Occupy Wall Street has been one of the preeminent social movements of the decade, but there was another movement that occurred which not many people heard about, even though it was of equal importance. In May of 2013, a group of students at The Cooper Union, a small college specializing in the fields of architecture, arts, and engineering, occupied president Jamshed Bharucha’s office for almost two months to protest the school’s decision to begin charging tuition for its future students.
The school was founded by an American businessman named Peter Cooper, who dreamt of giving students from all different backgrounds access to an education that was completely free for all. He used most of his money to create and fund The Cooper Union, which promised to provide a free university education to any student and did not discriminate based on ethnicity, religion, or gender. Keep in mind that this all happened in the 1800s, making Cooper one seriously progressive man. The school remained free for all students for the better part of it’s existence, however in 2011, discussion regarding the financial state of the institution began to occur. The college decided that, due to its massive debt, it would have to start charging tuition to it’s incoming students from then on. Students attempted to protest and form joint committees with the faculty and board members to find a solution to the impending problems, however all efforts to keep the school tuition-free failed. Cooper Union now charges an annual rate of $40 800.
The Cooper Union protest may not have succeeded in its objectives, however it did help to shed a light on a much bigger issue: the cost of a higher education, and especially, whether this large cost is worth it.
It is no secret to most people that post-secondary is being more and more expensive. In the US, the average cost of an education at a 4-year public university increased about 15% in 2 years. In my home province of Ontario, tuition fees have increased almost 4% since last year. Being a Canadian however, I have been lucky enough to have an education that is much less expensive than my American counterparts. My school, McGill University, which is considered one of the more expensive Canadian schools, costs just under $9000 (excluding room and board, which is around the same amount) meaning that my total fees work out to a little under $20 000 annually. For international students, this fee is even steeper, increasing to just over $18 000, when not including room and board.
Despite this, McGill has a large number of students from the US attending, one of the drivers being that it is cheaper to study at McGill than in the US, despite being charged an international tuition rate. For example, at the University of California (a state university), residents of California will pay between $30 000 - $34 000 annually, depending on whether or not they choose to live on campus. That number increases to almost $60 000 if you live in another state. At most private universities in the states, figures around the $50-60 000 range are common, no matter where you are located. Most schools do offer some form of scholarships/grants/financial aid, however for a lot of students and their families, this is simply not enough. In America, the total student loan debt surpassed the $1 trillion mark back in 2013, and that number just keeps on rising.
Why are there so many price discrepancies between the American public and private systems, as well as the Canadian system? Public universities incur lower costs because they receive some funding from state governments, whereas private institutions do not. Canada operates on a similar model, with the majority of its post-secondary institutions being publicly funded. There are a few private universities, however these tend to be much smaller and are often associated with religious/cultural groups that help to fund such institutions. Due to being private, these schools usually maintain a flat tuition rate, independent of where a person comes from, but rates cap out around $30-35 000 per year.
Then there are the countries that offer free tuition for their students. Norway provides free tuition for all of its students, but still requires them to pay a semester fee of less than $100 and cover all living expenses. Sweden also has a similar arrangement. Finland does not charge students for university tuition, extending this to people from outside the European Union as well. In Denmark, if a student over 18 is living away from home, they receive $900 a month from the government for their studies. If they drop out, this money does not have to be paid back. Outside of the Nordic, so-called “socialist” countries, Germany is known for having world-class, english-speaking schools that charge zero tuition.
One of the big questions that arises from examining this issue pertains to the idea that you are paying more for a better education. While this seems like a strange concept to think about, it may very well be the case- the top 20 universities from the Times Higher Education rankings had an approximate average annual cost of around $50 000. Interestingly enough, in the US alone, 36 individual university heads earn over $1 million per year, with average annual income for the profession being around $400 000. As a side note, the president of The Cooper Union, Jamshed Bharucha, earns $650 000 annually, as well as being provided with free housing. In a school with a current enrolment of less than 1000 students, around 67 of them are paying his salary. By contrast, Harvard president Drew Faust earns just shy of $900 000 annually, making her the 54th-highest paid university president, as she presides over 12 000 faculty and 21 000 students.
Much of the money spent by universities also goes towards building state of the art, multimillion dollar recreation centres with rock walls and swimming pools and the like. Because the higher education business is so competitive, schools need to be able to offer things that will incentivize students.
One opponent of post-secondary education that has come to the forefront is Peter Thiel. The co-founder of Paypal is so outspoken against the higher education system that he has created the Thiel Fellowship, which awards $100 000 to students who will forgo a post-secondary education and instead, will use the money to create startups.
Of course, one of the most well-known payoffs of a university education is the ability to find a good job. And while post-secondary graduates do earn more and tend to have lower unemployment rates than their counterparts, the gap between different levels of education isn’t anything extremely significant. This fact, combined with ever-rising tuition rates and student debt, is enough to make anyone question whether the value of a university education is truly worth it in the long run.
While many people enter into higher education with the expectation of becoming equipped for a career, Drew Faust, president of Harvard, explained her slightly different interpretation, in the documentary Ivory Towers. Faust maintained that the purpose of a Harvard education was not to train anyone for a job- it was to allow the students to gain knowledge, think critically, and develop new ways of learning and understanding information. While there is no denying that these skills are valuable, it begs the question: are they skills worth paying $60 000 a year for?
Certain organizations, such as UnCollege (the product of a Thiel fellowship) have decided to grapple with this idea. For $16 000, the program offers fellows opportunities to travel the world and volunteer, attend workshops that focus on career-focused skills in areas such as technology and finance, develop a portfolio, meet and engage with a personal coach and mentor, and intern in Silicon Valley for a three-month period. All the fellows live together in the Gap Year house in San Francisco, which is akin to a typical college-dorm environment, meaning that students won’t miss out on a lot of the social aspects of attending university, Alongside this,as more and more popular and influential courses from institutions around the world become available to the masses in the form of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), learning from some of the world’s top academics doesn’t necessarily have to come at such a steep cost.
All of this information can be overwhelming, but in my opinion, the issues here boil down to something very simple. According to myself (and UNESCO), education is a fundamental human right. Rock walls and high presidential salaries are not so much. When students such as Ronald Nelson, a high school student who turned down admission at all 8 Ivy League schools because of the huge financial burden, there is a problem. When student debt is currently higher than credit card debt, there is a problem. When more and more students are refusing to even attend higher education because it doesn’t fit the bill in terms of cost-benefit analysis, there is a problem. A well-educated society is an ideal that governments should strive to protect and uphold, and the best way to do that is by making an investment in their students. While demanding free post-secondary education is a step that many people aren’t necessarily ready for (sorry Bernie Sanders), demanding the government to make more of in effort to invest in a more educated future is a reasonable demand, and one that should certainly be paid more attention to.