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.