It’s no secret that student loan debt is a problem that many Americans face when seeking a college education. It’s constantly brought up by graduate professionals, current students, and incoming students alike. The constant discourse around it, whether as a joke or a sincere grievance, has made the issue well-known even in communities outside the U.S.
But how real is the student debt dilemma?
According to the Center for Financial Inclusion, the majority of students in the United States acquire debt in their pursuit of higher education. Regardless of which university students go to or what degrees they take, there has been a drastic increase of students in debt from 54%, as reported in 2004, to the 62% found in 2012. The number continues to rise and as it does, so does the amount of debt students take on.
In 2020, an article in Forbes reported that student loan debt across the United States was worth a whopping $1.6 Trillion.
These financial barriers to education affect students, but, for obvious reasons, it disproportionally hurts students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The sheer amount of money needed to go to college creates a catch 22 situation for students from poorer families who don’t have the resources for an education that can help them earn a better income in the long run. The greater income equality that an education provides is crucial to students from poor families since the boost in stable, reliable income it provides is key to helping students break the cycle of poverty.
While financial factors are a key reason why higher education is elitist, as much as it is an equalizer, the problems surrounding universities go far beyond it and extend to countries outside the U.S. In fact, the problem of prohibitively expensive education isn’t even a new one.
A Global History of Education
The history of formal education is one that is strongly associated with class, status, and heredity. Surnames like Miller, Smith, Hunter, and Skinner all point to a tradition of inheriting trades which led to a close association of jobs with the people who performed them. This isn’t limited to the English-speaking world either. The surname ‘Lederer’ means ‘leather worker’ in German. Meanwhile, Hebrew gives us ‘Amar’ which means ‘farmer’. In contrast, surnames like the Spanish ‘Reyes’ point towards a blue-blooded heritage as the name literally means ‘kings’.
In the centuries leading up to the establishment of public education systems, formal education was limited to the upper class. Education in ancient Mesopotamia was mainly concerned with literacy, a skill that was revolutionary at the time given the recent invention of writing by the Sumerians around 3,400 B.C. Its relative newness, complexity, and lack of immediate practical use for making a living meant that often, only dedicated scribes could read and write. This made the skill rarer and more valuable. Seeing the demand for skilled scribes, established scribes quickly started their own privately run schools. These private schools charged exorbitant tuition fees, far beyond what a farmer’s son could ever afford. These first ancient schools began a tradition that would continue for centuries: formal education was only for the sons of wealthy, elite families. Even daughters from the noble class couldn’t count on the privilege of an education. As much as literacy was useless to fishermen, it was seen as a waste to teach it to women as they were not expected to participate in the public sphere.
The situation was little better on the other side of the globe. Formal education in Ancient China, which became popular with the rise of Confucianism, was still largely in favor of the elite class. Though the civil service examination system is touted as an equal opportunity for students from all walks of life to become well-paid government officials, it still favored students from rich families who didn’t have to work and could dedicate resources towards preparing for the exams. Again, this opportunity wasn’t open to women as the only education they could hope to receive was tailored to making them suitable brides and wives.
You might expect that education was more democratic and accessible during Greek antiquity. After all, the period is known for producing philosophers that have shaped the way we think today. But even then, education was received only by free citizens with money to burn. Similar to Mesopotamian civilizations, education in ancient Greece was provided primarily by private tutors. Athens, despite its reputation for being a hub for intellectual thought, did nothing to educate women either. It seems only Spartan women stand out as an exception in the ancient world, as ancient Sparta was among the few civilizations that provided women with a formal education. Receiving education at a similar level to their male counterparts, Spartan women were more often literate compared to other women in the ancient world.
This trend would continue to the Middle Ages. Monastic schools in Europe were the only institutions that provided relatively large-scale formal education. Everyone else either had the money for private instruction or went without an education. But the religious institutions of the Middle Ages provided a means for women to move up in the world. Nunneries gave women a role in the public sphere and an education on par with men of the time. Among the notable women produced by convent education was Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican intellectual who was born in the 1600s.
But the Middle Ages would give birth to a new form of educational institution: the university.
The University of Bologna in Italy is recognized as the first university in the Western world. The reason for the establishment of universities can be gleaned from the origin of the word Universitas, meaning a guild or organization of professionals. While the universities were initially established for the purpose of training people to work and protecting their livelihoods, the Universitas would later become increasingly geared towards the liberal arts, just like how the private tutors of the wealthy did. The university’s growing monopoly over formal higher education meant that they were among the few institutions that produced men of learning who took prominent positions in their societies.
But men of learning didn’t learn the sort of things that tradesmen did. During Korea’s Joseon Period, education was restricted to the Yangban class, a privileged and educated elite that made up Korea’s government. Like their Western counterparts, the Yangban were educated in liberal arts such as the study of Confucian texts, a lofty pursuit that was seen as a way to cultivate character. In comparison, the trades were seen as lowly work for low-born people. This degrading view towards labor still continues today in many Asian countries whose cultures view blue-collar work as an occupation for the undereducated, a less respectable position compared to white collar jobs.
That said, education would later become more accessible to the public following a change in attitudes about who gets to receive an education and how.
Among the first people to publicly advocate for educating children from impoverished backgrounds was St. John Baptist de La Salle, a French priest and educational reformer who helped pioneer the classroom style of teaching that is now the standard in formal education. This would later allow schools to move away from the private tutoring model, creating a more cost-efficient mode of teaching where one teacher could deliver lectures to several students at a time.
Aside from teaching underprivileged children, another revolutionary idea that the priest had was to teach students in a language they actually understood. Due to their association with refinement and the upper echelons of society, schools would often give instruction in whichever language was seen as ‘classy’ in the time and place a school existed. For the Western world, this meant that either Latin, Greek, or French would be used in teaching students. Similarly, students in colonized countries were taught in the language of their colonizer, a practice still seen today in India and the Philippines where the favored mode of instruction is English.
While Christian missionaries seeking to create converts overseas were the main driving force for public education in colonized nations, the public education system in the United States was driven by the need to create upstanding citizens. According to a paper from the Center on Education Policy, the new federal government of America created public schools for the purpose of preparing children to be citizens in the fullest sense of the word.
This state-focused sentiment towards public education is encapsulated in Benjamin Rush’s 1786 essay, Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic. In it, he writes:
“Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it.”
Spearheaded by figures like Horace Mann, known for being the first great American advocate of public education, education in the United States became non-sectarian, free, and accessible to most students. Having come from an impoverished background that forced him to fight tooth and nail for his education, Mann unsurprisingly became an advocate for educating the everyone, including enslaved African Americans. Horace Mann’s dream of creating a free, democratic America where everyone was educated to participate fully in civic life would only be realized in 1954, nearly a hundred years after his death in 1859.
The landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka marked a revolutionary win for the civil rights movement. The justices involved in Brown would unanimously rule that racial segregation in public schools was against the constitution, hence declaring it null and void. The case drew the attention of the state towards a fact of life that many African Americans at the time instinctively knew: the ‘separate but equal’ approach to education was only equal on paper and did not provide them with the same quality of education that white Americans received.
But while the verdict in Brown v. Board of Education managed to secure a victory for African Americans under the equal protection clause, what it was not able to address was the systemic inequality that left minorities impoverished and disadvantaged. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that Native American and African American students completed their bachelor’s degrees at significantly lower rates compared to Caucasian and Asian students.
Educational Costs and the Culture Around Education
When we think of education today, what we usually think of are college campuses filled with sleep-deprived students mired in debt that they hope to pay off with a well-paying job. The promise of high income that universities actively sell to their students isn’t exactly the lie many people complain that it is. For one, there are figures that show the income ceiling for bachelor’s degree holders is higher in the long run compared to non-degree holders.
A study published in the journal Demography found that lifetime earnings of men with bachelor’s degrees could be as high as $900,000 more than men with only high school diplomas. College-educated women could expect to earn $630,000 more than non-degree holder women. It isn’t just the U.S either, census data and research in countries like Australia have shown that years of formal education completed by an individual has a massive positive effect on their income. Among all the factors that can influence a person’s wages, a university education has the strongest impact when it comes to increasing your net worth.
This brings us to the next question: Are all degrees created equal?
Of the jobs listed reported by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics as having the highest median salaries, a majority are jobs related to STEM, an abbreviation of the study of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Most of the occupations with cushy median salaries are in healthcare with anesthesiologists taking the cake at around $261,730 a year. What these figures don’t account for are upfront costs and opportunity costs.
Higher education doesn’t just mean you might end up with an empty bank account. Aside from tuition fees, part of the costs of higher education is the income you lose by studying. Additional years spent in academia means you aren’t participating in the labor market.
One of the few non-STEM-related jobs reported to have high median incomes is a career in law. Specifically, working as a judge. While law school may be shorter compared to the years of medical school and residency needed to become an anesthesiologist, a law degree still carries a hefty price tag and heavy demands on a student’s time. Again, time spent studying is time spent not working.
The increased costs of higher education have created a growing anti-college sentiment among young adults. Barriers to entry and wage stagnation have made the great equalizer that is higher education increasingly out of reach for the average American. A quick Youtube search on ‘useless degrees’ offers up countless hours of content on why liberal arts educations are economically worthless, more liability than asset to the average worker.
Among the most popular of these videos is a video uploaded by Motivation Madness which compiles clips featuring successful entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who came to Canada with the social capital of an upperclass man from South Africa, and Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder who dropped out of Harvard University yet studied at elite boarding school Philip Exeter, to make the point that college degrees are useless, contrary to statistical data that establishes degree-related professions as having the highest median incomes. It’s not hard to understand why the video has nearly 7 million views. As higher education leaves more and more students feeling burned, the narrative of the college drop-out billionaire becomes an increasingly enticing way to justify survivorship bias.
But the video does raise one pressing concern: With the democratization of knowledge in the Internet age, is college still necessary for learning?
In her video ‘We are killing critical thinking.‘, video essayist Alice Cappelle explores how current attitudes towards higher education are, well, killing critical thinking. The internet, while making knowledge accessible, has contributed towards the perception that a university education can be substituted with self-studying your Google searches, bringing to the front a central idea that underpins the way we think about education: economic value.
Instead, Cappelle encourages her viewers to recognize that, while education can be a means towards economic security, the view that an education should be economically viable, that is, only done for the sake of making money, isn’t just an effect of its cost, but a way in which we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that everything we do has to have a price tag.
That being said, while the internet may just kill academia, the free access to information it provides has given rise to a new breed of intellectual, the proletarian autodidact. In his 2014 keynote address, Dr. Andrew Lian notes how the rise of the internet has created not just a modern day Library of Alexandria, but a new, digital symposium. Platforms like Reddit, with subreddits dedicated to specific professions and fields of study, have become a marketplace of ideas where traditional academic training and online course gumption meet to democratize learning.
But it still isn’t all rainbows and roses for education. While intellectualism will likely survive the 21st century, the university degree may not. As societies move forward, a second question arises: Should we even keep academia around?
College, Collusion, and Colonialism
Though the popularity of formal, public education has opened the doors of academia to less wealthy students, it would be false to claim that, at some point between now and the era of private tutoring, there was a golden age when education was for everybody and was based solely on merit that is based on either intelligence or hard work.
2019 saw our illusions of a merit-based academia shattered when the United States Department of Justice uncovered a widespread college admissions scam. The keen business sense of William “Rick” Singer, the owner of the Edge College & Career Network LLC, saw millions of dollars exchange hands between parents of students from elite families to prestigious universities. Among the schools implicated in what has been dubbed as “Operation Varsity Blues” are big-name Ivy League universities such as Yale. While regular students, who don’t have the power of cold, hard cash behind them, worry about whether they can even make it to the end of the semester, their richer classmates were buying their way into seats in 101 classes.
While a few people believed that the U.S admissions scandal could never happen in China, given the way the gaokao exams, a successor of imperial civil service examinations, were structured, what they failed to account for was the universality of nepotism and corruption. Roughly a year after the U.S college admissions scandal, reports of identity theft and cheating spread like wildfire throughout China. A woman known simply as Ms. Chen, the daughter of poor farmers, had tried to enroll herself in a course for adults, several years after she had ‘failed’ the gaokao. To her shock, she was listed as a graduate of the university. The worst part? The woman in the graduation photo wasn’t her.
A local news outlet reported that the cheater’s uncle was a local government official who had stolen her exam information and passed it off as his relative’s exam results. Ms. Chen, who scored 546 out of 750 on the gaokao was stuck with her imposter’s measly score of 303.
Aside from being a vehicle for solidifying the class divide through blatant bribery, universities have been perpetuators of institutionalized colonialist attitudes that persist even after colonial powers have left their former colonies or incorporated them into their respective nations.
Récollet missionaries who established the first educational institutions for indigenous populations in Quebec employed a “francization” approach. But it wasn’t effective. Later developments determined that the nomadic lifestyle of indigenous Canadian’s wasn’t suited to indoctrination. To solve this, residential schools were established to house native students in educational institutions that erased their cultural identity, subjected them to physical and sexual abuse, and killed them. Just this year, the bodies of 215 indigenous children were discovered at the site of residential boarding schools.
Similar to these boarding school programs, the scholarships offered by the colonial Spanish government in the Philippines sought to educate natives to fit what the dominant ruling power saw as civilized and educated. Such efforts gave rise to the “illustrados“, a group of ‘indigenous’ students who were shipped off to universities in Europe. The problem? These students were rarely impoverished in the first place as the only people who could afford the costs of travel and living abroad were members of the Spanish blooded elite. Up until today, students of the island nation’s priciest institutions can easily trace their lineage back to landowning colonialists.
Only time will tell whether universities will change to meet the needs of a changing labor market, adopt a more diverse approach to education, and lower tuition costs. Until that happens, it may be more preferable for academia to go the way of the dodo.