Affordable college may not be better

Akshay Prabhushankar

The average college tuition at a four-year private university last year was $31,231 per annum, or about enough to pay for a few months here at NYU. As rates continue to rise, current students and indebted graduates are looking to our government for assistance. Presidential candidates, in order to appeal to young and indebted voters like NYU students, can either propose sweeping changes to the system or avoid the subject entirely. However, it is not a foregone conclusion that such a change is possible. As it turns out, affordable higher education may not be in America’s best interests.

Many studies have even concluded that skyrocketing tuition rates are due to the easy availability of student loans and simple supply and demand economics. Some, including President Obama, would argue that two years of free community college is doable and that an educated society benefits everyone. But 13 years of mandatory schooling is plenty, and this misguided idea would merely result in richer kids going to school longer to once again outperform others. In a few years, we may be discussing universal bachelor’s programs, then master’s.

Others argue that such programs can reduce the correlation between family wealth and education prospects. It may be troubling that the rich boy from the suburbs who had private tutors and got mediocre scores has a better chance of getting into and paying for college immediately, while a bright but poor girl cannot. Already we see the effects—incredibly low acceptance rates—of affirmative action and need-based financial aid instituted by universities. I support those measures, but if the government stepped in and did the same, suddenly Harvard would need to choose between its five percent acceptance rate and a watered-down reputation.

Critics will point to countries like Germany, which has tuition-free colleges for its higher-achieving students, but take a look at any world ranking of universities and it is evident how these German schools fare against their American counterparts. The United States kept its schools on top with the system that we have in place today, a system that needs higher tuition in order to differentiate between deserving students and undeserving. Higher tuition offers selectivity and is money well spent on facilities, professors and more. Plus, these outspoken advocates fall quiet when someone suggests instituting a meritocratic system—such as in Germany—where the government decides if a student can attend college based on students’ high school performance.
We attend college to acquire qualifications necessary for better jobs. Part of the prestige of a bachelor’s degree is its exclusivity, and the elimination of that would simply kill one more standard of measurement used in the job field. The government simply does not have the resources to foot such a tall bill for plumbers, waitresses and mechanics to attend university, and it certainly should not reshuffle billions of dollars to do so. A better way to spend that money would be on job-specific training programs, as many employers say a college degree isn’t that valuable, especially when it’s a degree in the ever-popular fine arts or similar industries. If the government is to begin earnestly addressing the problem of higher education in this country, it must focus first and foremost on keeping its universities competitive, on making sure that our colleges maintain their international renown.

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Email Akshay Prabhushankar at [email protected]




  1. Akshay,
    You’ve written a reasonably good article here but you make a critical mistake with this sentence:
    “Critics will point to countries like Germany, which has tuition-free colleges for its higher-achieving students, but take a look at any world ranking of universities and it is evident how these German schools fare against their American counterparts. ”

    Akshay, those “world rankings of universities” you point out have been roundly discredited, and they tell us nothing about the relative quality of universities between countries (problematic even within a country). One of the most important factors for the rankings is “quality of research” but here’s the problem– Germany (and most other countries) are structured to carry out research within independent institutes, in Germany these have names like Max-Planck or Leibniz institutes. These aren’t “linked up with” any specific university in Germany, instead they team with and work alongside faculty and industry scientists from many universities and institutions. As a result, Times higher ed, Shanghai and the other world rankings don’t “credit” the institutional research in Germany or these other countries to any particular university– even though it’s often the best in the world (with American universities and corporations citing heavily from it).

    As you can see, this is an obviously arbitrary structural “artifact” and a misleading data point that creates an expectation bias, which in turn renders the rankings across countries worthless since they’re unduly affected by a structural variation that has nothing at all to do with quality. Note also this isn’t just a problem comparing between countries. Many US (and British or Canadian) universities which do use the more traditional “on the campus” university research model, nevertheless will often team up with an off site institution where their faculty actually do the research. (Or sometimes, the grants and facilities are just maintained off site). But since the research again technically doesn’t “belong specifically” to that university, it doesn’t count “for” that university, so a lot of American universities (especially the ones outside the big institutions) get unfairly pushed down the rankings. And then the other issue is that universities in Europe and Asia tend to shift their top talent and researchers around to different institutions depending on where they’re needed, so in Europe, there’s no “Ivy League plus MIT, Duke, Stanford, Caltech” that take talent from other universities, it’s more spread around.

    Again, not trying to knock you in general as you’ve written a good article, but just advising you to be more careful about blithely citing things like world university rankings that have been so widely discredited for the reasons above. Mistakes like this can damage the entire credibility of what is an otherwise very good article.


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