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.

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

  1. Completely agree with you!! I think one has to point the blame at the way education is marketed in the States, but also increasingly in the U.K too. There is a strong push to commercialize education to tailor fit one’s job prospects. Back in the day (the day of the horse and buggy, that is), education was a means to cultivate and culture people, whether male or female. You went off to Harvard, Oxford and yes, the University of London to acquire refinement and to truly learn and better yourself through knowledge and ideas. Those going off to university in those days had the money and privilege to gain that sort of refinement. Now, in the 21st century, this is a long gone concept. Education to us is a means to improve our job prospects- to get ourselves into the middle and upper classes. Even at SOAS, yes, there are those who are truly concerned with the Middle East and the happenings in Africa and the rest of the world, but there are many more that are lining up at the Career Service desk looking for employment and money making positions. Do you think there was a Career Service center in 1950s Harvard? No- why? Because all those who went off to universities had means and connections to get themselves good employment. Today, universities have to market themselves as a place where one can get a great job that will be high paying as well. Even in Ph.D programs, there is this push to commercialize research– academia has radically changed and this can be seen in the fact that fewer and fewer professors are actually teaching, leaving the teaching bit to lowly payed TAs and adjuncts (who are also massively in debt too). They are too busy fretting over getting tenure, getting published, getting recognized in their respective fields, etc. This is why the level of teaching has in my opinion gone down drastically. Anyway, just giving you my two cents, or pence.

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