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Student debt grows while education value recedes

My experience with an aging educational system and the aftermath of debt and disappointment.

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IDEO Community,

  I'm a senior, studying to earn my bachelors degree in marketing at Oral Roberts University. After hearing about this project and reading stories from other contributors, I decided to share my own story, hoping to shed light from a local perspective to inspire global change, story-by-story. Let us take a look at the current problems of American higher education.

Students like me are frustrated. Costs of not only tuition but hundreds of extraneous fees are far too expensive for their target market and the product of an undergraduate education is muddled in unnecessary classes that resist change and do not prepare students for the work force.     

       Tuition at the private university where I attend is $22,508 per year with an average room and board cost of $9,296 (a mandatory payment, as the university requires undergraduates to live on campus and purchase a meal plan, with few exceptions). Most undergraduates are offered some form of scholarship, from academic to prize-won to minority scholarships. In fact, I cannot think of an undergrad who does not have at least some of their tuition paid. I am one of the lucky ones. My school offers me a $10,000 scholarship for having an excellent high school GPA and since my father works at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the other half of my tuition is paid for by the hospital. This is a blessing, to say the least, however, the government asks for 40% of the Johns Hopkins scholarship every year and the university requires me to live in their on-campus housing and buy a meal plan sponsored by their Sodexo cafeteria. On top of these fees, some teachers require students to buy the newest edition of books they have written which can sometimes cost up to $350. This is often the symptom of insufficient pay for professors- a curious symptom since students pay so much already. Even without paying for any tuition, my student debt will accumulate to more than $55,000 by graduation day. Most people are aware that higher education is too expensive, but did you know that even without tuition costs; taxes, student fees, and living expenses can accumulate debt quickly.

   On top of costs, the benefit of higher education is shrinking. Universities seem to face an inability to progress and adapt. Sometimes I feel like I have paid for an education that was relevant ten years ago. I also feel like education has become less important as the wealth of free knowledge grows. Courses often have trouble adapting. Universities require piles of paperwork and multi-level review systems that add friction, even sandpaper to teachers attempting to change their curriculums. Even the degree plans we follow seem like outdated requirements. Too often, my peers graduate with hundreds of credit hours to find themselves ill-prepared for the work force. Does anyone else find it strange that we study for four years, only to be retrained for another year or so by a company? Even worse, sometimes my peers are unable to find skilled work in their field. I know a few talented business students who have work at Hot Topic and Starbucks after graduating with thousands of dollars in loans. To me this represents a disappointing product that they will make payments on for years. One cause for this problem may lie in the fixed mindset of the education system. A professors expressed to me his frustrations with his fellows. "Professors do not like to lose control of their classroom. Year after year, they use the same books and powerpoint rather than updating and sourcing their lessons from the real world." He note, furthermore, his peers are afraid to invite external companies to work with their students, fearing the judgement of real-world professionals turning on them if students do not perform well. Frustratingly enough, real-world companies are vital to education. “Experience" is one of the most valuable traits for companies looking to hire employees. A common joke among millennial is the paradox of getting a job that requires "3-5 years of experience," when every job requires "3-5 years of experience."

Not only is education too expensive, it does not provide the benefits we want or need to excel. Can you recall an undergraduate course you could have lived without? List some of those in your mind. Now, each student at my university pays about $70 per class period, but, sometimes the value of those classes are $0, not $900 cumulatively. The worst part about seeing these numbers is thinking about the struggle of my peers. A student from Germany lived near my dorm room last year; one day she asked if I could cover a $10 cost she had, in exchange for some meals in the cafeteria. After inquiring about her story, I realized that my peers with student visas could not attain jobs in America, and had to cover costs like $350 book fees with money they did not have. Sometimes universities do not recognize or know their customers and those customers suffer to get an education. Last winter, I noticed another female student who kept wearing a ripped synthetic leather jacket in 10-20°F winter weather. That week, I discreetly donated one of my coats to her, but her story marred me. Stories like these show that students getting their undergraduate degree are underserved and asked to pay what they do not have.

How can universities ask young people to pay thousands of dollars for educations that does not provide the kind of value worth that much money? How can the government require students to pay exorbitant taxes on those educations? How can professors require students to purchase the $300 books they have written?

It is time for universities to modify their plans, serve customers with applicable educations, and find more efficient methods of spinning the cogs of higher education.


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What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Let us dream further and explore more affordable higher education options that disrupt the current system led by oligopolistic pricing strategies and fixed mentalities.

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