Commodification of the College Experience

By Chloe Hanson

For the upcoming generation, education is a necessity. College graduates are much more likely to be fully employed and have higher median salaries than their peers with just high school diplomas. For many, college is meant to be a way to access the middle class, yet college is considered a privilege. Colleges charge astronomical tuition prices, and students must pay for extra prep materials and standardized tests to have a chance at entering the most prestigious colleges. Even with financial aid, tuitions are often unaffordable. Higher education serves as a class barrier to those who wish to attain higher paying jobs. The commodification of college is incredibly harmful to the future of our generation, and admissions should be further democratized.

While unemployment rates for college graduates and high school graduates barely differs, median salaries differ greatly. In 2015, the median weekly wages of people with bachelor’s degrees was $1,137, while people with high school diplomas made about $678 per week. The difference is substantial, with higher salaries, college graduates can have a higher quality of life.

Yet over the past couple of decades, tuition has risen drastically and disproportionately to inflation. Overall, average college tuitions have increased about 260%, compared to the consumer price index (CPI), a measure of the average change of prices for goods over time, which rose only 120%. College tuition is quickly outpacing the growth of most other goods, even while more people are entering college.

With tuition rates growing so rapidly, only students who come from families with higher incomes have access to high quality education, leaving out many middle- and lower-income students. Gaps in enrollment between wealthier and poorer students still persist. About 78% of high school graduates from high income families go on to higher education, while only 46% of high school graduates from low income families do. While many universities emphasize giving opportunities to poor but high performing students, the gap is too large to be filled by such measures.

Private universities often claim that the high tuitions are necessary for campus maintenance, professor salaries and new research. But much of a college’s funds go to the growing administrative sector to support a sprawling bureaucracy. If universities cut extraneous costs and reduced bureaucracy, they’d lower tuition rates and make a college education more accessible to lower income students.

Still, everyone should have a chance at higher education. And the cost of reforming does not necessarily have to exclusively burden private institutions (well, except for universities that are entirely for-profit). By placing more emphasis on state universities and by subsidizing more college loans, the government can hope to make college more accessible and reduce the buildup of student debt. It’s clear that a college education could be beneficial to many students, but persistent high costs keep lower- and middle-income students from accessing a life that as good as their wealthier peers. Despite possible solutions, we don’t see any real commitment to making higher education cheaper from universities or politicians. While poorer families may not be able to put money into the coffers of politicians, their children still deserve a good education. Public (and free) education is supposed to be the great equalizer, something that allows someone to succeed regardless of their background. How can we claim to be a free and equal country if we deny some students a chance at a better life on the basis of their class?

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