How Colleges Have Become Like Designer Handbags

September 15th 2014

Julie Doubleday

In a consumer culture, branding can make or break a product. Providing quality is important, but selling an idea, a lifestyle, is equally so. Branding influences every purchase we make, from clothing, to cars, to furniture, to shampoo, yet we curiously overlook its influence when considering our consumption of higher education. Worse still, by ignoring the economic realities of the college market, we further empower popular schools to hold a monopoly on entree to the upper class.

As with any product, big name schools are associated with prestige; the better the brand, the better the school. A Stanford degree creates assumptions of intelligence and diligence in much the same way a Fendi bag or a BMW represents wealth (and wealth, in turn, is associated with positive personality traits and desirability). In other words, even if you could offer a cheap and accessible route to education, you still couldn’t compete with the brand names that enable schools to increase tuition every year.

For decades, the price of higher education has been surging. At rates far outpacing inflation, the expense leaps upward every year and said leaps show no sign of slowing. The statistics are widely circulated, the outrage is too, and still costs climb while students struggle. Each fall on campuses across the country, a fresh batch of 18-year-olds signs on to a financial burden impossible for them to contextualize. And each election season, the wealthiest group of Congressmen in American history grandstand about student debt while easily putting their own children through Harvard or UVA or Michigan or Colgate.




The cause of ongoing tuition hikes is much debated, but why is it that prominent colleges can increase prices every year while never seeing a dip in enrollment? Amidst widespread acknowledgement that such prices are ludicrous, the public continues to pay- albeit angrily – because a degree, in particular a degree from a respected school, is a passport to the upper middle class and beyond. Learning, exploring, thinking, and all the other dreamy verbs stamped across admissions brochures are aspects of education, but they aren’t the reason people pay $15,000 every semester. The public is willing to pay outlandish fees because hundreds of doors, personally and professionally, slam shut to those who refuse. A college degree creates access to more jobs, better jobs, and higher paying jobs; many employers only consider applicants with B.A.s, no matter how smart, eager to excel, or willing to learn a candidate may be. And broadly, the “better” the school stamped across the top of your resume, the better chance you have of landing an interview and a position. The public is willing to pay because, socially, higher education has made itself synonymous with ability and intelligence.

Over time, the number of students seeking higher education has steadily increased. Concurrently, the small number of schools boasting choice spots on the U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings is constant. In other words, you have inelastic demand created by the degree-prioritizing job market and associated social value, increasing demand in the form of ever-expanding freshman classes, and a static supply of prestigious institutions. Exploitive pricing in this case is inevitable.

Acknowledging these truths is, for colleges, a bit crass. You won’t find any promotional materials highlighting the importance of social class and future status.  Instead, schools promote the widely-accepted belief that college is an inimitable educational experience devoted to enshrining intelligence, developing minds, and changing lives. “We encourage risk taking and exploration” says the website of Williams College in Massachusetts. In North Carolina, Davidson College claims they “seek out intellectually curious students who are committed to developing their talents for lives of leadership and service.” My own alma mater boasts, “we welcome curiosity, creativity, intellectual ambition, and an openness to new ideas.” Meanwhile their criteria for admissions are SAT scores, class rankings, ability to travel to the school for tours and interviews, and ability to write a good essay, all of which overwhelmingly correlate with wealth.




Purporting to offer creative fulfillment, hone critical thinking skills, and cultivate interest in the world, elite colleges demonstrate their success at doing so with metrics that measure nothing of the sort. Despite what schools imply, there’s no test to measure creativity, openness to new ideas or interest in taking risks. Yet colleges continually encourage fallacious associations between abstract personal growth and measurable outcomes (creating, in fact, a certain failure of critical thinking).

This year, when the U.S. News and World Report published its methodology for ranking schools, it began, “The host of intangibles that make up the college experience can’t be measured by a series of data points.” It goes on to explain that, still, it’s good to look at a series of data points when making decisions about education, exemplifying the rampant conflation of academic success with personal development. Why is this type of thinking dangerous? First, it creates a strong association between wealth and intelligence that translates to classism in the wider world. Only 9% of low-income students earn a bachelor’s degree by 25, and the problem is worsening; from the 1960’s to the present, the gap between low-income and high-income completion rates widened from 31% to 45%. Higher education is still overwhelmingly dominated by wealthier students, and prestigious private schools more so than public universities or community colleges. Second, it creates an almost mystical aura around the transformative power of expensive education that, through extensive branding and marketing, has become so pervasive that not attending such a school is absolutely unthinkable to many. Third, accepting these two notions as true, we construct a framework within which colleges can raise tuition excessively without reaction in the marketplace.




I don’t intend to argue that college is worthless or education a waste of time. Education is an important component of social order to which, in a fair society, we are all entitled. We claim to be a country of malleable class barriers and strong social mobility, but for many, college has become an impossible hurdle to navigate. In effect, it has become a financial enforcer of entrenched class by imposing mountains of debt upon those who seek to climb.

Whenever class is brought into the conversation about higher education, status quo defenders are quick to reference scholarship opportunities. Scholarship students, particularly the rare student who earns a complete free ride, are, by their very definition, exceptional. Yes, a low income student who completely outpaces his or her peers with a mixture of extraordinary hard work and innate ability may be able to access one of the prestigious colleges that provide a huge leg-up in the professional world.  But even if every single low income student defied the statistical likelihood that academic excellence is out of reach without significant support at home, adult role models, proper nutrition, good teachers and other school resources, etc. (the list could go on), schools would still only offer a finite number of full scholarships.

From a practical perspective, there are a variety of reasons one might expect the cost of education to be falling. Information has never been more accessible, more cheaply, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are gaining popularity. MIT has published all of its course materials online, including video lectures and exams. But free learning doesn’t carry the same weight as degree programs do, and until this changes, prices will continue to soar. Detractors of MOOCs point to their low completion rates, but their enrollments are so massive, even a small percentage of success is a worthwhile endeavor- particularly when the overhead costs of maintaining such a program are so staggeringly low. Certainly, the experience of attending classes and developing personal relationships with professors encourages a deeper understanding of material, but those who defend the current educational model must acknowledge that what it provides, it provides at the cost of access to many.




More broadly, it’s dangerous to associate learning with a costly, rarified environment. We all know people who graduated and never picked up another book. We all know adults who act as though reading about history or science is something that can’t be done outside of the confines of a classroom, guided by intellectual sherpas every step of the way. When college is overpriced, and expensive schools claim to be the only path to real education, learning is seen as a luxury item, rather than a necessity. Learning becomes something that demands an absurd amount of money, time, and energy, rather than a pivotal and ubiquitous human experience.

It’s time to stop pretending that the college experience in America is something it isn’t. It isn’t a diverse environment where students are exposed to vastly new perspectives or “taught how to think”. It’s become the next step in a carefully curated path between upper middle class childhood and upper middle class adulthood, which serves to steward kids who grew up with privilege into jobs that will maintain that privilege. Maintaining the façade that higher education isn’t reinforcing class distinctions begets a whole host of problematic beliefs about the poor and underserved.

As public obsession with metrics and rankings grows, our power to pursue affordable learning plummets; we create a bottleneck of demand for a few specific brands. Until the public rejects the supposition that a well-educated person graduated from one of 100 or so particular schools, we condemn ourselves to writing larger checks every year. And as prices go up, we discourage the education of those who most need it.