Universities are struggling to maintain their original mission. In his most recent column, Jeremi Suri recounted the history of public universities in the West and their fundamental ideals of deeper inquiry and personal discovery. Unfortunately today, those ideals must compete with the realities that face America’s working class. Higher education has become more accessible, but also more expensive and less effective.
Degrees today mean less. And more. High-quality research and teaching following the Second World War were reserved almost exclusively for the elite. Today, about 60 percent of high school students attend four-year institutions. This has facilitated tremendous socioeconomic mobility and enriched our universities. Students come from diverse backgrounds and bring with them new perspectives and skill sets. Today, pursuing a degree is more common and most jobs require them. On the same note, not having one is more expensive than it was 50 years ago. There is a notable income gap between high school and college graduates — $17,500 in 2013.
This has created a pressure to push students to get a degree, and rightly so. They won’t be paid without one. The students pursuing a four-year degree have to foot the six-figure bill. Half of our graduates leave this University with loans to repay, and their successors know this. Before most high school students even begin their college search, they are assaulted with questions of how they’ll pay their students loans. They can anticipate being entrenched in debt for the rest of their lives. Innovation and deeper inquiry must take a back seat to student loans, mortgages, credit cards and auto loans.
In order to preserve the American imperatives of equality and innovation, students must have the opportunities to experience them. This is the only way to sustain our country’s unique history of leadership that Suri recounts. If we allow universities to ignore the student debt crisis, we are responsible for pressuring our students to prioritize vocational job prospects and self-sustenance over their larger purposes.
Shah is a business and government sophomore from Temple.