The Devaluing of Higher Education in America

It’s been about six months now since I finally graduated with a B.A. It was a difficult journey in many ways, and seemed like it was only getting harder with each semester. Not because of tougher classes, although I had my share of those. Rather, it was because of a persistent problem that every student and every professor seems to recognize. It’s talked about among friends, among family, on the news, in entertainment, in politics, by social scientists, by employers, by corporations, by unions, and it’s virtually everywhere in the United States. Yet the general reaction often continues to be one of reluctant surrender. Let’s have a moment of silence for our poor students.

Poor indeed. But this kind of poverty isn’t all it’s frequently imagined to be. It’s not the sort of scrape-by-on-the-skin-of-your-teeth poverty that challenges you while it builds character. It’s not voluntary poverty for the sake of some greater good. It’s not even simple financial poverty. In my opinion, many students face something much deeper — a poverty of needs, values, aspirations, and opportunities.

Before you dismiss my use of the P-word as a ridiculous exaggeration, allow me to make a point that should be, but rarely ever is, obvious. A lot of students live below the poverty line. Using data collected between 2009 and 2011, the Census Bureau reports that 63.3% of college students live at home with their parents or relatives. The same paper notes that although 15.2% of the U.S. lives in poverty, a staggering 51.8% of college students who live off-campus without parents or relatives are below the poverty line. Another recent study found that low-income students graduate at lower rates, with 51% of Pell Grant recipients graduating nationwide, compared to 65% of those who didn’t receive the grants. Along these lines, high schools with higher poverty rates have been shown to be strong predictors of poor college performance.

Some people would like to chalk up some of these statistics to work ethic. I won’t pretend there aren’t students who try and take the lazy way out. I’ve been in classes with plenty of them. What I will say is that these types of excuses for inaction never take into account other factors that should be relevant, like what all is going on in a student’s life.

Loved ones die, family members get sick and need care, cars break down, people get evicted, people struggle with physical and psychological disorders, and during the several years for which students attend college, there just are numerous issues that can arise. Good professors try to talk to students to find out these sorts of details, and they work with them when there are genuine difficulties involved, but the general public usually doesn’t do this at all when explaining away calls for reform.

What’s really tough to dismiss here are the alarming facts about suicide on college campuses. A 2014 study documented that about 31% of students have contemplated suicide, a figure that has risen by 6% in the span of only five years. According to Emory University, more than 1,000 suicides occur on campuses every year. While the factors contributing to this problem are numerous and complex, there are similar and recurring concerns voiced by the 48.7% of American college students who attend counseling for mental health concerns. Anxiety, depression, and stress top their worries.

From 2014 to last summer, I belonged to the one-third of students in college that was living off-campus without family. I was also in the drastically rising minority of students with a full-time job. Of course, I am grateful to have what I had, but working a full-time job presents another layer of challenges to receiving an education. It meant I had to work an alternate schedule, which could vary dramatically depending on the time-frames of the classes I needed. Building operation restrictions further impacted the hours I could work. Many full-time employers make allowances for educational leave, but a 2014 publication by The Council of Economic Advisers notes that there are “large disparities” in access to paid leave, as well as an overall need for more of both paid and unpaid leave.

Let’s do a little math. You’re taking 4 classes for three days a week, each 50 minutes long. That comes to around 10 hours per week that is spent sitting in class. Now add in the amount of time it takes to study for your classes. Conventionally, it’s recommended that you spend at least two hours studying for each hour in class. So add 20 hours of study time (this is not far off the norm, according to a recent study). But your campus is a 30 minute drive, plus parking takes time, and depending where you park, you may have to plan on catching the bus as well. Then each day is an hour long trip both ways, and perhaps another hour both ways for parking and walking, or riding the bus. This conservative calculation already brings the total time devoted to attending school to 36 hours a week.

Now imagine your employer gives you four maximum hours of educational leave. Per week. The HR handbook lists up to 8, but they figure that an hour per class is reasonable. Taking other kinds of leave to use for school is frowned upon. You can’t reduce your work hours to accommodate school, either, since you’re in a salaried position. Basically, you have to pull 36 hours a week at work and another 36 in that same week handling school stuff. Subtract 72 hours out of a 120-hour 5 day week and that leaves you with 48 hours, or 9.6 hours a day for sleep. Of course, that’s if you do absolutely nothing but attend college, work, and sleep. It doesn’t include trying for a social life, visiting family, or, you know, having fun.

Then picture all that interrupted by any of the struggles I noted above. Death in the family? Loved one sick and needing your care? Personal medical condition? You lose sleep. And the more sleep you lose, the rougher everything becomes. Stress and anxiety heighten, more sleep is lost. You probably ought to go see a counselor, maybe even a doctor, or at least take some time off. But where will you find the time or the money to do that? You have rent and bills to pay. Not to forget about tuition.

It’s no secret that college tuition has risen substantially over the last few decades, and in a manner that goes well beyond merely adjusting for inflation and increases in income. With fees and everything accounted for, tuition costs nearly $5,000 a semester to attend the university I attended. Even with my annual untaxed income at approximately five times this figure, I couldn’t afford college without grants. The only problem is that once I made it sufficiently above the poverty level, I was no longer eligible to receive much in the way of financial aid. For the first two years of my education, I did all I could to avoid loans, including using payment plans, but eventually I had little choice but to start relying on student loans. The scenario I gave above is not fiction, it’s a story I was living, and one that I know some students were/are living, too.

One of the most popular arguments against making college free is that it “devalues” the education you’d be getting. Yet when we look at countries like Norway, Sweden, and Finland, where tax payers absorb the burden of tuition, college completion rates differ very little from the United States. Germany and Denmark are exceptions, but the U.S. still leads in the percentage of unemployed college graduates. These other nations also excel against the U.S. in college students who have graduated in the fields of Science, Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics, according to research from 2011. To be clear, though, I am not advocating for free tuition in this post. Even if it is true that free education loses its worth, that is no argument for the exorbitant tuition rates we see at many American universities.

I believe there is devaluing of higher education already going on in our nation from a diverse assortment of sources. Many of us are aware of the pervasive anti-intellectualism that has been growing throughout the country, covered thoroughly by the likes of Chris Mooney and Susan Jacoby. This climate is often seen as partly responsible for sending Donald Trump into office, and it’s been perpetuated with the help of his own Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who has been going after regulations on gainful employment and loan relief for defrauded students. A great number of colleges and universities are being run more like businesses than institutions of higher learning now, and DeVos’ policies serve to exacerbate this shift.

What does it say about us as a nation when we define the value of an education by expense alone? It may be a very capitalist thing to do, but it’s very questionable if this is the best way to assess an education, particularly when, as noted, the U.S. finds itself with many unemployed graduates. What good is an expensive education if you’re not seeing a return on your investment? There is research showing that a measly 27% of graduates are working a job in their major, and, even worse, the majority of graduates work jobs that don’t require a degree at all. This may be one reason why college enrollment has been declining over the last several years.

So why not save your money and opt out of college? Well, college graduates still earn more than non-graduates even in jobs that are outside their field. With the cost of living being what it is, this is a strong motivation to obtain a degree. And if you want that degree, you’ll likely find yourself in a situation like I was in, being forced into debt. I applied for and received various grants, even won a scholarship, but at best these solutions covered just a fraction of tuition. “Change your major, then,” I heard some people say, “and go where the money is.” But this brings us back again to the big question. Is monetary value really the most important thing about higher education?

Income was one motivating factor behind why I did not consistently attend college until years after graduating high school. When I began college, I was fortunate enough to have parents who paid for it and let me live at home. But I still had to find money for car repairs, for gas to get to school, for food when I would go out, and for really any social activities. I worked part-time jobs to make that happen, though these jobs were often surprisingly demanding of their employees. The food service industry is well known for having a very high turnover, and retailers are trying to compensate for a rising crisis of their own. Turnover isn’t necessarily high because these people are finding better jobs, but even in cases like mine, a better paying job can also severely limit one’s options for college participation. I told myself that education was for finding a well-paying career, so I switched majors a few times, searching for that one lucrative employment field that wouldn’t feel miserable.

The nasty reality is that many high-paying positions carry with them a high amount of stress, and consequently a high amount of unhappiness. Some disturbing facts that aren’t always talked about in conversations on career planning are the high suicide rates of physicians and lawyers, the massive debt incurred by dentists, and the astronomical work hours of investment bankers. We imagine a great salary will relieve us of the problems in our lives — many of them financial — but it’s still true, if not terribly cliché, that more money can bring more problems.

The price tag on college and the focus on schooling as a means to a certain standard of living are devaluing higher education in the United States. They are a burden not only on students, but on parents and families, and they affect our communities and culture as a whole. I’ve already mentioned some of the ways this happens, but let me mention one more.

Debt has become practically synonymous with the American Dream. Several of the big things we recognize as important to living the American lifestyle are almost unattainable now without loans. Cars, homes, and college are the most familiar. These purchases often involve credit checks, too, and credit is itself a form of enforced debt meant to show personal “responsibility.” Credit cards have replaced cash in many transactions. It’s true that there are other options to some of these things, like used cars and renting a room in a house, but there are drawbacks in certain cases, and these are generally treated as temporary options. That our economy is increasingly pushing us towards a greater reliance on debt is just about indisputable, though.

It’s not hard to see why, either, since debt enables people and businesses to make easy money without the need to produce some actual, tangible product that can deteriorate or change hands. A lot of people do not read the fine print, don’t understand tricky interest rates, and may otherwise lack the necessary education for making an informed decision. Debt is great for business, and it preys especially on the socioeconomically disadvantaged, as was evident during the mortgage crisis that began in 2007. Considering that 8 in 10 Americans are in debt, and that mortgage is the most common kind of debt, dismissing all this as an instance of “buyer beware” seems both hypocritical and naive.

We live in a country that many believe is founded on Christian values. Were this true, it seems like there would be more believers upset at how we conduct business in the U.S. In the gospels, Jesus makes numerous references to debt, and specifically to debt forgiveness:

Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. (Matthew 18:32–34)

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. (Luke 6:35)

Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. (Luke 7:41–42)

Perhaps most famously, the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9–12 has the line asking God to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

But these passages are speaking of spiritual debt, right? Actually, that’s not as clear as some would like it to be. The Greek word for “debts” in Matthew 6:12, for example, is used in other ancient Greek texts in basically the literal sense of financial obligation. Another passage, Mark 12:17, where Jesus delivers his renowned “render unto Caesar” line, is regarded by plenty of scholars as a statement on taxation, which suggests that Jesus likely was putting forward some teachings with political and financial ramifications. Even if we go with the spiritual debt interpretation, it’s odd to view this idea in a way that excludes extending that spirit of forgiveness to material matters as well as immaterial ones.

A lot of Christians do recognize debt as a problem for the debtor, and this should provide all the more reason to denounce economic practices that force people into debt. However, our “Christian nation” seems much less bothered by this institutionalization of sin than it is by, say, the alleged sanctity of marriage.

Debt is something we have grown accustomed to in America. I’m not interested in arguing that all debt is equally bad, or that no debt should exist, but isn’t there something kind of specially insidious about tremendously burdensome debt that’s required for an education — to have the tools to get by in the workplace, in society, and in a culture of debt? I think so. I think it creates tension in families, produces stress in many students, I think it drives a lot of people away from college, contributes to the inequality experienced by marginalized peoples, and I think it highlights just how deep the for-profit plague goes in the United States.

I’ve known some adults who love to remind young people that “education is its own reward.” What they appear to mean by this isn’t so much that we should all see education as a good in itself as it is that we should quit whining and work hard no matter the situation. I do tend to think education is its own reward, but that’s also why I’m opposed to excessive tuition and excessive student debt. And it’s why I feel like another factor in the devaluation of higher education is the workforce.

Now, don’t get me wrong: a lot of employers offer benefits that do help aspiring students. But not all employers do, and their benefits often come with strings attached. 54% of employers offer undergraduate tuition assistance, according to a 2014 study. Yet some of those 54% want you to attend school at online universities whom they have partnered up with. Some won’t pay for a class until after you’ve completed it, and some will only pay the full amount if you make a certain grade. Many employers specify an acceptable area of study and will not provide assistance to other majors. Then there is the issue of employers expecting strenuous hours from students. Research has shown that a 10–15 hour work week is ideal for student engagement, but there are incredibly few businesses willing to employ staff for those hours, let alone at any kind of reasonable wage.

Even worse, there is a significant divergence between how well grad students think college has prepared them for the world and how well-prepared employers think they are. Whether one sides with the students or with the businesses here, this calls attention to a potential problem of prejudice in how some major companies perceive college and the college-educated. Interestingly, a national poll has found similar dissatisfaction among the public with college preparation for the workforce. There seems to be a distrust of higher education that leads some employers to adopt strict limitations to the benefits they give students, while other employers simply offer no benefits.

I was once told by a former supervisor that my primary commitment had to be to the job, not to college. This didn’t come from any unprofessional behavior on my part, but just from attempting to negotiate more cooperation with my employer about working hours. What astounds me about it is that some businesses don’t seem to have an inkling of how the stresses of a full-time job and full-time schooling affect job performance when little provision is made with a person’s health in mind. Getting the hours and the work out of you is always the priority. Apparently a lot of companies give HR benefits mainly for PR reasons.

Universities should not exist to pump more bodies into the job market. The goal of higher education should be to produce educated and upstanding citizens. It can be debated if modern colleges serve this goal, but the expectation and insistence that education’s most important purpose is to solve unemployment is another way in which education is being devalued in our society.

Why is it not obvious to people that employers have a vested interest in implicating virtually everyone but themselves in the causes of unemployment? Let’s not talk about the minimum wage, the obsolete 40-hour work week in the Information Age, the absurd Facebook-scouring anti-privacy practices of certain employers, the shoddy health benefits provided by many companies, or any number of the long list of problems that point to the real bottom-line priorities of countless businesses. Let’s point the finger elsewhere, please.

This sits quite well with a society where there is a general suspicion of institutions of higher learning. Americans have long had a distrust of elitism, even when it’s imagined rather than real. A 2015 Gallup poll shows that our nation places greater confidence in the military, in small business, in the police, in organized religion, in the presidency, and even in the Supreme Court than it places in public schools. This does include K-12 schools, but the report still exposes the overall distrust in public education, which has grown about threefold since the early 1970s. Another study that is specifically centered on higher education notes that while most Americans do have hope for college, the vast majority think universities should change to meet today’s needs.

Anti-intellectualism is not necessarily incompatible with some of these attitudes towards college, either. Bringing education “down to earth,” to something practical like finding a good job, may be somewhat of an anti-intellectual approach depending on the context. Certain majors have evoked disdain and ridicule as if they are degrees detached from reality, guilty of head-in-the-clouds thinking. I know this from personal experience as a Philosophy student, and I’ve heard majors in Psychology, Music, Sociology, and many other fields receive similar criticism. Some people act as if there’s no point in learning anything that won’t put food on the table or money in your bank account. But this itself is a value, an ideal, and there’s a strong case to be made that part of the purpose of education should be to examine and challenge the values we are raised with.

Politicians play into the distrust of higher education, too. Scott Walker proposed a $300 million budget cut for the University of Wisconsin System in 2015, and Governor Matt Bevin trimmed 4.5% of the budget for Kentucky’s public universities, promising to go as high as 9% in the following two years. Louisiana is in such bad shape that many colleges there are being forced to consider privatization in order to keep their accreditation. The cuts frequently affect Liberal Arts programs and involve reasoning precisely like that just described, claiming to be removing funding in the name of serving economic needs.

To be fair, there are legitimate criticisms of higher education. There remains widespread inequality of access among minority groups, some professors indoctrinate rather than educate, and retention rates are not often impressive. I don’t have any simple solution to any of the problems here. These are complicated issues and I know that there are smart and well-intentioned people working on them at this very moment. I do think there are wrong ideas about higher education, however.

There are studies linking education in our country to adult mortality rates. It has also been found to lower crime rates. Emily Zimmerman and her co-authors note in one paper that adults with more education are “less likely to experience unemployment and economic hardship and will have greater access to a variety of important material, financial, and social resources.” Whatever your criticisms of the educational system may be, the evidence of higher education’s importance, both socially and personally, is in.

I value my education. I value it more than the cost of tuition, or the salary it might one day provide me. I value the help I’ve received from my parents, from the rest of my family, from the schools I’ve attended, from the grants and scholarships I’ve received, and from the jobs I’ve worked. I believe the more we turn education into a business and a marketing arm of the workforce, the more it loses lasting value, its power to inspire is diminished, and the worse off we will be for it. This is not some ideologically-driven prediction, it’s something we’re witnessing now and have been watching unfold over the last few decades.

Writer, reader, musician, and graduate in philosophy and religious studies.

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