The Obscene Cost of University Education

Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash

In January 2019, I started a job at the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) as an executive assistant. I had no professional experience in healthcare. My background was in business and the arts. A few months into the job, I noticed that a lot of the work at OHA revolved around policy — understanding it, writing it, interpreting it. I had no policy experience, but I was willing to learn.

Based on my prior experience learning things, I knew that the fastest way for me to learn something was to do it. I devised a plan: apply for jobs with a policy component at OHA, land one, and then learn on the job. Three months after I started at OHA, I got an interview. The job title was Operations and Policy Analyst 3 (OPA3).

The interview didn’t go well. I had finished my Ph.D. in Management in October 2018, and I felt very confident of myself. In answering one of the questions during the interview, I said, “You know I have a Ph.D., right?” The interview was over right then and there, but I didn’t know it. I left the room thinking that I had a shot at getting the job.

I didn’t get the job. By mentioning that I had a Ph.D. degree, I instantly disqualified myself. After a couple of more rejections, I realized that I should keep my mouth shut. It said on my resume that I had a Ph.D. degree. I didn’t have to shoot myself in the foot by pointing it out during an interview. Interviewers perceived my boasting as arrogance and it gave them a reason to scratch me off the list.

By the end of 2019, I realized that trying to get a policy-related job, such as Operations and Policy Analyst or Policy Analyst, would be impossible without an academic degree in a policy-related field. These jobs had higher classification levels than my job. When I applied for those jobs, I was trying to hop over classification levels, which was a big no-no for government agency recruiters and managers.

An OPA3 job is classification level 29. My executive assistant job is classification level 20. The increasing number of rejections suggested that I couldn’t jump 9 levels without a policy degree and a few years of government work. With six months of government service under my belt, I was a rookie. A rookie with a Ph.D. degree, but still a rookie. I had zero seniority. I thought that having a Ph.D. degree was enough to propel me to higher classification jobs.

I was wrong. So wrong in fact that the two managers whom I supported and reported to rejected me for jobs that had higher classifications than my current classification. I decided to go back to school. The new plan was to pick a policy-related degree at a good university, apply, get in, graduate, and get a higher classification job.

I picked the Master in Policy and Public Administration degree at Northwestern University. I applied and got in. The last piece I needed to figure out was how to pay the tuition. I had already borrowed $45,000 for a MFA in Screenwriting degree and $115,000 for a Ph.D. in Management degree. I was $160,000 in student loan debt. A 10-week course at Northwestern cost $3,750.

My salary at OHA was adequate. After I subtracted rent, food, utility bills, credit card payment, and my daughter’s school tuition, I saved around $200 per month. I wanted to borrow more student loans, but I qualified for student loans at Northwestern only if I took two classes per term. I had a full-time job and a family. It was impossible for me to take two courses per term. I could take one course per term. With $200 per month to spare, I was short on the tuition.

I did not know how I would pay for my classes. One option was to borrow more money from the government, or from private lenders. This meant taking two classes per term, which was only possible if I did not work a full-time job. If I quit my job, and borrowed money for living expenses and school tuition, my student loans would balloon to $260,000 by the time I finished the degree. I would be a 50-year-old with four graduate degrees, no job, and a quarter of a million dollars in debt. If my mom were alive, she would kill me for doing that.

Gone are the days when students put themselves through college by working part-time and going to school full-time. Life today is very expensive. A student who didn’t grow up in a well-off family has no chance of going to school without amassing debt. Working part-time doesn’t cover living expenses. Parents help as much as they can, but often that’s not enough. And if a student chooses to become a parent while in college, all hell breaks loose.

In the end, having enough time to study, get good grades, and finish an academic degree requires borrowing money for both living expenses and tuition. This is how my two-year master’s degree at Northwestern could end up costing around $100,000. Some graduate schools, such as The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania charge $214,800 for a two-year executive MBA degree. This is obscene.

Google recently started offering low-cost certification courses across tech disciplines that would have the same weigh as college degrees on resumes. Another company, Coursera, offers many online courses for as little as $70 per course. Traditional colleges and universities cannot compete with these low prices long-term. Harvard University may be 384 years old, but its years are numbered. Coursera fights for equal access to education for all people. Harvard University and all Ivy League universities fight for profit.

A consequence of the obscene price for college education is the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. Poor people cannot get education, while rich people get more educated. Because money is power, education also becomes power, because it is dependent on money. As a result, the educated people end up running the world, while the under-educated and uneducated people end up serving them.

The unequal distribution of education also creates social classes, which leads to exclusivity, discrimination, and the hording of power by the upper class. The best knowledge databases in the world are owned by big corporations for a reason. By keeping the world’s knowledge behind paywalls, the educated class ensures that only its members can use it. This has an adverse effect on opportunities. To advance in life, both personally and professionally, people need opportunities for advancement.

Opportunities don not grow on trees. They are either created or given, almost never taken. The members of the educated class have access to opportunities because money allows them to create them. Once created, the educated class can give opportunities to fellow class members, who, in turn, create new opportunities that are passed along to other members of the educated class. More and more, the availability of uneducated people, who can be used for creating profits, is the ultimate opportunity for the educated class.

This cycle is unsustainable for the long run. At some point in the future, the profit-centered educational system around the world must collapse. The first step in the right direction is to recognize that education is a fundamental human right that must be available to everybody across levels of education.

People should be able to study for as long as they want — for free. Education should be a service that is provided to the citizens of a country by its government. The impact of that service on its citizens would be huge. By providing the best education possible, a country would ensure that its brightest minds would not immigrate. After immigrating to another country to get better education, people start to see job opportunities and their likelihood to return home after they graduate decreases dramatically. Over decades, countries that bleed intellectual capital die a slow, painful death.

Human rights should never be monetized. Education is a human right and putting a dollar sign on it destroys it. It’s one thing not to have an academic degree because I do not have money to afford it and completely another thing not to have a degree because I choose not to get university education that is offered to me for free. The way we would feel in each situation would be very different. In the former, we would feel powerless and rejected. In the latter, we would cherish the freedom to make choices and live our lives on our own terms.

I will complete my degree at Northwestern University. It will take me a few years, because I work full-time and have a family. It is a degree that will allow me to understand, write, and interpret policy. I will also learn how public administration works and what I can do to make it better. It is a degree that will prepare me make a difference in education through public service. Some public service careers include mayor, governor, senator, and prime minister, all positions with huge power and influence.

Education needs powerful allies, because money is very powerful. It will take an army of education fighters to divorce education from money. But it is doable. It is necessary. It is the way it should be.

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King Lear said it best, “In jest, there is truth.”

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Krasimir Karamfilov

Krasimir Karamfilov

King Lear said it best, “In jest, there is truth.”

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