The price tag of prestige
An op-ed by a Millennial undergraduate reflecting on the cost of college.
September 13, 2013 | By Tao Tao Holmes
Freshman year, when I walked into the nave of Sterling Memorial Library, I thought of Europe’s great cathedrals, of Voltaire cultivating his garden, of whether or not I might have time left over for Woad’s.
Now, passing through the gleaming white rat tunnel, I think of tuition money.
Walking around campus, it’s hard to find a spot that isn’t within view of some kind of scaffolding. Sterling Library, Sterling Chemistry Lab and Au Bon Pain most recently (it’s Yale property), the towering Walter Camp Memorial Gateway at the Yale athletics complex, and of course, Payne Whitney, which has been under cosmetic surgery since 2002.
And when I think about the next time I’ll see the nave, I’m forced to step back and evaluate whether four years of tuition money has rendered me employable.
This self-evaluation took on a sober earnestness when my dad brought to my attention recent shifts in tuition costs. Over my time at Yale, the annual cost of attendance (tuition, room and board) has increased from $49,800 in 2010 to $57,500 in 2013. (In 2005, it would have been $41,000.) “I didn’t sign up for this,” my father’s tone seemed to say. “Wow, I don’t think my continued lack of coding abilities justifies those exorbitant fees,” my silence responded.
My family is not what I’d term wealthy (we switched out of dial-up Internet last year), but we don’t qualify for aid. This is mainly because my parents have been saving and investing for my college fund since I was a fetus. But if school fees for private colleges continue to escalate at the current rate with no sign of abating, then I should probably start saving for my future Bulldogs now.
But by constantly raising college fees, Wick Sloane SOM ’84, asked in a 2008 News article (“Can Yale be tuition-free?” Oct. 10, 2008) whether these schools are “creating an expanding resource for more people, or are they spray-painting gold leaf onto luxury goods?”
At Yale, we have the latest 3-D printers and a nationally ranked art museum. We have masters, deans, FroCos, advisers, peer liaisons, big sibs, CCEs and personal librarians. Student jobs reap $12 an hour and frequently involve eating dinner or doing homework. But not all luxury goods are tangible. There are many who will speak to the benefits of prestige and pedigree gained from an Ivy League education. In a 2011 Forbes article, Jonathan Robe called this upward tuition trend the “prestige effect,” or “race for prestige.” This race of the elite educators is fueled further by national rankings like those published Tuesday by U.S. News & World Report, which reward schools based on factors like academic reputation, faculty resources and financial resources. To maintain their prestige, colleges compete for Nobel Prize winners and Zagat-rated vegan options.
But the price of prestige costs students more than money. It prevents us from taking risks when we leave. In a column for the News six years ago (“Nation can’t afford higher tuition,” Jan. 18, 2007), two baby boomers, Neil Howe GRD ’84 and William Strauss, wrote that regardless of family circumstances, low college fees in the ’60s and ’70s allowed them and their classmates to “follow the calling of our choice or the vocation of our conscience.” Now, to justify the cost of college to both self and parent or pay off debt, students “have no choice but to rivet their ambitions, their careers and their very lives to the pursuit of the highest money return.” This means fewer and fewer young people engage in what they describe as “the vibrant and vital work required of every rising generation to advance civilization.” They called on Yale to consider its role as a price leader, and recommended the University freeze its tuition and fees at 2006 levels. To my father’s chagrin, this did not happen.
At the end of all this, I’m left with a nagging question: Do we, as current students, reinforce the college race for prestige? When we boast on campus tours about this basement amenity or that Master’s Tea guest, free trips to bowling alleys, to pick berries, to Broadway, are we inadvertently causing other colleges to drop bigger wads of dough to compete? When I ask how we don’t have a climbing wall yet, whine about the brutal inefficiency of Durfee’s or complain about an uninspiring dinner in the dining hall, am I, as an individual, asking for gold leaf on luxury goods?
If we don’t put a check on our school’s attachment to purchased prestige, we’ll be paying for it down the road. I only hope that the scaffolding on Payne Whitney is gone when Sherlock Holmes, class of 2040, first walks through Phelps Gate.