Conspicuous Consumption and the Myth of the Classless College

Costs in higher education continue to rise to the dismay of all.  One cause may stem from our desire to create open, meritocratic learning environments in which wealth does not matter.

A “traditional” college – young men and women living in dormitories and studying full-time – is not how most Americans experience higher education. The model, however, shapes our collective understanding of college life and what colleges should look like and do. It is a pervasive way of thinking, structuring, staffing, and organizing an institution of higher education.

In the “traditional” college, visible signs of levels of wealth and income are erased when it comes to how students live and how they learn. Rooms in residence halls are standardized, as are food, conveniences, and educational services. The library is open to all, just as anyone can go to the college’s fitness center. It is an environment in which all are equal in their rejection of Mammon.

Students know, of course, who has money and how does not. The institution, however, minimizes those distinctions through formal and informal means, and through academic culture. We do not let rich students register for classes before poor students.

Race and gender differences are celebrated – tolerance and inclusiveness are public goals.

But what about class? The “traditional” college model ignores and erases class distinctions. We act as egalitarians.

In this academic environment, amenities are shared by all but with no markers of class and wealth. It is easy to treat when everyone has a meal card – and no tipping is required.

Who and what shapes expectations in a market in which there is no clear connections between cost and what is received? Students are rational actors. When offered, they will invariably seek more.  Who doesn’t enjoy beautiful architecture, state of the art facilities, and endless amenities.  And colleges, eager to recruit as many students as possible, rationally create environments that appeal to the wealthy. Those environments also, incidentally, appeal to the less wealthy. It is a competition in which more is always better.

The problem with this market is that true costs are never visible to the consumers, the students and their parents. Expenses increase and there are no visible ways of cutting back. Trimming invariably happens to what is not seen – academic and institutional infrastructure. The very lack of visibility of costs is most salient when it comes to the students themselves, living and learning in this artificial environment.  Why not enroll in the school with the multi-million dollar climbing wall?  A prospective student cannot tell if they are funding the amenity or if the institution has so much money that benefits like climbing walls are par for the course.

From an institutional perspective, with costs always hidden, it is difficult – if not impossible – to prioritize budgets and align resource decisions with what consumers, the students, truly want and need. The students may not even know that their choices have economic consequences. And in such an environment in which costs are hidden and class is erased, the demand is always to spend more.

This model – hiding costs – has not helped health care. Costs continue to rise despite experts best efforts to contain them. We should be able to do better, or at least different. And we may be doing our students a disservice by hiding costs from them. Student choices, just like institutional choices, have consequences. It is an essential lesson to learn.

David Potash

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