Why Colleges Need to Stop Treating Their Students as Customers

Written by: Madeleine Hanks

It is no secret that over the past few generations, everything has gone up in price.

Milk, houses, Barbies, you name it, the price has increased. This is due to inflation, and although we may not like it, the driving forces behind it make sense from an economic standpoint. But one thing that has dramatically increased in price over several generations is college tuition, and this substantial rise in cost actually surpasses an inflation-based estimate.

This concerning reality comes as a result of several factors and brings with it multiple consequences. These consequences include greater personal and collective costs to students and their families, a greater gap between socioeconomic classes, and a decreased practical value of a Bachelor’s degree. These consequences could be minimized by a shift in attitude.

Colleges need to stop treating their students as customers at the student’s own expense and start refocusing on enrichment and education.

In the year 1970, the annual tuition for Yale University was $2,550. In the year 2017, annual tuition for Yale is $51,400. “Ah, but that’s due to inflation! Minimum wage has also increased, it’s not as great a difference as it seems!” Well, minimum wage in 1970 was $1.45 per hour. Minimum wage for 2017 is $7.25 (Federally). This means that, if we assume a student works every single day of his or her four-year undergrad (1,460 days), without figuring in tax deductions, and that the entirety of their earnings for those four years goes to tuition, the number of hours per day that a Yale student needs to work in 1970 to pay for college without loans is 4.81 hours. That’s not bad, all things considered. But in 2017, under the same parameters, that same Yale student would have to work 19.42 hours per day (again, being paid the federal minimum wage), and that’s only for tuition! Let alone food, housing, and other basic needs. At 19 hours a day, when does the student even attend classes, or sleep?

And that’s when the student works 365 days a year, no Christmas, no weekends, no summer vacation. What’s more, annual tuition for Yale in 1970 when adjusted for inflation to 2017 is $16,195 (as compared to the actual 2017 price of $51,400). Minimum wage from 1970 when adjusted for inflation to 2017 is $9.21 (again, the actual minimum wage for 2017 is $7.25). This means that we have higher costs to pay with lower wages to pay them, even adjusted for inflation. It’s no wonder students are struggling to pay tuition costs. Now, not every college is this expensive. In fact, a great number of Universities are charging a much more reasonable price for education, but it’s worth noting that a substantial number of students can’t even dream of attending an Ivy League school because of how expensive it would be. And even working within the price ranges of the more affordable schools, students are paying for much more than tuition. There’s housing, books, fees, food, and other expenses that make a college education inordinately expensive no matter where you go. Working your way through college just isn’t as feasible as it used to be. Student loans to the rescue! Right?

Wrong. While student loans may be helpful in covering school costs in the short term, statistics show that our generation is the most in-debt generation of students in history, with a national student loan debt of 1.3 trillion dollars.

The average college graduate with a four-year degree from 2016 has an individual debt of $37,172. That’s quite a mountain of debt, both nationally and individually. But here’s where things get really interesting: a Bachelor’s degree has, in the last few years, been equated in value with a High School Diploma. Obviously, this is not literally true. Job opportunities are substantially greater for a college graduate than a High School Diploma holder. But so many divisions of the job market are oversaturated with qualified college graduates, insomuch that in order to stand out on a professional resume, one must have a Master’s or even a Doctorate’s degree. Essentially, students are paying far more money for a slip of paper that is far less valuable that it used to be, but students are paying for it because debt is an accessible option.

But it isn’t accessible to everyone. Not all students who cannot afford college tuition can just go out and get a loan, and this leads us to another frustrating effect of these increased tuition prices: an ever-widening gap between socioeconomic classes. Those students (or parents of students) who sit in the high or high-middle range of the financial or economic spectrum either have the money to pay for college or have the financial stability to be approved for student loans. This is the group of people who either go into debt or whose families are wealthy enough to pay tuition costs out of pocket. These students get a degree, and those who are rich go on to obtain Master’s degrees while those who are in debt leave college with no means to pay it off. Students in low-middle or very low economic classes cannot pay out of pocket and struggle to get approved for student loans, so they make do with a high school diploma or lower. They get trapped in low-income jobs with little or no opportunities for advancement. This drives each group of people further and further in the direction they were already heading, driving an even deeper wedge between economic classes.

So why are tuition costs so high?

The short answer is that a trend has taken hold in the last few decades: colleges are being run like businesses, not educational institutions. Yes, they educate, otherwise no one would attend them. But universities are leaning more and more towards business goals than educational goals. According to an article from the American Institutes for Research, college students in both private and public institutions have been paying a larger and larger percentage of instructional costs each year. In addition, the spending patterns of universities have decreased in instructional focus and increased in non-instructional focus. In short, colleges are spending less money per student while students are paying more money per student.

Where is it all going?

The largest category of college spending is obviously instruction, and that’s not a problem. Finding and retaining good teachers and professors takes money, and the rising costs of actual instruction have mostly matched inflation expectations. But it’s the other categories of spending that have been increasing in expense. In large part, university funds go to things like student services. While these services are greatly appreciated, their purpose has started to be less about serving students and more about enticing customers. In other words, students are paying more money so that Universities can boast fancier “stuff” and more “perks” to bring more students in, who can then pay more money so the Universities can get more fancy stuff and offer more perks. It’s a sales cycle! And a lot of the things Universities are spending money on don’t have much actual merit beyond looking good when perspective students and their parents tour the campus. “And here we have our brand-new, state-of-the-art recreational facility. The machines, treadmills, track lanes, and volleyball courts all function exactly the same way as they did in the old facility, but they look a lot prettier because they’re right out of the box and framed by expensive-looking new architecture.” And people are willing to pay for fancier things because they’re already going into massive debt. What’s another fifty dollars a month for the next ten years in the grand scheme of things?

Related: The Dysfunction of Toxic Leadership

Many people would, upon reading this essay, immediately call foul on my reasoning and dismiss me as just another entitled, lazy millennial.

They would argue that there are ways to make college more affordable. For all the factors that make college seem completely undoable, there are also a lot of resources available to help if students are willing to do the work necessary to take advantage of them. There are scholarships, grants, and there’s always good old-fashioned elbow grease. “Just get a job and pay for school! Stop whining about it and get it done.” While a good mixture of all these resources does take the sting out of it a little, the unfortunate truth is that for every student who adeptly uses each of these resources and makes it through financially unscathed, there are myriad students who also wrote the essays, filled out the applications, and put in the elbow grease but were not lucky enough to benefit from anything or everything they tried.

Yes, there are heaps of scholarships available out there, but they’re not as numerous as people seem to think they are, and each can only go to one student. College is not impossible, and I don’t mean to whine. However, it isn’t at all fair to assume laziness or idleness on the part of an entire generation when we point out that things just aren’t the way they used to be. We are doing the best we can with what we were given. I believe it would also be appropriate, in the interest of fairness, to point out that not every University or College is trying to take financial advantage of its students, nor are all colleges equally expensive. I don’t think these trends in rising tuition costs are solely in pursuit of profit, nor are they the result of malicious capitalism. In addition, not every working student is working for minimum wage, and not every single student is in debt. There is always room to dismiss an argument by considering the special case, by using the “not every time” argument. But the factors and consequences we have considered here are, undeniably, generalized trends that threaten the quality of education in each generation succeeding ours, and the different economic factors that contribute to these outcomes should be more closely examined.

Colleges and Universities need to stop wooing students like customers at the students’ own expense. When educational institutions are run like businesses, the students of those institutions end up paying a higher price for a less valuable result, leaving them with crippling debt and less-effective means of paying off that debt. Certain student services and extra costs are valuable and reasonable. However, universities need to examine their priorities in order to fulfill their purpose as a means to enrich and instruct incoming generations in such a way that those students will go out and make improvements on the world. They can’t do that if they’re taking the next ten or fifteen years to pay off the four years spent at a University.

I’m not asking for free education. I’m asking for more affordable education.