CNBCfix review: Scott Cohn
finds college is expensive
in ‘Price of Admission’

          Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2011

As is unfortunately the case with too many CNBC documentaries, Scott Cohn's "Price of Admission: America's College Debt Crisis" doesn't want to risk trying anything as deep as actually probing legitimate questions about the value of higher education.

This production is merely "I feel your pain" fodder for all the parents writing big checks to colleges.

Cohn never bothers trying to break down why a typical 4-year college education costs what it does, and why an overwhelming number of Americans have decided it's worth it.

He much prefers to play gotcha, whether it's with for-profit education admissions tactics, the salary of the Sallie Mae chief, or ridiculously going to the well several times too many over a college administrators conference that featured a wine tasting.

This is a production that might as well have occurred in 1983. Cohn's stated hook is that "Americans now owe more on their student loans than they do on their credit cards." Doesn't that sound better than the alternative?

Cohn does feature 1 couple from Illinois, Nick and Emily Hauptmann, who exemplify what presumably should be the angle here, that it's one thing to spend lots of money on a college education and get a job, but it's another in an economy where there are few jobs. Yet Cohn admits by the end of the program that the couple have indeed found jobs, albeit perhaps not as high-paying as they preferred; Emily is working with an associate who has no college degree.

Much of the production is built around the Kuipers family, also of Illinois. The Kuipers have 2 kids in college and 2 more headed there. This is presented as a serious household strain throughout the program, when in fact it's even more a great American success story: An appealing 2-parent, close-knit family working their way up life's ladder, which — some folks may not realize — isn't supposed to be easy to climb.

Vast questions of importance about America's educational system go unaddressed while documentaries like this waste time on frivolous nuisances. Cohn should be asking whether American schoolkids need to have 3 months off every summer. Why college degree programs should be 4 years instead of, perhaps, 2. Why 22-year-olds who are not going to be historians or writers are paying $40,000 a year to study history or English. Why so many jobs purport to require a college degree. Instead he tries to pin blame on North Dakota's debit card system and a wine-tasting event at a business conference that colleges choose to send administrators to. Maybe while he's at it he might question all the money universities of "higher learning" spend on football teams ... volleyball teams ... swimming teams ... track teams ... fitness centers ...

Cohn spends the middle of the program questioning some of the tactics of the for-profit education industry. One person who used to be an admissions counselor, Josh Pruyn, admits to Cohn he was essentially a "salesman." But Cohn's hidden camera footage showing a bogus applicant at another school is almost ridiculous, revealing no smoking gun about anything. Clearly this is an angle worthy of serious scrutiny, which the industry now receives daily from Congress and investors. How that has anything to do with a family, say, taking on a home equity line to send a couple kids to a Big 12 school, who knows.

One student drowning in debt, and tears, is Kyle McCarthy. McCarthy's story should've been transplanted to CNBC's next health care documentary, which should point out that when you're physically unable to work, it's hard to pay off loans.

Cohn leans on 2 sources, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and author/activist Alan Collinge, to suggest maybe student debt is a bigger problem than the real estate bubble. There are a "lot of similarities," Harkin says, while Collinge says foreclosure victims can walk away from their homes in a "barrel" but with student debt, there's no walking away.

Not surpringly, Cohn doesn't attempt to analyze what types of families bear the worst burden in college costs. Middle-class families with savings will claim financial aid discriminates against them in favor of the rich or low-income applicants. The rich will claim high tuitions are merely a tax on them because they're the ones who have to pay the full amount. The financially challenged will throw up their hands, wondering how a talented but poor student will ever have the resources to get through college.

College, across the board, is horribly expensive. That doesn't make it a bad deal. Despite its shortcomings (and there are many), many people consider it essential and invaluable, and worth far more than their credit card debt.

"Price of Admission: America's College Debt Crisis" (2010)

Featuring: Rick, Tami, Kaylee, Chris, Shelby and Zach Kuipers; Alan Collinge; Tom Harkin; Kyle McCarthy; Ralph and Joan Grande; Nick and Emily Hauptmann; Karen Johnson; Josh Pruyn; Brian Moran; Miles Lasater; Mark Volchek; Shane Gerbert; Peggy Lucke; Albert Lord; Lauren Asher

Executive producer: Sanford Cannold
Written & reported by: Scott Cohn
Producers: Justin Solomon, Cat Corrigan
Editors: Gary VandenBergh, Mike Sheehan
Field producer: Patrick Denzer
Additional editors: Steven T. Banton, Dave Gross, Daniel Shaw
Camera: Marco Mastrorilli, Plummer Crawley, Scott Kilian, Oscar Molina, Joe DeWitt, Victor Calderin, Geoff Nelson, Mark Thalman, Alex Herrera, John Lawrence, Mark Weiler, Mike Vaughn, Gim Lay, Gabe Hatfield, David Dellaria, Steve Ligtelyn
Audio: Dave Schumacher, Greg Quedens, Ken Pexton, Dave Grogan, Eric Williams, Tony Stewart
Designer/animator: Brian Reilly
Sr. designer/animator: Jacqueline Dessel
Media coordinator: Richard Marko
Archive producer: Tom Dunphy
Coordinating producer: Samantha Wright
Special thanks: Manhattan College
Managing editor: Nikhil Deogun

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