Like many of my peers today, I work a full-time job to put myself through school. I came to college with a vision of the university landscape as a place for ideas, innovation and civic engagement.
But times have changed. The traditional university has been paved over with new buildings, policies, fees and a shocking silence from the student body. Economics has taken the wheel in our administrations while things like learning are forced into the back seat. With capitalism driving higher education, we’re headed in the wrong direction and it’s time for students and the public alike, to turn it around.
The university is becoming a business. Since 1978, tuition rates have increased by 1,120 percent. But this money isn’t going to the students. It’s going to an ever-widening administrative faculty and pricey campus amenities that boost prestige. A lot of these amenities – fancy new buildings, auxiliary programs, etc. – appear to benefit the students, but the motivation behind them isn’t as pretty as the buildings.
Universities in America used to be essentially free, and still are in some of the world’s top-ranked countries. The competitive attitude inspired by President Ronald Reagan’s federal student lending limit increases was the first step prompting universities to compete for students and their tuition money. This, along with dwindling state resources, has restructured the university to resemble more of an arms race than an institution of higher learning.
For students, it’s easy to be distracted by these things because they appear to serve us, but we forget that this money is coming out of our pockets, and more importantly that classrooms and academic departments are taking the hit. At my own university, I’ve watched course offerings consistently disappear from the schedule and part-time faculty let go for budget cuts all while millions of dollars poured into a fancy new library and an aesthetically pleasing, but virtually useless rock formation.
This situation isn’t unique to one university either. It’s happening across the board. A 2014 report by the American Association of University Professors shows that the salary for high-ranking administrators at public universities had made gains topping 39 percent and 75 percent for university presidents. All the while, full-time tenure-track positions are disappearing. Extravagant buildings and attractive amenities are not the point of higher education ,but as a corporation, the university has grown away from that foundation. As students and as a community, we have to realize that this corporation doesn’t actually care about students as people, but the capital we represent.
Students invest in their universities and the promises they offer, forgetting that this is our education and our future. We’re not saying anything or fighting it. We’re willingly paying them more every year to “educate” us with less than they did the year before. We let ourselves be consumers when we buy in and we do buy in because we have to. We need an education, the promise of success a degree should hold, that bullet point on our resumes. The university system has a power over us: we have to buy what they sell. And they know this power.
For a lot of students, myself included, every dollar counts. It’s a struggle to attend school while maintaining a respectable GPA and a full-time job. Sometimes it’s hard to even pay rent and put gas in my car. I can only imagine how much harder this will be over the next few decades while I’m paying off student loans, which takes the average American 21 years. So regardless of the university’s attractive buildings and programs, in the end, we are the ones paying for it. So why aren’t we saying anything?
A few weeks ago in the New York Times, Frederick deBoer made what I consider an important point. As American universities turn corporate, activism on college campuses seems to have disappeared, he wrote. We are supposed to be tomorrow’s leaders but when we buy in and sit idly by, we’re only learning how to follow. We seem to have forgotten that we have a voice. I don’t have the answer, but I think it starts with recognizing the problem and that we aren’t powerless. Across the nation and even in a single university, students form an overwhelming population whose voices together can be a force to be reckoned with. We have to do something with that power. We have to fight it or our education, and that of generations to come, will continue to suffer. And what will America’s future look like when that happens?
Chelsea Kanae, of Meriden, is a junior at Southern Connecticut State University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing.