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Illustration of Patrick Daugherty
Illustrated by Patrick Daugherty

How Consumerism has Affected College

By Natalie Comfort

It began in high school, toward the end of sophomore year or the beginning of junior year. Colleges started sending mail that shared with me all the exciting benefits of paying them tens of thousands of dollars per year, often on flyers with disturbingly clashing color schemes. Almost every highschool student who has taken a standardized test, carelessly opted into allowing colleges to view their information, and promptly forgotten about it, has experienced it. Although being bombarded with advertisements can quickly begin to feel like an exorbitant waste of paper, it encourages students who are interested in college to begin considering their options. However, it also points to the intense commodification of college and the negative effects it has had on post-secondary education and college students.

There is nothing inherently wrong with colleges advertising themselves to potential applicants. If students are signing loans for thousands of dollars at the tender age of 18, it’s helpful to be informed of their options. But the way colleges market themselves to impressionable teenagers often calls into question whether post-secondary institutions have a solidified mission or if that mission is simply to maximize revenue.

Each flyer, letter, and the occasional email had a general theme of highlighting the best points of their colleges. They advertise their rankings, their networking connections, their career outcomes for graduates. After the practical bits are out of the way, they move on to student life perks: clubs, campuses, location, and various other amenities which relate less and less to education. Finally, they point out their robust financial programs that are almost always less impressive than they make it out to be.

For most students, getting a degree is essential to getting a job that will cover their adulthood expenses comfortably. What a high school student applying to college prioritizes depends heavily on their background. For lower income students, it’s the ticket to a middle class life with fewer financial stresses.

As the market for colleges becomes more competitive, students strive to become more competitive to colleges as well. Students entering high school plan out their four years, focusing heavily on good test scores, a shining extracurricular report, and volunteer involvement to appeal to whatever colleges that they believe will offer them opportunities and be an enjoyable place to spend four years.

What’s bad about any of these things? It makes sense colleges would want to appeal to students and students would like to appeal to the colleges they like. A sort of mutually beneficial relationship, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. According to a 2020 Forbes article, “College Tuition is Rising at Twice the Rate of Inflation- While Students Learn from Home”, the price of college has increased at double the rate of inflation since the 1980s (Zenger News). Grants from the government have increased as well, but not enough to cover the same percentage of those costs they used to. According to the Board of Governments of the Federal Reserve System, the current student debt is at $1.75 trillion as of Quarter 3 of 2021 (data retrieved from FRED). The rising cost of college has changed the way students view higher education, what they demand from universities, and what colleges prioritize in their annual budgets.

Attitudes toward education have completely changed. Speaking to parents and friends' parents, many of them seemed to have chosen majors because they were interested in that field: history, psychology, engineering. Nowadays, that casual attitude towards choosing a bachelor's degree is laughable. Degrees with low return on investment are discouraged by counselors. Practicality is key for the majority of students. The amount of jobs that require a college degree is skyrocketing even as degrees become less and less valuable without experience. Students evaluate and primarily view education as a job factory.

When the cost of entry is so high, students need to know they will be able to pay their loans off sooner than a decade. Although the competition colleges face from other institutions would seem to suggest students are in control, complaints of students paying an arm and leg for education points to the opposite. Maybe it’s because a lot of them don’t feel like there are any other options. Meanwhile, colleges struggle to cover the rising costs of paying faculty, operating facilities, and amenities despite rising tuition.

As college education has become commoditized, it has led to a vicious cycle that is damaging to both students and colleges. Whether colleges will refine their missions to lower costs, or more highschool students will opt out of college education as costs rise, only time will tell.