It is no secret that over the past few decades, higher education has become a highly sought-after commodity. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 16.9 million students were expected to attend undergraduate programs in Fall 2019. Modern day universities feed into the frenzy by marketing their schools as the best educational experience money can buy – spending an average of $1,037651 to do so – and most charge accordingly. The College Board estimates that in the 2019-2020 academic school year, full-time undergraduate student costs could vary anywhere between prices of $18,420 to over $50,000 a year, depending on the institution. Quite the discrepancy.
These price variations send a clear message to potential students: Not all universities are equal. With Ivy Leagues and state flagships constantly inflating the cost of attendance with little to no drop in demand, middle and lower-class students believe that a “quality” education is locked away in an ivory tower. And unless they are willing to go into massive student debt, they need to settle for less.
Of course, the reality is not so morbid. Looking past the marketing schemes employed by prestigious schools, it becomes clear that they are much like any other university in the country, but with sizeable endowments. All universities have both excellent and mediocre professors, as well as popular degree programs that overshadow niche ones. thanks to organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), research is beginning to show that students at elite colleges are not necessarily receiving a superior education. ACTA’s What Will They Learn? ® college rating system, assigns a letter grade to schools based on how many core courses they require their undergraduates to take. Harvard University scores a “D,” requiring just two of seven core subjects, while a relatively unknown school like the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma earns an “A,” with an in-state tuition of $8,040 compared to Harvard’s $50,420.
The truth raises several concerning implications. First, many students are being sold the false narrative that when they sign away tens of thousands of dollars to elite universities, they will receive a better product. Second, it is creating an elitist system where educations from expensive Ivy Leagues are being valued over places that are more affordable, like small regional universities or community colleges. Caught up in the myth of the Ivy League, we as a country have lost sight of why it is important to pursue higher education in the first place.
According to a 2016 survey done by Pew Research Center, half of Americans say that the main purpose of college should be to teach specific skills and knowledge that can be used in the workplace, while 35% think its main purpose should be to help students grow and develop personally and intellectually. Just 13% believe that these objectives are equally important. In today’s higher education marketplace, the overwhelming concern with job training is understandable – with tuition costs so high, students and families need some sort of guarantee that they will be able to pay off their college debt after graduation. This puts an enormous amount of unnecessary pressure on young students. Many are trained by university branding to think anything less than attendance to those establishments is inferior, when the only aspect of a university that a student should be considering is how their academic, professional, and personal development will be fostered. Those components can be found at many different types of schools, not just Ivy Leagues.
We must fix the false perception that prestige alone denotes quality. There should not be different value distinctions of education because all education is of inherent value. Students should not be taught that local schools or community colleges are lesser than traditional institutions. Instead, we should equip students to evaluate colleges based on the quality of education that they offer and their commitment to preparing graduates for lifelong success.
Elizabeth Von Mann is an academic affairs intern at ACTA and a graduate student at George Washington University.