This recently I attended the Lilly Teaching conference in Oxford, OH at Miami University. While there, an interesting question was raised asking if the cost of education was too high for students? This question is again raised as I sit here in the airport on my way back to Texas. I am watching a CNN small story on the increasing levels of student debt in America. The national average is now up to $34,000+. The woman interviewed, who is now living her dream of working in NYC for J. Crew, had nearly a six-figure student debt. When asked to calculate how long it would take her to pay it back, she stated, “About 25 years or so.” So the question I am left with is when is the education bubble going to burst?
I, for one, am a huge proponent of higher education. I teach in higher education, and I am almost finished with my Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology. I think it is FABULOUS. However, I have seen several of my own friends and students be crushed beneath the burdensome weight of student debt, and I wonder if the costs outweigh the benefits. Some students who traditionally have the largest amount of debt, such as lawyers, are finding it near impossible to find a job in the current market. So they are left with loans they can’t afford due to an inability to find work. So why do we keep paying for this expensive education? Because it seems as if the only way to keep up with everyone else on the job market is to take out more student loans and get more higher education (Masters, Doctorates, etc.). But is this true, and where is the future of education heading?
I think in the future routes like community college for the first few years of school may become more commonplace. As students figure out what it is they actually want to do, they may take general education requirements at community college and then move on to the more expensive four-year schools. Additionally, more students may attend state schools in which they are residents so that the cost of tuition is cheaper. However, that still doesn’t answer the question of what to do with endless debt, especially when pursuing higher-level degrees such as Master’s and Doctorates.
I worry in many ways that this economic issue may further drive the very issue of class inequalities that the Occupy Wall Street movement is protesting against. As education gets more expensive, the only students who may be able to afford to attend such high-price and high-status institutions like the Harvards and Princetons will be the students from very wealthy backgrounds. As this trend continues, the economy may favor those “highly qualified” individuals and better jobs may go to them, creating an even further gap between classes within American society. Those who have more will continue to get more and those who have less will continue to get less.
However, clearly American society is fighting these trends. The only question is – what will the market do? Will this problem fix itself with the flux of supply and demand? Will these inequalities slowly dissipate over time? I am not certain of the outcome, nor am I entirely hopeful. But I do hope that qualifications for jobs are redefined in the future. I hope that getting an education at a community college is not viewed as second class. I hope that individuals will move forward based on their merit. However, I know that enriched environments provide more opportunities, which in turn creates better outcomes. The thing is, the economic market is not concerned with fairness or morality or judging individuals for their individual merit. We are an economy that thrives on statuses and reputations. So, these inequalities are likely to thrive in the current market rather than die, and all the while we are sitting on top of an education bubble that may soon burst. The question is, what will happen when it bursts? Will a burst help address the problem of social inequalities currently existing in American society, or will it just make them worse?