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Higher Education: Only for Society's Elite?

Updated on June 22, 2012
Shani Mootoo
Shani Mootoo | Source

Inspired by brilliant writer, Shani Mootoo

Shani Mootoo was born in Dublin, grew up in Trinidad, and currently lives in Toronto. Her book Valimiki's Daughter takes place in Trinidad and addresses some wonderfully uncomfortable racial and sexual topics. The following passage inspired this (clearly opinionated) article/rant:

“Valmiki did worry that, in all innocence – for how could Viveka be anything but, as she had no experience of the world as he knew it – his daughter could be encouraged into an easy manner with unsavoury men precisely because of all that so-called progressive university-nonsense she came home with, nonsense that always had terminology suffixed with the dreaded “ism”: sexism, feminism, paternalism, Marxism, racism, anti-racism, activism” (49).

Why College?

This passage made me think deeply about the purpose of higher education and how it is quite a convoluted issue. I grew up, of course, thinking that college was somewhere people went because they wanted to grow intellectually and as a person. I thought that people went to college to challenge themselves, to expand their thoughts, to open up new doors to themselves both in their minds and in the outside world. I was always bothered when I heard people say, “Well, college isn't for everyone.” I thought that it was for whoever wanted it to be for them, because I thought the reasons for going were personal and therefore different for everyone. I still believe these are the most appropriate reasons to continue education, but what I didn't realize until I began college, is that

college students exist in a very strange and confusing place, with contradicting pressures acting simultaneously and in full force.


We Expand Our Comfort Zones

On one hand, students in high school are pushed from parents, teachers, politicians (kind of), etc, to go on to college. They are told it is the best way to “make something” of themselves and the best way to get a good job, because the people who choose not to go to college will be “pumping your gas.” Some aren't given a choice; they're told “You're going to college and that's final.” Whatever the reason, we go. And what happens to some of us in college is amazing: we do all those things I always hoped we would. We expand our comfort zones. We think in ways we didn't realize we could. We get active in the community and in society and culture. We take advantage of our free speech to try to speak on behalf of those who have been shit on by society, governments, etc. We form picket lines and we shout, and sometimes we get arrested, and sometimes worse. And for many of us, we use lots and lots of “isms.”

Beware "isms"

But then! Something even more amazing happens. Those very people that pushed us to go to college use it against us. In fact, it is often their main argument against us. Because we are becoming more highly educated, because we are young, creative, and compassionate, because we are curious about why things are the way they are and how they might be improved, because we did what we were told to do -go to college- we are:

crazy liberals, fanatics, too young to understand, brainwashed by liberal professors, taught to hate the United States (and with it freedom and everything this country is supposed to be), ungrateful for our war veterans, misinformed, hippies, many more and sometimes just wrong,

and this is because we use “isms.”

Good News Ahead?

There is good news. However, the news is not good for us, but for those people who dislike our “isms”... With the cost of education continuing to rise and rise, combined with the stranglehold student loans can have, combined with the lack of worthwhile employment after gaining all that debt, a college education will probably return to something only for the social and economic elite, as regular people simply won't be able to afford it. And then, they won't have to use “isms.”



Using New Jersey as an example, since it is the most densely populated state, and also where I live, let's look at some numbers:

Per Capita Income: $34,858 (US Census Bureau)

Statewide Average In-State, Public College Tuition: $10,411 (

Already, without fees, housing, anything else, the tuition exceeds 29% of annual income. Forget about private school costs, which easily exceed $30,000+ annually.

Now, for funzies, let's factor in Rent. Sources differ slightly, but generally hover around the same figures. Average NJ apartment rental price is approximately $900-1,000. Some sources say a city like Jersey City averages right around $2,000.

Annual Rent: approx. $10,800 - $24,000

We'll split the difference and use $17,400 for rent.

$17,400 + $10,411 = $27,811




Hmm... U.S. student loan debt is over ONE TRILLION DOLLARS currently.

It is difficult to put such a number in perspective, but we might as well try. This figure dwarfs combined U.S. credit card debt. Put another way, our student loan debt could purchase Singapore. No, really, the entire country.

Is One Trillion Dollars THAT Bad?

Of course, we know that we are capable of paying this debt off, because college graduates get better jobs with higher income, making it a rather favorable debt.

Apologies. My mind is slipping. There are no jobs.



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