Has College Broken Its Contract?


Last week I found myself giving advice to an undergrad about a problem in which, through the school’s error, she was going to lose not only college credit and money, but fall behind a full semester:

“You gave them money for a service. They have not held up their end of the contract; therefore, you have rights to fight them for it. Why would you ever pay someone to screw you over? You wouldn’t. College is absolutely no different.”

At least it shouldn’t be. But then again, college doesn’t really stick to any of the proscribed market rules. Theoretically, the student lives up to their end of the contract—they pay tuition, follow the rules, go to class, turn in their work… and then they often receive red tape, heaps of debt, and an education that doesn’t prepare them for their field.

The cost of college, just in my lifetime, has risen 500 percent, increasing at 2.5 times the rate of inflation. In normal circumstances, the market would never have the ability to sustain something like that. And with Americans having more than $40 billion in student debt, it’s not difficult to see that we’re clearly unable to maintain the rising costs.

The situation begs the question: Is college providing the service we pay universities for? The need for advanced degrees is skyrocketing, and a BA/BS no longer holds the same weight it did in the past. Living outside of Washington, D.C., and job hunting, a lack of further education is a hindrance in this market. It’s also a never-ending and self-fulfilling cycle of debt. If we cannot get the experience or education to get a job to pay off our student loans, we must seek further education and take on even more debt. In a weak economy, and as a generation with a 16.1% unemployment rate, we’re circling the drain becoming more educated, more indebted, and less employed.

So who’s to blame? One could say the economy, but even more so, our university system. We have purchased a service from them that is consistently providing a lower and lower return on investment. Where once that four-year degree gave you a distinct earning advantage (and for the engineering types it still does), now 30 percent of Americans with an associates degree are out-earning those with bachelor’s. In the process of doing so, they spend less, focus more on their field, and come out faster.

Where’s the disconnect, then? In my opinion, it’s how bloated and generic our four-year schools have become. While we may not know what we want to do when we’re 18 years old, being able to wait until we’re two years into a degree to choose a major is absurd, and plays directly into the hands of the inflated system. They give us those two years to take our gen-eds that, for many or most of us, were all classes that were (or should have been) covered during high school. As someone who came out of a Catholic school, that meant my parents paid double for me to take all those generic 100-200 classes that I’d spent the last four years doing. The mandatory freshman seminars that teach you how to be a college student (yet rarely give you any useful knowledge that isn’t repeated in every other intro class you take), as well the IT, communications, and countless additional requirements that you spend tens of thousands of dollars taking are all money in the university’s pockets. By the time we finally finish with those, we’re left with two years (the same length as an AA) to knock out our major—two years often spent still trying to get the core classes we needed because they’re only offered during certain times of the year, and only if you have key prerequisites that don’t actually count toward your major but you have to take in order to take the classes that do.

What do we receive for the frustration and money? Do we emerge from our undergraduate careers as experts? Perhaps from some schools, but by and largely, I’d argue not. Even within the concentrations, at least at my school, you had to diversify your interest. An International Relations major couldn’t just focus there—we had to take multiple classes in American government, political theory, and comparative politics. All are very key to a broader understanding of IR, but after you got through the gen-eds, the pre-reqs, and the sub-pre-reqs, you barely had much time left to learn IR inside and out. We go broke for an education that generally only prepares us for more education.

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Now I am one of those who hisses violently at those who believe the humanities are a thing of the past and are a waste of money for a degree. Knowledge and its pursuit should not have a dollar sign hosted upon them, but neither should they exist in a vacuum. The idealist and academic elitist in me would spend the rest of my life pursuing useless degrees that would never get me hired, because I love the topics, and exploring how multiple subjects interconnect. The pragmatic who has to pay for those degrees tells me to go take a hike and get back to the grad program that’s helped me keep a paycheck.

Juxtapositional self-arguments aside, working full time during my own graduate career has taught me a few key lessons about the power dynamics in my educational pursuits. If colleges insist on making education a Ponzi scheme, then I’m going to make it work for me. If the professor’s syllabus will not yield any useful or valuable information and is instead a platform for their own inflated ego, I drop the class. If the red tape is getting in my way due to cost-raising bureaucratic processes, I go around them. My advisor is a useless joke who doesn’t help me shape my degree? I go to the head of the department.

The days of rolling over and taking terrible service at too high a cost are over. I hold up my end, I pay my dues, go to class, do my work, and make good grades—it’s time for schools to do the same. They need to give us the education, the preparation, and the expertise to match the time, money, and effort we are (hopefully) putting into them.

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