Last week, a New York Times column by Suzanne Mettler brought attention to the evolution of college from a mediator of equality to one of inequality, categorizing the current system of higher education as a caste system. Mettler contends that the astronomically large cost of college has become too much to bear for many low- and middle-class students, either effectively constraining their choice of university or forcing them to graduate with large amounts of student debt. This is particularly worrisome given the poor job market, in which a college degree is now a requisite for many jobs but is by no means a guarantee of employment after graduation.
And yet people keep paying the ridiculous expenses of college tuition, along with all that comes with it, including high textbook rates, meal plan expenses and dormitory rent. This debate has to force us, as students at a school that costs nearly $60,000 a year at full tuition, to ask the question: Is our education really worth it? This question should be posed not just for ourselves and for our own personal gain, but from the wider perspective of society as a whole. As we keep paying into a system with rising costs and one that may indeed be to the detriment of economic equality, where is the future of higher education headed?
The answer might be even worse than anticipated. The Wall Street Journal reported recently on the number of people seeking student loans not as a means to obtain a college degree, but to finance other expenditures, such as rent and living expenses. Not only are the costs of college education rising steadily, but the quantity of student loans taken out is also increasing, and expanding into other, non-educational markets.
Economically, there is usually a trade-off between price and quantity for desirable goods. When price goes up, quantity demanded usually goes down. But for higher education, the reverse has been true. Despite constant tuition increases, especially at Ivies and other so-called “elite” universities, top schools report ever-higher application numbers, in addition to concurrent increases in college enrollment throughout the country.
There is a precedent for this situation in the not-so-distant past. The housing bubble of the early 2000s showed clearly the negative effects of what can happen when price and quantity continue rising together at such a quick rate. This type of growth is simply not sustainable, and it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the housing market. Will the same happen for higher education? If these trends keep progressing, then it’s almost assured we’ll reach some breaking point relatively soon.
There is a bright spot in this bleak picture, and one that involves our unique place as Brown students. We are in a position to demand that the University bring costs down by reducing unnecessary expenditures, and increasing fiscal responsibility and transparency. We need greater transparency about non-academic administrative expenses, which have grown precipitously in recent years. In addition, some of our benefits, such as gyms and other support services, could be converted to add-ons rather than mandated expenses. Higher education doesn’t have to go the way of the housing bubble. We need to do all we can to prevent it from growing to the point of bursting.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Matt Brundage ’15 and Rachel Occhiogrosso ’14, and its members, Hannah Loewentheil ’14 and Thomas Nath ’16. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.