Lawsuits Over Tuition Refunds Inspire New Student Consumer ‘Bill of Rights’ #highered
More people trying to make Higher Education into a consumer commodity.
Yet these same people then whine about how colleges like the Ivies only serve the very wealthiest. I mean, if college is the same as a car, are you also whining that low income families cannot afford Rolls Royces?
You cannot have it both ways - if education is a commodity, than there are “regular” versions, and there are “luxury” versions, based on how much you pay. So they cannot demand that Yale would provide the same “commodity” to people who pay nothing as to people who pay $75,000. They can also expect different levels of dorms and classes, all depending on how much you pay.
Then they should expect different levels of degrees. So a poor person will attend Yale, but pay less, and get a lower-level BA. versus what a wealthy kid gets. Wealthy kids will have Gold-Level Princeton BAs, while a low SES kid will get Bronze-level Princeton BAs.
Of course, the wealthy will love this. This will once again bring back the days of the Ivies only serving the “right” people, while “they” will attend “their” cheap public universities. The highest paying jobs will be available only to holder of Gold-Level BAs, while Bronze-level BA will hold the lower level clerical positions.
After all, that is exactly how it works with every other commodity, from food to travel, from houses to cars. If they want education to be like that, they should embrace it, not complain about it
Higher education is, arguably, already a consumer commodity.* Colleges know this - that’s why they spend so much money building fancy new gyms, student centers, dorms, landscaping, etc. Some of that stuff is related to their core mission, but much of it serves to attract undergraduate students (and their parents) to spend their dollars at their university. That’s what fancy mailers and giant recruitment budgets are about.
I think the real question is - do we lean hard into the commodity definition, or do we pull back and begin to reform?
Being a commodity/consumer good doesn’t necessarily preclude us from discussing fairness, though - as some commodities have outsize influences on people’s lives. Rice, for example, is a commodity by any meaningful definition of the word; yet we have scientists studying ways to make rice-growing and distribution more efficient and rice more nutritious, because it’s a staple food that provides the bulk of nutrition for a large portion of the world.
We also provide (inadequate, but still) assistance to people who cannot afford food: almost every developed country in the world has some kind of social safety net to ensure that poor people get the base amount they need to survive. We do the same thing with housing, and with energy, and with college tuition as well.
I’d also like to point out that Yale already does what you are saying, as do most private colleges: their prices are on sliding scales based on family income so they do provide the same experience/education and degree to people who pay nothing as they do to people who pay full freight. It’s just that Yale, as a private college, decides who they admit and who pays what amounts. (It would actually be more expensive for Yale to provide a ‘lower-level’ education to students who pay less.)
What I think the problem is that through years of competition for an increasingly small population of college-aged students, colleges/we’ve created this fantasy expectation of what a college education is and means. It is ivy-covered buildings on pristine green lawns; it is living in dorms with students from around the world; it is libraries with soaring ceilings and 19th-century architecture; it is study abroad programs and student groups and good food in the dining hall. In other words, it’s about a whole lot more than just getting an academic education.
I see that all the time here, even before the pandemic: students wondering if they are “missing out on something” or not getting the “full college experience” if they live at home and commute, or they don’t live on campus, or they don’t join a billion clubs. The buildup of those expectations over time in the American consciousness have coalesced to the point at which we are now: one where people think that if they are not getting all of those trappings, they are not “getting what they came for” and thus do not want to pay $$$$.
*Well, not by the technical economic definition of a commodity. One of the important elements of a commodity is fungibility: that the market treats different instances of the good as interchangeable. Under that definition, actually being a commodity would make higher education LESS stratified - an education at one college would be interchangeable with an education at any other. But I think we’re using the colloquial version of the term, which is really just a consumer good.