The Crippling American Higher Education System As Seen By an American Student Abroad
By Molly Joyce
I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to move to Germany for my eighth semester of college to study abroad. While I was bombarded with fifty shades of culture shock this having been my first time in Europe, I realized quickly that the simple fact of my Americanness was a social cue for a standard set of questions about my home country, one of the most common being the price of education.
Whenever my European friends would ask why we Americans spend so much to get a college education, I never really knew what to respond other than “it’s just the way it is.” We would discuss the laundry list of fees that come along with school (tuition, activity fees, housing, books, etc.) and after tabulating the final cost for one semester, my friends just laughed (rightly so, because the number was a five-digit joke) and said “I just wouldn’t even go to school.”
That comment really struck me, because in America we are ingrained in the ideology that if you don’t go to college immediately after high school you are nothing. Right? Wrong. You are guaranteed to be at least one thing: Debt free. What I spend on books alone for just one semester at my state university, my European counterparts spend for two semesters at their university, and that includes tuition, fees, books–everything. Realizing this blew my mind. How can that be?
So then you start to think, “well, hmmm, since I’m paying so much more, my education must be much, right?” Wrong again. As a marketing major, something we learn early on is the four P’s of the marketing mix: Price, Product, Promotion, and Place. The P’s are all used to ensure that you capture the right buyer in order to maximize sales and therefore profit. Price is always the kicker when it comes to the mix because the price will directly affect how a product sells. A common misconception of price is that it represents the objective value of the product–what it costs to produce–when in actuality price is based on what the perceived value of the product is to the customer. So while two products may have objectively equal value, the customer will almost always assume that the product that is priced higher will be of higher value and quality, therein worth paying the steeper price. Tricky, huh?
So in America, we make sure that a college education is seen as a necessity. From an early age we have painted a picture of what our lives should be, and without that pretty piece of expensive paper, the picture is not so pretty. So we pay the insane price because we think we have to in order to receive an adequate quality education–which we are taught translates to a better quality life. But here’s the thing, I have found in my two months studying in Germany that my courses have been more than comparable to anything that I have studied in the United States. I do not feel intellectually shortchanged in the least. If anything, I look at the four years I’ve spent in the States accruing a cringeworthy amount of debt and think: “what have I done?”
Certainly, there are differences in economies, social structures, and tax brackets (Germans pay almost 60% of their salaries to taxes) which allow for the drastic price difference in education, but nevertheless, there is no need for our colleges and universities to be using big business profit strategies in order to create this illusion of necessity and worth. Both of those things are inherent when it comes to an education, which should ultimately serve as a boost for society, not a burden. So how do we fix this problem? Maybe we could start by taking greed and capitalism off the table of higher education.
But what do I know, I don’t even have a college degree.
Originally Published 5.13.16 https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/american-debt-sentence-molly-joyce