governor. But because Americans don’t in fact value what they get for free (or for cheap), I don’t think even that would work to convince some people that college is “worth it.”


  3. I don’t claim any expertise on the matter, but what about understanding peoples’ motivations for going to college nowadays? You seem to assume (an assumption I wish was the norm) that college is a means of getting a good education. Whereas, and I think this is especially true for underprivileged folks, college is seen as a means to a job. And as far as that goes, in 2013 when magnitudes more people go to college than in the days when a Harvard degree guaranteed you any job you wanted, you can understand the devaluation of the college degree. Degree escalation, if you will. So, like with all things that we want to save from an industrial complex, college and it’s accreditation system need to be decoupled from capitalism.


  4. These are some interesting comments. Part time lurker, commenting for the first time, and finding it interesting to discuss possible solutions to this problem. The German system actually has some benefits over the present American system of education, in as much as it recognizes excellence and is actually affordable.


  5. Timely post, and as Loumac suggests, you could totally write a book on it, which I’ll try not to. But just before I opened it I was reflecting for arcane reasons about how my father took five years to finish high school (in the late 1920s), probably because his dairy farmer parents didn’t realize that high school was “the new trade school,” and that dairy farming would evaporate from lower “Upstate” New York during their lifetime. He then took a year to attend what we would call a “proprietary business school,” which helped to ease his transition, as a youngest son, into the citified white collar ranks, although the Depression slowed that process considerably. In the immediate post-Pearl Harbor chaos, an army intake recruitment processor credited him with “one year of college,” surely a generous judgment. I learned nothing of this until archivally sorting household papers as his executor.

    That and what were essentially the clerical skills he learned at “college” were doubtless what kept him for three years (as maybe the most un-sergeantly staff sergeant in the country) on a series of bases in this country, processing paperwork for younger men who had either graduated on time or dropped out to milk cows, to go and storm the beaches in Europe. Except for this set of casual and/or at best incidental life “decisions,” I might not even be here, given that battlefield casualties didn’t tend to produce many Baby Boomers.

    This seems relevant in a lot of perverse ways that include but extend far beyond the subject of tuition disinvestment when I review the frustrations and occasional satisfactions in the storied “trenches” of public higher education now that college has become “the new high school” (the papers this morning are full of stories about this). Students make what seem like hideously-casual choices about drop-add, major-changing, double-majors, appealing or not appealing what are in fact eminently-appealable assistant dean decisions on applying or waiving grade-point criteria for enrollment suspensions or return from suspension and the like. Leaving aside the very real money on the table in these choices, the academic bureaucratic landscapes they function in today makes the ones I faced as a tie-died hippie Boomer seem like playground recess.

    The Depression-era clueless youth of my parents’ generation probably didn’t have any better idea than I did, or today’s kids do, what the consequences might be of day-by-day strategic decision-making. But they certainly understood in a generic way after WW II the critical importance of what now gets called the education “platform,” and they didn’t stint on investing in it. The Boomers of my era have done just that, to their own progeny’s detriment. The guilt-trip/ consolation prize is the “destination wedding,” which I learned last week means that the happy couple gets it for free if they can lure several dozen of their friends to fly to some dismantled sugar island for a week of risky revelry at full fare.


  6. As you might expect Historiann,

    I’m more interested in tuition than weddings. Speaking as someone who is being hit by the general cheapness of the State of Colorado from both ends, what Bah Ram U lacks is transparency. Not being a regular Denver Post reader, the first I’m hearing about this is right on this very blog. They have my e-mail. They might actually tell us (parents and students) about this before it hits the papers.

    Also, you can never forget about the fees. That tuition figure doesn’t include board (which you all probably figured), but the fees are what make tuition bills unreadable. Locker fees, course fees, gym fees…I’d rather just pay it all up front. When Bah Ram U sends me bills in mid-semester, it feels like I’m having my pocket picked very, very slowly even though I actually know that college there is a bargain.


  7. Two points.
    1. I think that the wedding cost probably reflects the averaging of those multimillion dollar weddings of the 1 percent with the far less costly weddings of most folks. Or maybe I am terribly naive.
    2. Baa Ram U’s new in-state tuition is about $6,000 less than in-state tuition at my public state university, where the state contributes only about 20% of the institutional budget. I think that gets us back to the spending on prisons vs. education debate!


  8. Another useful comparison, it seems to me, is the cost of a new car. First, no family that buys a child a new car at the age of 16 (or 18) has real grounds for complaint if the cost of college is comparable to 2x or even 4x the cost of that car. If they could swing the car expense that year (or finance it over a few years), parents plus offspring can probably afford 2x to 4x college costs spread over a few years or even decades without undue pain. Or, to come at it from the other direction: if paying for college means driving used cars until one is 40 or 50 (and probably after that because one is paying for one’s own children’s college), that strikes me as a pretty sensible tradeoff. College educations last a lot longer (and hold their value much better) than cars.

    Graduation and/or anniversary parties (or trips to amusement parks or those family cruises to celebrate same that always seem to fall during the school year, because they’re cheaper then) are another source of comparative data.

    And yes, weddings work well, too. Maybe it’s because I need to save for retirement(!) at this point, but, should I ever marry, I’d definitely prefer the kind of relatively modest celebration you and others describe (among other things, who wants to spend 6 months to a year consumed by negotiating with multiple vendors, when one could be doing research, or something else worthwhile and, if not remunerative, at least not hideously expensive?).


  9. On the other hand, I do worry that paying off college loans is taking the place of saving for a down payment on a house for many young people. Even if housing turns out not to be as good an investment in the coming decades as it was during the latter half of the twentieth century, that’s a potential problem, especially as long as the mortgage interest deduction (which, at least in my high-housing-cost area, can free up a substantial chunk of change from one’s housing budget that can then be applied to other purposes) is in place.


  10. @Historiann:

    I wish we could make college free for all Americans, … [b]ut because Americans don’t in fact value what they get for free (or cheap), I don’t think that would work to convince some people that college is “worth it.”

    I wish it could be free for everyone too! I know I greatly value the college education I got for (almost) free, and I know that getting that scholarship enabled me to do things I may not have been able to do if my parents had had to pay for it all on their own, like live on campus and go to the four-year university for all four years.

    Y’all are totally right about expensive weddings and new cars for high schoolers, though. My family was not one of those families.


  11. Two vaguely related things:
    As tuition goes up, so do the working hours of many of our students. When I moved to western Colorado, I was amazed by how many of our students work full time while taking a full course load. Some of these same students also have children. As Sharat B. notes, many of these students see college as a ticket to better economic opportunities rather than a door opened to a good education. (Recently a student complained audibly in class about having to take general education classes–of which my history class is one. She said gen. ed. was “just a way for [insert college name] to make money off of us.” When I suggested that maybe general education classes were useful for expanding our knowledge base and opening our eyes to different ways of seeing the world, she scoffed.)

    In western Colorado, our residents are very proud of their anti-tax stance. In our local paper, childless adults complain about having to pay for even the K-12 education for other people’s children. They embrace the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights. They voted against bond measures for an improved public library.


  12. If childless adults complain about paying for K-12 education for other people’s children, they should just not bother to call the f’ing ambulance when they tumble down the basement stairs, clawing for their Medic-Alert button as they tumble. Or at least not feel too offended if the first-responders who arrive are grunting and showing each other pictograms while they try to figure out where to apply the mobile splint and neck stabilizer, or debate how (and whether) to roll them onto the transport board.


  13. I’m at the age where all my friends are getting married, and I can testify that $30,000 is about right for a (middle-middle class) wedding. Cheap venues (churches, VFW halls) start at about $2500, and are often booked years in advance. Inexpensive caterers run $100 a plate. You’ve got to pay a coordinator to manage it all- in fact, many venues demand a professional coordinator, and sometimes insist you use one of their choosing. Note we haven’t even gotten to the dress, which is actually a relative cheap part of the whole thing. Any deviation from expectations will have a steep social cost, as your relatives and guests decry your stinginess. And don’t think the cattiness will be limited to the women- men can be just as nasty about the “right” way to do a wedding, especially when it comes to the food.

    As for the tuition- 7 grand seems like nothing to me. All of my friends went to SLACs or big private urban schools like NYU. More than ten years later they still talk down to me for having gone to public school- even the ones who are still overeducated baristas. In the upper middle or middle class, you trade dollars for social cost when you go to a cheap school.


  14. Are college tuition and the cost of wedding related? The above thoughts seem to assume a strong relationship based, probably, because many people who have to pay tuition also tend to get married.

    People don’t choose between education and wedding. The decision to pay tuition and the decision to pay for an expensive wedding are separate by several years, changes in financial capability and mindset.

    By the way, if an average wedding costs $30,000 then on average Americans think it’s worth it.


  15. Aha! Rustonite just revealed one of the hidden advantages of church membership: at least at my church, use of the church building for a wedding costs nothing for church members (and I’m pretty sure the pastor doesn’t charge members for officiating, either, though most people say a monetary “thank you” anyway). I can’t remember whether members have to pay something for use of the building for a reception; if so, it’s definitely much less than $2500, even in our expensive area, and I’m pretty sure that the governing board would waive or reduce the fee for a family & friends-catered wedding for a couple who couldn’t afford a fee. We do have a schedule of fees for non-members who want to use the building. Interestingly, children and grandchildren of members (who are often at least nominally members themselves) are increasingly getting married in other venues anyway (and paying the pastor to officiate offsite). Funerals for longtime members (including a reception catered by other church members) are definitely free (grave sites and interment therein do cost something). Policies at other churches may vary, but it sounds like one route to an affordable church wedding (or funeral) is being an active member of a church.

    On the idea of a free college education: I’d support this, especially since I find my students often deprive themselves of the full benefit of the education they’re working so hard to afford by working so hard/so many hours. It’s a Catch-22. But it is also true that Americans tend to value what we pay for. I’ve often wondered what would happen if we charged for the first two years of college (mostly the core courses, or the equivalent of an AA degree), then made the second two years free to those who had completed the first two years successfully. Another possibility would be to give recipients of an AA degree tuition credit equivalent to what they’ve paid so far (minus any tuition for repeated/failed courses) to be applied to the next two years. Since community college is relatively affordable, students could pay their own way fairly cheaply for two years, and, in doing so, earn two free (or at least subsidized) years in return.


  16. Perhaps part of the resentment against paying fees is that for many occupations/ ability to achieve a certain level of social status, a college degree is necessary. Whereas generally, a big white wedding is a luxury that you can choose to have or not to have.

    Whilst it may seem sensible that ‘necessaries’ should be valued more, we often resent paying for them – think about the more broader complaints when food prices rise or rent increases. Moreover, as a ‘necessary’ (and not just for the individual, for the modern economy) perhaps these things should be free/cheap, if for no other reason than the fact that where much of the population struggle to pay for ‘necessities’ social equality is much further away.

    As a datapoint, in the UK, an average wedding costs about £20,000 currently for a normal, middle-class couple. It appears (based on my many friends who have had such expensive weddings) that the main cost is catering and venue rental. This doesn’t usually mean the church or registrar’s office, but the place where the meal/function takes place. It also seems to be an inherently fraught process as many people’s parents seem to give large-ish donations to these weddings, but then put on a huge list of demands that outweigh the value. (So, one person I know wanted a buffet, but father said it would make HIM look cheap; one mother insisted the marquee wasn’t big enough, so insisted they hired a bigger one as she was giving a chunk of cash, but this meant that chunk of cash didn’t go as far; a big area of contention for many people seemed to be that the parents insisted on set places (which meant expense for name cards etc)). My sister who is getting married this year says at a certain point you just start agreeing to these expensive things because the arguments are just not worth it.


  17. I think among elites it’s true, as Koshembos says, that “the decision to pay tuition and the decision to pay for an expensive wedding are separate by several years.” But in flyover country and among students at public universities, it sure seems like I have a LOT of students who are either engaged or already married in college (most of whom are in the 18-24 age range, others of whom may be returning students but still younger than 30.) So maybe in fact money set aside for weddings IS competing with college tuition costs much more directly than I had thought.

    I still think it’s ridiculous to spend that kind of dough on a party, when clearly that’s not most people’s style of entertaining in the rest of their lives. The expense that rustonite and Feminist Avatar describe is just people allowing their pockets to be picked, which is even more ridiculous given the tremendous divorce rate among people who marry in their early 20s.

    I try not to comment on a lot of parenting issues on this blog, because 1) it’s not what this blog is about, and 2) it tends to start a food fight no matter what. But in my view, about 90% of American weddings are about narcissism and consumerism, much of which is driven by the parents of the marrying couple. This is another terrific reason to delay marriage to your late 20s or early 30s, aside from the decreasing risk of marital dissolution–it’s easier to say “no” to parents when you’re older and you’ve been working a few years and have some money to throw around yourself.

    But, clearly I am in the minority in this culture. Clearly, people would rather spend a ton of dough on one day in their children’s lives, instead of investing in their college educations.


  18. n.b. Having reflected on this a big overnight, I wonder if this is related to conversations we’ve had on this blog about college drinking culture, which I believe is driven by the belief that after college is over, our students don’t imagine that they’ll ever have fun again. I suppose if you imagine that you MUST get married at age 22 or 23, and then MUST start having children within a few years after that, then perhaps binge drinking from ages 18-22 might make sense in a crazy, immature kind of way.

    So, once again, I’m back to what my friend Geoff (an occasional commenter on the blog) once said to me about “the poorly developed inner lives of most American adults” as a driving factor in the modern culture of childhood and youth. How sad and limiting to imagine adulthood as all work and responsibility, and no fun and no play.


  19. They say every daughter has the wedding her mother wanted. Well, my daughter called one day and said “guess what! We went down to City Hall and got married!” So it was true in her case.


  20. Ha! And the price was right for that wedding, Ruth.

    I just read a story today–they’re typical in this season–that says that the average American family spends more than $1,000 on PROM. Yes, that’s right: those families are now officially forbidden ever to complain about the “high cost of higher education” too.

    WTF, people?


  21. So with you on wedding costs. Re: college, my parents had seven kids (one newborn) when I started college, and massive debt due to sibling with special needs care. There was no way they could help pay for my college, despite whatever the FAFSA claimed parental contribution should be. I went to a state school, took out some loans, got some minor scholarships and grants that offset costs, and came out with about $15k in debt. Fortunately, spouse had parents who could pay for his, so we weren’t stuck with debts from both of us. We got married fresh out of undergrad, and the only reason our wedding costs hit $5k was because his family wanted a reception with meal for the out of town guests (and they paid for it). We got a friend to do photos, since photographers can easily run $2500 or more (and that was almost 11 years ago). My dress cost $500, my bridesmaids dresses were basically prom gowns for less than $100 each. My decorations budget was probably $250 for the church and bouquets and bouttonaires. We had no interest in spending money we didn’t have for a ONE day event. We preferred to save the funds for a house.

    (we did splurge on a Disney honeymoon, but stayed in the lowest price resort).


  22. Well, we had told my daughter that we weren’t going to “pay for a wedding,” we were going to give them a lump sum, and if they wanted to spend it on a wedding, that was their call, and if they wanted to spend it on something else, that was their call too. They chose not to do the wedding, and I admire their choice.

    Completely different with education. In that case, I felt like we were paying for a college education, not a lump sum. Had she chosen to go to a less expensive college, I would not have given her the balance in cash.

    Sigh. Just another example of how out of sync I am with the world.


  23. Obvs. you and Mr. Ruth don’t stake your identities through your children’s fancy proms or weddings. Yes, very un-American, I’m afraid! Papers please!

    I *do* know children who were bribed with new cars, etc. to attend an in-state school or attend the school that offered the most scholarship $$, as though all of the parents’ contributions to the education were fungible. I never understood that, though–and these were people who obvs. could afford to help their children out wherever they went to school. (Mostly it just showed how little they understood their own children’s interests and ambitions.)


  24. Yesterday I read this post, thought “Hmm, Historiann’s right again–if people are happy to pay big money for weddings, they ought to be happy to pay large amounts for college as well,” and thought no more of it. Although I certainly still agree with that main point, after I returned to the blog today and read more of the comments, I found myself with a somewhat different view. So, fair warning: small rant about weddings forthcoming…

    I’m at the age (late 20s), when everyone I know is getting married. Yet I’ve been to remarkably few of the big, expensive weddings this thread criticizes. After reading the last few comments, I think I’ve finally realized why: many of my female friends must have parents who share the values of the commenters on this blog. What that seems to mean, in practice, is that parents who could easily afford to put on a nice wedding, expensive or otherwise, instead proclaim their modernity by a sort of reverse snobbery, insisting they don’t care if their daughters just pop down to the registry office. As a result, the daughters in question face enormous pressure to have a much smaller, more modest party than either they or their parents could actually afford. In the most egregious case I’ve seen, the daughter in question had to beg her parents to support her having any kind of celebration at all (the end result was a small lunch wedding, that maybe cost $500, and her parents bitched the entire weekend about how much money/work it was, and told her she wasn’t allowed to invite her grandparents, as that would add too much to the expense and work of the event); more common is parents doing what Ruth says she did, offering a lump sum along with the comment “you don’t have to use it for your wedding, you can pay for a down payment instead”–which the daughter(s) accurately read as “We don’t want to bother planning/attending a big wedding, and we’d disapprove if you used the money for that instead of college loans/a house,” etc. I could add many more examples–and yes, I know these are all anecdotal, but I’ve been to enough of them that I’m starting to think it must be a trend, however small, an over-reaction against the big weddings one sees on TV.

    So please, modern, often college-educated, and well-of), parents of the world, don’t use your lack of interest in big weddings to assume your daughter doesn’t want one too–and if you can’t or aren’t willing to pay for it, please also don’t shame your daughter into refusing her finance’s family’s offer of financial/wedding help (yes, that’s happened too). If your children do insist on a wedding larger than you would have liked, try to treat it as an opportunity to see all those friends and relatives that you keep meaning to visit, but usually only see at funerals. At the very least, please don’t spend the months ahead of time criticizing your children’s decision to invite 20 or more people, or have the men wear suits. Remember that your stance can be as much of a burden as the more well-known cultural pressure to have a big, expensive, white wedding.


  25. My N=1, parents saved all my life for my and my sister’s college educations (we’re talking, did not get a microwave until the mid to late 1990s kind of saving). I was told I could go anywhere I could get in, and not to take into account financial aid. (I got a ton, my sister didn’t get as much.)

    Then I got married at 22, and my parents paid for it. $2K. My in-laws also threw a separate party for us and that was probably much less than $500 (room rental at local bank, cake, punch).

    I never understood the folks with the other values– the brand new fancy first cars and Hawaiian vacations but they couldn’t go to the college of their choice (they had to go to Bradley or Valparaiso or University of Kentucky instead of University of Chicago or Notre Dame or even our state flagship because of financial aid). Different priorities. Not ones I understand. We’re saving hard-core for our kids.


  26. Also, regarding Canuck Down South’s comment: I will add that we had a ton of people at our inexpensive wedding and we got questions about whether my off-the-rack prom dress from JC Penny’s was custom-made (from people I would think should know better if there were actually a real reason for wedding dresses to have such a huge mark-up). We had a great time, and over the years my friends have been to many more weddings and have told me that mine was one of the most fun they’ve been to. (A few have even followed suit with the same kind of laid-back party atmosphere.)

    Another fun (late 30s/early 40s, second for the bride) wedding I went to was a Vegas wedding. It cost under 1K and everything ran like clockwork.

    In fact, I’d say that most of the expensive weddings I’ve been to have been crazy boring– they always seem to be the ones where there’s a huge wait between the wedding and the reception for all those expensive photographs of the wedding party and often they don’t include food or entertainment for the guests during that time. Also generally the photographer will precede the bride down the aisle which I’ve always thought a bit lame. As a guest, I forgive them if they have appetizers and drinks between the wedding and reception.

    My brother-in-law’s wedding was also expensive and his in-laws were super obnoxious and freaking out about everything. Well, his mother-in-law was– I think the FIL stayed in hiding. The bride had panic attacks and swears if she ever gets divorced or widowed she will never get married again because the wedding planning was the worst experience of her life. Price has nothing to do with parents being obnoxious about weddings.

    I get the thought that wealthy parents should contribute to their kids’ college education– because those kids would have to pay full ticket whereas kids with poor parents get financial aid and can come out with a more reasonable loan burden. However, there is no financial aid for weddings. Parents should not be on the hook for 30K for a one-day event. If the kids don’t like what their parents want, they can pay for it themselves!


  27. Whether it be college or weddings, I think many of the comments on this post assume an incredible privilege. My parents helped as much as they could when I went to college, but they couldn’t do much, so I had major loans. Paying 30k for a wedding? Who has that kind of money? Certainly not my parents, who were socking away every cent they could for their own retirement, and even then came up short. When did it become an expectation that parents would pay for these things?

    Even the thought that one has the luxury to chose between an expensive school, fancy vacations, or incredibly pricey weddings assumes an income level well beyond that of most people in the US.

    My concern is all the students who are on the “go now, pay later” plan, who have no idea what they are really spending on their education because they haven’t had to pay the piper yet. But he’s coming…


  28. The $20,000-$30,000 price for an average wedding has been around for some time. My own wedding cost less than $1000 (as Contingent Cassandra notes, when you are a church member, the church hall is free for the reception). Since then I’ve watched a number of weddings of various types. But I think class figures into all of them in interesting ways. There are families that go into debt for the dream wedding. Years ago I remember a newspaper story on the level of debt families take on for weddings, in some cases where they still owed when the divorce happened. Even a cursory watching of “Say Yes to the Dress” suggests that the wedding carries meaning that most commenters here don’t get. So it might be worth thinking about what the big wedding means to people who rack up debt for it. What’s the place of a “perfect day” in the lives of people for whom things aren’t perfect? This may indeed reflect on the “poorly developed inner life” of people, but to say that is not very helpful. Also, as historians, I think we should notice that this is a relatively recent phenomenon — maybe the last 20-30 years. Before then, a small wedding was the norm.

    My hunch is that most people don’t think of education and weddings in the same sentence, and that’s why the disconnect.


  29. Sure people don’t think of college and wedding in the same sentence, but that’s the problem. Right now, our board of visitors is contemplating no hike in tuition AT ALL this year, while state appropriations go down. And our university chapel runs full time every weekend with all of the weddings. And I imagine it’s not cheap to have them there — probably in the $2-3,000 range for the venue, or a full semester of tuition where I work. And these are usually graduates who get married there. So for them, college is about weddings (or at least where the ceremony takes place). So they pay on average five years of tuition for those weddings often the summer after they graduate. And our budgets get tighter so that they can afford to do it. I don’t think I’ll be as sanguine about all of the June weddings on campus this summer…


  30. Canuck Down South: oh, I feel for you and your friends. I had one of those years, about 13-14 years ago, in which every bit of personal travel was devoted to attending other people’s weddings. It was busy, but kind of fun, and mostly not too expensive for me.

    But it seems like the issue you raise here is more about your friends’ relationships with their parents, not about the morals and ethics about how they (the parents) choose to spend their money. Not everyone wants to plan a wedding for an entire year or two, and furthermore, if it’s the parents’ money, it’s their money, and they can choose how to spend it (or not).

    My point in this post was more to highlight how the cost of some things (weddings) go virtually unchallenged or unquestioned, whereas the cost of something with proven lifelong value (college) is perpetually questioned. If people want to blow a wad of cash on a wedding–whatever! Go for it! It’s just not my style, but more importantly, I just don’t want to hear from people who wanted to spend spend spend on the dubious investment of a wedding about their opinions on the “high cost of higher education.” Like nicoleandmaggie, I just don’t share those values.


  31. Historiann, I think you’re quite right to compare wedding costs to tuition in the race to acquire the trappings of middle-class American adulthood. My comment was meant to illustrate that resistance to the high-valuing-of-wedding, low-valuing-of-tuition culture that you and many commenters share constitutes its own microtrend. A quick second glance over this thread seems to me to suggest that people commenting are almost competing to highlight how inexpensive their weddings are: while that’s certainly a reasonable thing to value, I wanted to point out that this set of values can exert as much pressure on young adults as the mainstream “You must have a huge wedding!” point of view.

    Until I read this post and its comments, I’d assumed, as you do, that the phenomenon I’d observed was just the result of several individuals’ particular relationships with their parents. Now I think, instead, that it might be a subcultural or even counter-cultural trend among college-educated adults with young adult children to emphasize the prudence of small and inexpensive weddings. Nicoleandmaggie’s comments on class are, I think, highly relevant here: this is the exact opposite of what happening among my non-college-educated friends are doing, which is putting off marriage for years, long past child-bearing and sometimes even home-ownership, until they can afford that ‘perfect day.’ Or in other words, perhaps the devaluation of what is typically a major, expensive public ritual is its own kind of privilege.

    At any rate, if I have to listen to another well-heeled, highly educated mother-of-the-bride sniff that back in her day, she was content with a quick stop by the registrar’s office and a toast of bubbly, in the face of her children’s many months of planning and expense, I’m going to want to clock her.


  32. I would not be too upset about that, but I suppose I am not at the time in life when I hear about weddings that much. I would tend to side with the earlier comment on Church membership. To me a Mass and the exchanging of vows is enough for a good marriage ceremony. The reception depends on the amount I can budget. Hopefully, I can budget a bundle, but if not, not.


  33. Proms are now the gateway drug to white weddings, and have been so since the 1980s.

    Aren’t there similarities between how a university education and a wedding are “sold”? I have noticed over the last several years the TV commercials and news reports about May 1 as the day high school seniors makes their decisions about their schools. The date has changed since I was in their shoes, but it appears that this event is becoming another consumer fantasy to be ritualized with parties, goods, etc.

    People will pay a lot for fantasy if it means ignoring the hard work that goes into learning and into a marriage.


  34. “At any rate, if I have to listen to another well-heeled, highly educated mother-of-the-bride sniff that back in her day, she was content with a quick stop by the registrar’s office and a toast of bubbly, in the face of her children’s many months of planning and expense, I’m going to want to clock her.”

    Srsly? I think that’s pretty obnoxious. (Why do you think that “months of planning and expense” deserve reverence? I don’t get it.) What difference does it make if she’s “well-heeled” or “highly educated” or not?

    The 1970s were a period in which the hippie/downscale wedding was fashionable. The 1980s saw the rise of the big wedding, which has remained a pretty strong consumer trend ever since. This “big wedding” is based on a fantasy of what “traditional” is, when most middle-class people throughout the 20th century had very small weddings and modest receptions, if any.

    If I were an unscrupulous person with an entrepreneurial bent, I’d definitely be in the Martial Industrial Complex. It’s a goldmine fueled by guilt, regret, and competition within and between families.


  35. Susan:
    it might be worth thinking about what the big wedding means to people who rack up debt for it

    This “big wedding” is based on a fantasy of what “traditional” is, when most middle-class people throughout the 20th century had very small weddings and modest receptions, if any.

    I might substitute aspiration for fantasy. There is also something important about external validation in extravagant expenditure.


  36. It might be worth thinking about why & what it means when some spend big on weddings, but that’s not what this post is about.

    This post is about why the cost of college is always interrogated, even when the value of a college degree is unquestionable, and moreover, it certainly has a better ROI than most weddings.


  37. p.s. For those who are interested in a good business history of the modern wedding industry, see Vicki Howard’s Brides, Inc.. From the Penn Press website:

    Weddings today are a $70-billion business, yet no one has explained how the industry has become such a significant component of the American economy. In Brides, Inc., Vicki Howard goes behind the scenes of the various firms involved—from jewelers to caterers—to explore the origins of the lavish American wedding, demonstrating the important role commercial interests have played in shaping traditions most of us take for granted.

    Howard reveals how many of our customs and wedding rituals were the product of sophisticated advertising campaigns, merchandising promotions, and entrepreneurial innovations. Tracing the rise of the wedding industry from the 1920s through the 1950s, the author explains that retailers, bridal consultants, etiquette writers, caterers, and many others invented traditions—from the diamond engagement ring and double-ring ceremony to the gift registry to the package-deal catered affair. These businesses and entrepreneurs, many of them women, transformed wedding culture and set the stage for today’s multibillion-dollar industry.

    The wedding industry began to take shape between the 1920s and the 1950s. Bridal magazine editors and etiquette writers, jewelers, department store window display artists, bridal consultants, fashion designers, and caterers invented new consumer rites and promoted higher standards of wedding consumption. Claiming ties with “ancient customs” and various historical periods, the wedding industry promoted new goods and services as timeless and unchanging. It introduced new ring customs and wedding apparel fashions, and “modern” services, such as gift registries that rationalized gift customs, bridal salons that saved time and made wedding planning more efficient, and wedding packages that standardized ceremonies and reception celebrations.


  38. What’s the place of a “perfect day” in the lives of people for whom things aren’t perfect?

    This completely describes another phenomenon I occasionally see in my neck of the woods: the Big Quinceañera.


  39. re: that last p.s.

    I think it was one of the Smithsonians, but it might have been another museum (after a while, museums seen during conferences kind of blend together), that had a really neat exhibit about weddings and wedding clothing over time. It really did put into stark contrast how the 20th century changed how we view weddings for normal people. In any case, if you ever should get a chance to see that exhibit wherever it was, it was well worth it.

    And I have no way to tie that back to the value of the cost of college, though back in the day it was all about the high school movement, right?


  40. Nothing personal, we are all just trying to earn our way within whatever institutional framework we’ve landed in, but I would like to question the “unquestionable” value of a college education.

    I am an old lawyer. It took me 17 years to get through undergraduate school at four different state colleges. It was cheap. I had a lot of fun, but not because of anything the colleges did. I was also in the military and did a lot of other things.

    I had a few classes I enjoyed, but most consisted of formerly insecure (now very self-important) professors explaining why their system of twaddle was better than all the other systems of twaddle, mainly for the purpose of persuading the most insecure young people to go to graduate school and learn the professor’s system of twaddle. The rest of the class be damned.

    As far as I can tell most of my critical thinking skills were developed during the in-between years as a result of ongoing Eriksonian adolescent identity crises, with very little attributable to the schools. The primary economic value I got out of the undergraduate process was the certificate that allowed me to go to law school.

    I got more than my money’s worth out of law school. I’m pretty confident the same is not true for the average law graduate today, given the debt total and the job market.

    College graduates undoubtedly earn more on average than non-graduates, but correlation is not causation. Most of the value appears to be an economic rent associated with a gatekeeping sinecure designed to co-opt insecure smart people who might otherwise cause instability.

    Under the circumstances it is probably irresponsible to advise a smart young person not to go to college, but college is hardly an unquestionable value at current prices.


  41. If I were an unscrupulous person with an entrepreneurial bent, I’d definitely be in the Martial Industrial Complex. It’s a goldmine fueled by guilt, regret, and competition within and between families.

    And if you were an unscrupulous higher ed institution (or perhaps one just overly focused on pleasing the “customers”) you might offer a class devoted to wedding planning, and a degree (Event Planning) that might be seen as qualification to become a wedding planner. Yep, such things exist, and not only at my institution (I googled, just to make sure I wasn’t outing myself). I’ve had one or two quite good students with this major, but, as a rule, it seems to be a refuge for rather dim (but often very enthusiastic) bulbs. Of course, there is a real event planning industry; I just wonder whether it should really be served by a college degree of its own (as opposed to, say, a more general business or accounting or even psychology or sociology one).


  42. I thought it was the working class types who had the expensive weddings? Middle class just goes down to city hall or stands up in church, and has party at a house, cost of a cocktail party … right? And my father took a wedding party to dinner at a restaurant once, after a small and simple ceremony, spending $1K probably; we considered it quite grand to do that. My students on the other hand spend huge amounts for weddings, prom, graduation, etc. But will not pay for study abroad or dentistry, which I would put higher on the list. ?


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