Maiya Brown, Co-Opinion Editor
8th February, 2021
They often call it “passing through the Golden Gates”. Where, in a certainly pure meritocracy, students are awarded for their efforts with the promise of boundless knowledge and a rich future. The ever so sought after college degree is deeply tied to the American Dream, but, like the American Dream, it isn’t exactly how it’s made out to be.
Higher education was established in the US in the 1600s as private, Christian institutions for the elite. Legislative policy in the early 1800s that established the idea of higher education’s independence from the government, and therefore its funding, solidified this theme of education as a private enterprise. It wasn’t until the 1860s that the first public universities opened, and even then, their funding was sparse compared to the tuition fees at private universities. This legacy continues today, with many public universities lacking adequate funding from the government and therefore offering a lower standard of education than their counterparts that rely freely on student tuition at a hefty price. Of the top 20 rated universities in the US, only one public university (University of California, Los Angeles) has earned a place, and that place is last (US News and World Report Rankings) (Breakdown of US News University Rankings).
In an exponentially growing base of educated, employable Americans, to stand out from the pack means at the least a bachelor’s degree, and even then, a stable job out of college is not guaranteed. A growing anxiety seethes from teens emerging into adulthood hoping to find basic employment in their futures. College diplomas become a form of self marketing, with Ivy Leagues being the golden package. Prestigious universities become brand names slapped on resumes in order to surpass the hundreds of other applicants waiting for a shot at an interview. If you’re a Stanford graduate, the name recognition of your degree brings a particular type of competitiveness that is difficult to obtain. You’ve won the game. Universities amplify this pressure, lowering acceptance rates to give an illusion of exclusivity and increasing positive marketing and name recognition to climb US News Rankings. Among high school students, 65 percent rated getting good grades as their highest stressor (Pew Research Center).
In American culture, elitism is far from uncommon. America is a buy in system: you pay top dollar to make top dollar, and if you can’t afford to buy your future job competitiveness, tough luck, kid. This alienating message is why many talented poor students fall to the wayside and feel out of place in the school system. Education and therefore the success of generations of low income families lies in their ability to shell out $286,000 (the approximate sticker price for 4 years at Standard) for a bachelor’s degree. Going to an elite university feels unattainable. Those in the position of power to change this inaccessibility are the very students who benefit from it, so the status quo is maintained. Like many aspects of America, price becomes a way of gatekeeping status. This constant pressure to compete paired with the monetary motivations of universities breeds corrupted admissions processes. From top earners buying their children’s way into University of Southern California to parents using their alumni status at Yale as a shoe in for their children, higher education is simply made for the affluent.
The current system of higher education exacerbates inequality and disproportionality impacts people of color, who are twice as likely to be poor or low income (Population Reference Bureau).
The public universities actively combating this inequality by offering affordable education are underfunded and undermined by social stigma and a ranking system that favors elitism. Despite being pioneers in upward mobility for students from the bottom 20 percent, employers look at a degree from a California State University with less value than a degree from an elite, expensive university, even if both applicants can perform the job just as well. At the same time, on elite university campuses, “fewer students hail from the entire bottom half of the income distribution than from the top 1 percent,” said David Leonhardt.
The excessive cost of college cannot be the barrier to the very ideals advertised by America. If America really was the land of upward mobility, students from diverse backgrounds would be able to access quality education without the consequence of crippling debt.