This month at Postconsumers, we’re shining the light on some activities, hobbies, niches or even social norms that are ridden with consumerism but are often thought of as being postconsumer alternatives. Today, we’re tackling one of the most loaded topics in America today, higher education. It’s no secret that a college or university degree is almost essential for a stable financial future (though we all know that there are other routes to that destination as well). But whereas education was once a service provided to students, it has turned into a commodity loaded with overall consumer elements. Today, we’ll take a look at some of that history as well as some consumer traps to keep a lookout for.

Education: The Original Goal Was to Benefit Society

While there’s always been a financial element involved in higher education, the creation of public and state universities wasn’t originally done in order to “turn a profit” (or win a football championship). The reason that individual states created their public university systems was that education benefited the state. Presumably, the more educated people you had in your state, the more prosperous and taken care of your state would be in terms of job creation, industry coming to the state, future educators, and discoveries and inventions that would benefit your citizenry. And, to be honest, that was largely true. Individuals with higher education are as necessary to moving a society forward as are the people willing to build the houses. But then something shifted. What was it? Was it the advent of for-profit colleges? The industrial bank complex? Or just pure human greed? Likely, it was a combination of all three. Let’s explore the role of each.

The For-Profit College: While there are many for-profit colleges out there, the one that you are likely the most familiar with is the University of Phoenix. These colleges and universities (often online but not always) are not funded by state or federal taxpayer dollars and derive all of their revenue from tuition, similar to a private university. But unlike a private university, the noble goal at the end of the day for these institutions isn’t to turn out shining alumni. It’s to realize a profit as a private company, usually with shareholders. That means that these for-profit colleges have to participate in the most basic element of consumerism: marketing. Because without marketing they can’t attract a growing student body to create a profit. And where there is marketing, there are consumer traps.

The Industrial Bank Complex:  The predatory nature of student loans is well documented on the internet and explained in a level of detail that we’re not capable of (after all, we are not finance majors here!). What’s important to grasp, however, is that college loans that were managed by the industrial bank complex (including the U.S. federal government) have contributed to the consumerism of higher education in two ways. Firstly and most obviously, they propagated the culture of credit. While the idea of going into debt for an education is nobler than going into debt for a new large-screen television, the mental logic behind it is no different. And once you start down the path of accepting credit as a valid form of financing most things, it’s easy to make the mental shift into other areas. Because now all things are a form of consumerism. The other way in which the industrial bank complex has contributed to the shifting of higher education from a societal service to a consumer niche is because loans are an item that individuals “shop” for. You look for the best loan rate, the best payment terms, the most trusted provider and other factors. Once an element of obtaining your higher education became about shopping not just for an institution but also for a loan “product,” the shift was over.

Human Greed: While university adjunct professors often live below the poverty line, administrators and most employees of athletic departments make gigantic six figure salaries. Ask yourself, “What’s not at base a direct reflection of consumerism gone awry than when the workers make very little and the ‘big wigs’ make enormous salaries?” And to fund those salaries the universities need to make a certain amount of money per year and attract a certain number of students per year. That means that their students are thought of as sales conversions and their tuition amount is designed to create a specific return on investment (ROI). There’s nothing not consumer about that process.

Can We Change This?

Of course! We can change anything! But changing the consumer takeover of higher education will be one of the most difficult challenges of postconsumerism. Higher education isn’t like a big screen TV. It’s truly not a luxury item that you can choose to have or not have with no actual loss to your quality of life. For many people, higher education is an absolute requirement in order to build a financially sound future – not to mention to expand the mind to its true potential. But the system, like most systems, has become ingrained and the people profiting from it certainly have a vested interest in protecting the system. But at base, it should be easy for us to agree that education is something that benefits society and that should be treated more seriously than a product off of a store shelf. How do we get there? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Did we miss a way that higher education and consumerism are entwined that you want to share with us? If so, just tell us about it on one of the social media channels below.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Ozvold via Flickr