Eaton: Dorothy and the Wizard of (Mac)OS

The COVID-19 pandemic has inflamed technological barriers in higher education. It is just another drop in the bucket of academic elitism.

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Emily Eaton

At times, college makes me feel strangely like Dorothy arriving at the Emerald City after a long, arduous journey. From far away, the ivory towers of academia seemed like an amazing adventure, the key to a successful future. Then, Dorothy’s laptop breaks in the middle of finals week, and she discovers that you can’t even unlock the city gates without authentication from a secondary device. Suddenly, Dorothy realizes that, though the wizard might say he wants to help everyone, what he really means is that he wants to help everyone who can pay for his services.

Higher education faces an interesting dilemma in the 21st century: how to appear inclusive and welcoming, while still maintaining a reputation of elitism and prestige. These ideals are constantly at odds with each other, and no school can truly achieve one without sacrificing the other. In order to actually be inclusive, barriers to education must be broken down. This means reducing — if not eliminating — tuition costs and providing alternatives to pay-for-play admissions exams, among other changes. But, in removing these barriers, the traditional markers of prestige, like low acceptance rates, requiring perfect stats and small student bodies, are also done away with. The question is, then, do we expect every university to strive for the Ivy League example of single digit acceptance rates, billion dollar endowments and worldwide name recognition? Or, should tuition prices be dropped and acceptance rates raised in favor of easy access to education, even if it means shedding prominence?

As of 2019, the average cost of four years at a public university in the United States was estimated to be $108,422, according to Investopedia. Meanwhile, the average cost of four years at a private university doubled that number, to $215,532. Four years at an Ivy League school, however, could see students saddled with bills of over $280,000. And despite attempts from some elite schools to cater to low-income students, students in the top 0.01% stay ahead of the pack, with four in every 10 attending an Ivy League. That’s the same ratio of students from the bottom 20% who attend a two- or four-year university.

This isn’t new. People have been talking about the astronomical cost of a college education for years now. But, as technology increasingly pervades every facet of our everyday life, the cost is only rising. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that institutions of higher education are more than willing to make the case that a degree earned virtually should cost the same as the real deal. In reality, online school has seemingly only made a college degree more unattainable. With libraries closed or open only for limited use, students who used to rely on easily accessible public resources are left in the dust. Now, a strong WiFi connection and a computer able to handle full days of online classes and coursework are prerequisites for success. With the urban-rural divide leaving swathes of the Midwest without reliable phone or internet service, I’d argue that the effects of this pandemic and lack of support from colleges and universities will only strengthen partisanship in the United States in years to come.

Increasing accessibility by dropping tuition costs is a step that is long overdue, but doing that alone could only exacerbate education inflation, or the diminishing value of a college degree. Making college more accessible won’t immediately improve the lives of people everywhere. Unless we establish much needed policy changes at the same time — increasing worker protections, funding K-12 education and trade schools and ensuring that unemployment in our country is no longer a death sentence — higher education will continue to serve as a reservoir for people deemed under qualified by potential employers. Capitalism is founded on competition. This nation is founded upon capitalism. And while competition is vital in small doses, we have created a cycle of elitism, inaccessibility and necessity within higher education that will be our demise.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, attending college was a surefire way to lift yourself up by the bootstraps and achieve the long sought-after American dream. But of course, this was before lecture halls filled with a sea of silver shells emblazoned with thousand dollar glowing apples. It was even before students regularly cracked jokes about the mountains of debt that would saddle them for the rest of their lives, back when a bachelor’s degree was good enough, and you could work your way through college in four years. Today, accessible, affordable higher education in the United States is little more than a fairytale.