You haul 16 tons and what do you get/Another day older and deeper in debt/St. Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go/I owe my soul to the company store.
This is the chorus to "Sixteen Tons," a song popular in the '40s and '50s that described the plight of coal miners before the formation of unions. Miners were not paid by cash or check; they were paid in company scrip, which could be used only to purchase staples at a company store or to rent company housing. Because the prices charged to miners were excessive, they were constantly in debt and could never get ahead. Miners frequently had to meet a quota, such as 16 tons of coal, just to get paid at the regular rate. These were some of the poorest, hardest-working people in the United States.
If you are a miner or have had family work in the mines, you and yours have my respect. Most of us never have had to work in such a difficult and dangerous profession, and we're fortunate. Thousands of people died and many more were disabled on the job, some for life. To compare this situation to any other is hyperbole, and probably should not be attempted.
I'm going to try to do it anyway.
Most young pharmacists and pharmacy students would have no trouble making this connection. They do "owe their soul to the company store." Their debt? The guaranteed student loans for tuition, fees, and housing they owe the university they either graduated from or study at now. Tuition and fees are at record highs and increase every single year.
The fees are the killer. Our local university, which is also my alma mater, essentially doubles the yearly tuition in additional fees for pharmacy students. Debt loads upon graduation are approaching the $200,000 range. Many of these students will be repaying debt into their 40s or until about the time their children start college. The way tuition is increasing, who knows what college will cost then.
Add to this the increasing requirements for entry into a school of pharmacy. A four-year degree is now a prerequisite for some university professional programs. Professional organizations and academia are also placing increased emphasis upon the need for newly fledged pharmacists to enter at least one residency program upon graduation. A resident typically makes less than half a pharmacist's salary. While these pharmacists will be well trained, their ability to reduce their debt load will be on hold for a year or two.
The president of our local university is leaving, and she gave her last "State of the University" address a couple of weeks ago. In it, she described the "clamor" over rising tuition costs and how future university leaders would have to address not the fee increases, but the furor over them. There was no talk about making college more affordable, just rhetoric on future damage control.
I'll bet the coal-mine bosses back in the "16 tons" era had the same thoughts. Keep the workers under our thumb and make them think they have no options but to continue their existence just the way we want them to. Keep them poor, hungry, and dependent upon us.