Why does it cost so much to get an education in the U.S.?

Like my colleague whose op-ed was recently published in USAToday, I have student loan debts which, by the time I’m done paying them off, will total almost $40,000. Ouch! Like my colleague, I too received a letter from some student loan consolidation service urging me to act fast because Congress was about to enact some bill that would result in my student loan payments going up. My eyes glazed over as I automatically leaned over and dropped the letter into my recycling box.

I spent the next half-hour trying to shake off that feeling you get as you leave the auto mechanic’s after having had your car repaired. You know, that vague feeling of having been swindled?

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t care about getting a good rate on my student loan payments. What I hate is feeling like my postgraduate degree might not have been the wisest financial decision I’ve ever made. Why should I have to feel like a sucker just because I wanted to improve my life chances by advancing my education?

I also deeply resent the student loan industry for treating my education as just another commodity. I mean, it’s not like I just blew thousands of dollars on a new car or designer clothes, so why do I have to put up with these cheap sales tactics? “Act now to lock in all-time low rates!” “Student loan rates going up. Act now!”

But the problem does not lie solely with the student loan industry. We’re all guilty. As long as we insist on viewing higher education as a commodity, student–loan sharks will continue to treat me and other students as mere consumers, no different from homeowners, car owners, or Saturday shoppers.

So what does it mean that higher education is a commodity? Among other things, it means that costs will always be tied to “quality” so the better the school, the higher the tution. But does it have to be this way? When I was doing my Masters course—I went to the University of London because it was much cheaper than comparable U.S. schools—I met many European students who had studied at the region’s best schools without incurring tens of thousands of euros or pounds of debt.

Certainly, the U.S. is home to some of the best universities in the world but why do costs have to be as high as they are? Quality, right? Sure, but only partly. According to the University of Shanghai, which published the rankings of the world’s universities, Harvard University and the University of Cambridge are tied for first place. I’m not sure how these rankings were arrived at but I think we can all agree that Harvard and Cambridge are comparable universities in terms of reputation, academic rigor, and whatever other factors were taken into consideration.

But they are definitely not comparable when it comes to tutition costs. A year of tuition at Cambridge costs £3,070 ($6,143.79) while at Harvard, tuition runs at $31,456 (£15,712.23) annually, five times higher. Why does it cost more to study at some state universities in the U.S. than it does to study at the oldest university in the English-speaking world, which is also one of the best universities in the world?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that in the U.S., higher education—like health care—is treated as a commodity. In other words, people’s willingness to buy a higher education for themselves or their children determines the cost of tuition. As demand increases, so too will prices, in this case tuition costs. In France and Scotland, students protest against tuition increases. In the U.S., we just set up more education savings accounts or borrow more and more money for school.

Clearly, there is more than enough demand for a Harvard education but I’m sure most of it comes from those who are wealthy enough to afford it. The rest of us have to bury ourselves in mountains of student loan debt just so we too can hold advanced degrees.

I have to say, though, it sure beats the hell out of the alternatives available to really poor people.

Dick Cheney Removes Vice Presidency from EXECUTIVE Branch.

I have to confess I’m not an expert on American government but even I know that the office of the Vice President—like that of  the President—is part of the EXECUTIVE Branch. You see, I know this because I had to go to night school to study for the Maryland Citizenship Test, which I had to pass in order to graduate high school. But now I, like Robin, am a little confused.

Why am I confused? Well, according to our sitting Vice President, the Office of the Vice President is not “an entity within the EXECUTIVE branch” and so is not subject to the same reporting and accountability requirements as other government offices. This argument rests on the fact that the office is unique because it entails both EXECUTIVE and legislative duties (e.g., the Vice President can cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate [thank you very much Maryland Citizenship night school!!]). However, the oversight office of the National Archives, which was actually acting under an executive order updated by President Bush in 2003, had requested only documents pertaining to the EXECUTIVE work of the Vice President’s office—this particularly inquisitive agency of the National Archives nearly got itself abolished for its trouble!!!

But let’s not split hairs.

As a simple citizen with little knowledge of semantics or legalese, I have only one question. If the office of the Vice President is not part of the EXECUTIVE Branch, then why is it located in the Eisenhower EXECUTIVE Office Building, which “house[s] various agencies that comprise the EXECUTIVE Office of the President, such as the Office of the Vice President . . .”?

Maybe it’s time for the Vice President to go to night school.

New Radio Show Available.

The June 25 edition of Diaspora Sounds is now available for your listening pleasure. Listen online or download to an mp3 player and listen later.

Click here to see the playlist.

Listen to the previous show here.

Salafis Gone Wild!!!

The London Times reported in May on new rules enforced by a group of Salafi militants now controlling an Iraqi province north of Baghdad.

Based in Diyala, the Salafi-dominated Islamic State of Iraq now enforces laws against smoking (repeat offenders have their fingers broken) and bars grocers from displaying tomatoes (considered a female vegetable) next to cucumbers. Farmers are also required to put shorts on their goats.

Good to know we’re not the only ones with wacky moral laws.

Hating the sin and other popular idiotisms.

I’m not sure when this happened but it feels like lately, the most pressing issues of the day are squeezed into short (oxy)moronic imperatives utterly devoid of meaning and depth. Nowadays, we seemingly prefer to deal with controversy by eliding and avoiding the heart of the matter and enabling continuation rather than change.

Take, for example, the oft-repeated Christian trope about homosexuality: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I’ve never really understood this particular instruction. As prejudice against homosexuals and other “sinners” becomes less and less palatable to our society, many Christians are today instructed to continue to hate homosexuality but to love homosexuals. But is it even possible to hate the sin without hating the person who commits it? Some people say it isn’t. I agree. Rather than asking congregations to hate the sin, how about simply commanding them to love everyone and hate nothing, be it a sin or virtue? I guess that might be too Christ-like.

Another popular trope is the one about supporting the troops even if you oppose the war. I’ve never quite understood this one either and I’m not the only one. As citizens, should we not have the right to weigh in on the major foreign policy decisions taken by our government without being accused of disloyalty towards our soldiers? Since there are few foreign policy issues weightier than the decision to go to war, should citizens not have an even greater obligation to voice their opinions? Are we supposed to believe that the people who decided to send the troops to war—where they risk being maimed or killed—actually support the troops more than those who are calling for an end to the war and the safe return of soldiers to their homes and families?

There are too many other similar expressions to go into detail on each but they all have one thing in common: They are mere words devoid of meaning or logical thought. While preserving our freedom of speech in the sense that we are still allowed to say words, these sayings are so diminished in meaning that we are left saying nothing new or different. In the first example, a hater is not challenged to replace hatred for love. Rather, s/he is allowed to continue hating, if not someone, then something; if not the sinner, then the sin. Similarly, people who oppose the current war are asked to pledge their support for the people who are—through no fault of their own—prosecuting the war. In the end, opposition to the war is so watered down by support for the troops as to become virtually meaningless.

 Orwell is certainly spinning in his grave.

Gas guzzlers are only part of the problem.

Yesterday, I was stopped on the street by a Greenpeace canvaser who told me about her organization’s attempts to increase awareness of global climate change and get voters to put pressure on their congressional representatives to take the issue more seriously. But it’s going to be an uphill battle: The auto industry is already taking steps to pre-empt Congress. My biggest fear is not that automakers won’t make greener cars. Ultimately, I’m more worried that they won’t need to make greener cars because American consumers—once they are convinced that fuel efficiency will come at the expense of safety—will not want to buy them.

On the BBC World Service today, I heard an advertisement that is being run in the U.S. by big automakers who oppose higher fuel standards (I tried to find it online but couldn’t so I have to paraphrase). In the ad, a women is talking to her friend about the friend’s car. The friend answers something to the effect of, “I know it’s bigger than the average car but we just feel so much safer in it.” To which the first woman responds, “Well, you might want to hold on to it because this new law Congress is considering will mean Americans have to buy smaller and smaller cars.” Through these ads, automakers hope to convince  consumers that smaller cars might be more fuel efficient but they’re also less safe.

Obviously, automobile manufacturers are fighting against higher fuel efficiency requirements because it’ll mean higher car prices which will mean fewer cars sold. Since the auto manufacturers are not weaklings, they’re applying so much pressure that now Senators are openly discussing “compromises” which might so water down the law that it’ll have no real effect on carbon dioxide emissions. But if consumers can be scared away from fuel efficient cars, automakers might be able to argue that there simply isn’t enough demand for green automobiles.

Now it’s an undeniable fact that carbon dioxide emissions are bad for our planet and everything that lives on it. Emissions have wrought havoc on our climate, leading to extremes of hot and cold all over the world (yes, I saw An Inconvenient Truth and I’m convinced!), and the melting of continental glaciers and polar icecaps. And there’s no doubt that increased carbon dioxide emissions are largely the result of human activity. Sure cow farts and other culprits are also blamed for global climate change but I’m going to include those under human activities (after all, who breeds and feeds cows). But, while we might not have the power to keep the Asians from cultivating rice in paddies or the Brazilians from burning down the Amazon (to grow soybeans and raise cattle for McDonalds, by the way!), we do have the power to pressure U.S. automakers to make greener cars that burn less fossil fuel (or no fossil fuel at all) and emit less (or no) carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, gas guzzlers are only the tip of  the proverbial iceberg, merely a symptom of a deeper disease. These mechanical behemoths are really a manifestation of our self-centered culture, what Michael Moore refers to in his new film Sicko as the “me culture.” In this “me culture,” the individual is king and the only issues of any importance are those that directly impact that individual. So automakers simply have to say, “fuel-efficient cars will be BAD for YOU because they’ll be smaller and less safe” and Americans will continue to buy gas guzzlers.

Why?

Because our mentality is so warped, our sense of communitarianism so suppressed, that we cannot think beyond ourselves and our immediate family. In the event of an accident, the person driving the hummer might get off lightly but what about the people in the other car? This kind of thinking convinces me that progress on the environmental front will be tough. If people don’t care that their gas guzzler can wreak disproportionate damage on a smaller car and its occupants, how can they be expected to care about the effects of climate change on the other side of the planet?

The new ads appeal precisely to this kind of self-centered thinking. The auto industry no longer bothers to argue that global warming is a hippie, tree-hugger conspiracy or that cow farts contribute more to the greenhouse effect than cars. Instead, they’ve resorted to manipulating people’s fears. Automakers tell us that in order to make cars more fuel efficient, they’ll have to make them smaller. And smaller means less safe. Simple. And so, consumers’ fear of dying in a car accident helps automakers sell inefficient cars under the guise of safety, while the planet gets hotter and hotter.

But in one sense, the automakers are right about smaller being less safe. Advances in technology and transporation have already made our planet smaller. But climate change will also make the world increasingly unstable as more and more people are displaced by drought and famine and the first water wars predicted by the Pentagon start to erupt. Darfur is only a preview of what will happen when competition for basic resources becomes violent. Eventually, everyone—especially those of us fortunate enough to live in developed countries—will have to deal with the real consequences of climate change.

When that times comes, gas guzzlers will not keep us safe.

UN War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone Hands Down First Verdicts.

Three men have been convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Sierra Leone’s decade-long war.

Read on . . .