Opinion | Columns

Financial malaise

I was beginning to think that all of the so-called “lotteries” for meals with various administrators were a sham until finally, five semesters into my Columbia experience, I received an email informing me that I had won a chance to “Dine with Deantini.” I went mostly for the free food (Milano, not too shabby).

Most of the lunch went according to plan, with students sharing the typical grievances of the lack of public space and the strangling of bureaucratic red tape. Inevitably, Dean Valentini asked about student stress at Columbia, citing his theory that as hyper-motivated, hyper-capable students in the double pressure-cooker of New York City and the University, we overexert ourselves on too many extracurriculars or internships, double major, and take too many credits each semester.

Eventually, a student replied with an answer that I felt was nuanced compared to the usual Columbia complaints. He said that he was driven to stress not because of his course load, or because of living in NYC, but because of the financial pressures of school.

Obviously, this is not the first time someone has brought up the issue of the insane cost of college, but this student said that the reason he feels the pressure to take seven or eight classes a semester isn’t because everyone around him is doing so. Instead, the pressure arises from the amount of money his parents are paying for him to attend college—the only way he doesn’t feel guilty about draining his parents’ bank account is to maximize his experience.

The plight of the middle class has been central to the discourse of this presidential campaign, where economic issues are taking the front seat, and it’s important to put it in the context of Columbia and tuition. Our financial aid system, while fantastic, is still flawed—those from low socioeconomic backgrounds have their tuitions covered (and rightfully so), those from high socioeconomic backgrounds think of the cost of college as an inconvenience, if that, but those in the middle are the ones who are really hit, whether they get partial financial aid or are right on that border where they receive none at all.

The price of college is often discussed, but mostly accepted as unchangeable, as people largely view it as an inelastic cost—college is a given for most Americans over a certain socioeconomic threshold. Even during the lunch, Valentini brushed off the issue of tuition by saying that he was distressed by the rising cost of tuition, but there was really nothing he could do about it, save for trying to prevent it from increasing even more.

More importantly, the financial burden and guilt of tuition for students is really never discussed as a source of stress outside of “Holy shit I’m going to be in so much debt after college LOL.”
I personally get a generous financial aid package, but my parents are still paying a huge percentage of their income in tuition so that I don’t have to be in debt after college. I certainly don’t feel compelled to take seven or eight classes a semester, but the burden manifests itself in other forms.

I’ve held at least two jobs at a time since freshman year, but I see them as more of an opportunity cost than a burden. The real stress for me is more existential. I am constantly aware of the absurd amount of money being burned through every minute I spend here, every time I decide to skip class, every second I feel that I’m not being productive or doing something to warrant what my experience costs. It’s really hard to view college from an ends-justify-the-means perspective, knowing that all that really matters is my diploma. That would mean I have to find a job that lives up to a Columbia diploma, an idea that is both elitist and unappealing considering how people conceive of that type of job. I find myself constantly questioning the worth of my experience and mostly coming to conclusions about the absurdity of academics and the American college system in general, which just makes me feel more stressed.

Even worse, people in massive amounts of debt from college are immediately prisoners to that debt, which is why I see so many of my friends pursuing jobs they would otherwise find repulsive. Debt is a fetter that prevents people from pursuing true happiness as we’re taught it should be in our canonized Core—instead, we live in a society where happiness is first and foremost defined by money.

Obviously, there is no real solution to lessening the burden of tuition. To prevent making this an entirely futile column, though, I will point to the impending election and the editorial board’s recent staff editorial endorsing Obama (“Barack Obama for President,” Oct. 16). Particularly relevant was the section on making college more affordable. Although I have more problems with Obama than the average leftist, I can thank him for preserving vital programs like federal work-study, which would be much more precarious under Romney. Obama certainly acknowledges that financial realities can be a serious handicap for some people, and that it’s the role of the government to alleviate the burdens that Romney seems to be blind to.

The criminal cost of college is not a given, and further steps can be made for the people for whom tuition is a real burden. We need to stop taking tuition as a given, and we need to stop ignoring the stress that tuition creates for countless students trying to make it through college.

Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Thursdays.


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Edward Charles Bennet posted on

Leo, thank you. The problem of what you rightly deem "the criminal cost of college" is often taboo here, as are the attendant pressures you mention. Yet, partially because it means so much, we ought to discuss it. Yours, Charlie.