Most of you know that I left Lawndale Christian Development Corporation (LCDC) in 2006 after 14 years to pursue other opportunities. A few months ago, I returned as the full-time Executive Director of LCDC and jumped right in to deal with a host of challenges and opportunities. It’s strangely comforting to know a decade has passed and issues pertaining to community development in Chicago remain largely the same. In much the same way, issues such as the ongoing recession, wars at home and abroad, raucous presidential and local politics and social media continue to force communities to react, create and adapt but they are not new.
Ten years ago, my kids were 11 and 9 and the whole world was ahead of them. My wife and I worked hard to prepare them to face the challenges that were coming academically, socially and in sports: head on with grit and determination. Like most parents we were optimistic about their future but we weren’t prepared for the challenges that the University Industrial Complex would foist on us during those critical years. What is the University Industrial Complex, you ask? It is a term that I created to talk about the pervasive way in which our country has been sold a bill of goods by universities that creates demand for their product (a four-year degree) based on a few statistics that justify the cost. Going through this process for my own kids, I am wondering if the cost and the associated debt that helps people pay for it is worth the payoff. The marketing campaign that drives the demand for the UIC is eerily similar to the tactics used by the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex to capture their markets.
The military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex are concepts with which many people are familiar. According to Wikipedia, the term military industrial complex (MIC) originated in the 1960s and has largely been attributed to United States President and five-star general during WWII, Dwight D. Eisenhower. In his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961, he used the term and it has since been applied to describe the concept of coordination between government, the military, and the arms industry. The relationship between government and the defense industry can include political contracts placed for weapons, general bureaucratic oversight and organized lobbying on the part of the defense companies for the maintenance of their interests.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), total world spending on military expenses in 2009 was $1.531 trillion US dollars. 46.5% of this total, roughly $712 billion US dollars, was spent by the United States. The privatization of the production and invention of military technology also leads to a complicated relationship with significant research and development of many technologies.
The military budget of the United States for the 2009 fiscal year was $515.4 billion. Adding emergency discretionary spending and supplemental spending brings the sum to $651.2 billion. This does not include many military-related items that are outside of the Defense Department budget. Overall the United States government is spending about $1 trillion annually on defense-related purposes.
The term “prison’industrial complex” (PIC) is used to attribute the rapid expansion of the US inmate population to the political influence of private prison companies and businesses that supply goods and services to government prison agencies. Such groups include corporations that contract prison labor, construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, companies that operate prison food services and medical facilities, private probation companies, lawyers, and lobby groups that represent them. The promotion of prison-building as a job creator for blue collar towns and the use of inmate labor are also cited as elements of the prison-industrial complex. The term often implies a network of participants who are motivated by financial profit rather than solely the goal of punishing or rehabilitating criminals or reducing crime rates. As the prison population grows, a rising rate of incarceration feeds small and large businesses such as providers of furniture, transportation, food, clothes and medical services, construction and communication firms. Furthermore, the prison system is the third largest employer in the world. Prison activists who buttress the notion of a prison industrial complex have argued that these parties have a great interest in the expansion of the prison system since their development and prosperity directly depends on the number of inmates. They liken the prison industrial complex to any industry that needs more and more raw materials, prisoners being the material.
How does this relate to the University Industrial Complex? I thought you would ask. My son, Gabriel is going to Stanford University. Whenever I say that, everyone applauds as if we have won the lottery. I’m proud of my son. He’s a smart kid and a great athlete and he will probably get a world class education at Stanford. But what the University Industrial Complex has done is convince parents like me all over the world that paying $68,000 a year to go to the Stanfords of the world is an investment in their future. The cost of every school that Gabriel was serious about ranged from $32,000 a year at the University of Illinois to the $62,000 to roughly $68,000 a year to go to Stanford, Princeton, Duke, and Harvard. That is insane! Stanford had the lowest acceptance rate of all of those schools and so it is deemed as the hardest school to get into in the country, which of course makes it a feather in the cap of the parents that win “The Hunger Games” and are accepted. We get to go to wine and cheese functions and stick out our collective chests and say what awesome parents we all must be. So the game that the University Industrial Complex plays on parents is very similar to the con being run by the hawkish defense nuts. The MIC gets us to believe that ISIS is around every corner and wants to destroy America. Therefore we are perpetually building a stronger military and our military spending (which is greater than most of the world’s countries combined) is justified. It is the same con the PIC runs which feeds off of the misery of the poor and finances the lifestyles of the rich.
This UIC is responsible for entire industries that have sprouted up to meet the needs of anxious parents who want to make sure that their genius gets into Harvard. Your kid can’t do math? For the right price, we’ve got you a tutor for you. Johnny doesn’t test well? We’ve got guaranteed test prep results or you get your money back. Kid needs Ritalin and a note for extra time on the test? We can arrange that, too. The UIC feeds off of parental anxiety to provide a better life for our kids in the same way that the other complexes feed off of our fears about safety and security. We are being manipulated to believe that college is the Promised Land and any cost we pay for it is justified by the payoff. In a jobless recovery, we are being sold a dream which is that after college, our children will get a job that will pay more than the debt they incur. That is not a promise. It’s a gamble. It’s like going to Vegas with your kid holding the dice at the craps table.
According to The Educational Marketing Group’s website, in 2013 colleges and universities spent over $1 billion dollars in paid advertising to attract your child to go to their school. This does not include their own internal advertising blitz that they send out to flood your email and mail boxes from junior year on after you register for standardized tests like the ACT and the SAT. It is not a fair fight.
What are the consequences of the UIC and this nonstop marketing blitz? Currently, 42 million people owe $1.3 trillion in student loans. We have a huge problem. Next month, we talk alternatives. Stay tuned.

By God’s grace,

Richard Townsell
Executive Director