At the Cost of Possibility

By Sam Kolodezh

As the cost of higher education keeps rising and the employment prospects of the millennial generation keep falling, the debates over college education have come to center around its costs, its return on investment, and the fairness of the entire system. The growing sentiment of these debates is that the system is not fair, and it is failing its role as a catalyst for achieving the 21st century American dream—hard work and a straight line to stability. 

Merit scholarships seem to be the last place that Americans are looking to for some sense of egalitarianism in the system. The hardworking student, the student with brains, no matter her background or financial position, can receive merit scholarships and a world class education—can rise above the ever more stacked system. This is the vision that Charles W. Eliot had in 1904 when writing against raising the tuition at Harvard to Charles Francis Adams Jr., grandson of John Quincy Adams: “…You wanted the College open to young men who had either money or brains…I want to have the College open equally to men with much money, little money, or no money, provided they all have brains…” 

Today, even this vision is turning out to be a hollow one. Just as students are competing against one another for funds, so are educational institutions. Increasingly more merit scholarships are being given not based on merit, but based on the hope that the affluent parents of the not-so-deserving students will pay the $50,000 tuition bill provided that their child receives a symbolic gesture of acceptance in the form of a $5,000 “merit” scholarship. 

In the past decade, the proportion of students receiving merit-based aid has doubled, while need-based aid is slowly declining. Moreover, tax supported need-based Pell Grants are constantly expanding their eligibility regulations allow universities to siphon money to merit based scholarships. The conclusion seems to be that education is either for the very affluent or the very lucky. Of the many brilliant students, honest institutions like Harvard can have their pick. The rest? They must take on huge debt or work, scratching their way to some modicum of security. 

This is not a problem of merit, or privilege, or even class, so much as it is a problem of how education is viewed. Learning has become a luxury. The problem found in merit scholarships manifests itself in different forms across debates. President Obama’s Scorecard, while an attempt at transparency, is intended to maximize a student’s return on investment. Arguments of the past year in financial and business magazines like DailyFinance have proposed that for those who cannot afford education, vocational school is perhaps the better choice. 

When all of these factors are combined, it seems that those already privileged are able to receive a great education, while the rest are destined to work, and maybe learn something on the side. Such a view is not sustainable. Education is not merely an acquisition of skills or information. It is first and foremost the tool by which we are able to see possibility—and it is possibility, not dollars, which is primary. The hollowness of merit scholarships is only a symptom of a larger problem, that of a narrowing of possibility. Yet, as our possibilities and our ability to see them narrows, so does our economy. It is the reactionary business model of education which rewards the already privileged which will exacerbate the problem, not the investment into those who need it most—not the enlightenment of possibility.

Sam Kolodezh is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a senior at the University of Washington majoring in English and philosophy. The University of Washington is home to the Alpha of Washington chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.