Debate Team: College protesters should focus on future, not funding freezes

First off, to my esteemed colleague Nick, who assumes I "haven't heard of or experienced" either the dizzying heights of education costs or the depressing depths of student loan debt, I have just one little number for you: $30,000.

Or at least I think it's around $30,000-ish. I stopped keeping track of how much student loan debt I have after I signed my fourth-ish (or was it fifth?) loan application to continue my education at a private Jesuit college. I'm pretty sure some banker somewhere is holding a promissory note signed in blood for my first-born child.
So at least to me, the billion-dollar question is this: As college costs continue to skyrocket, why would I (and millions of other students) bite the bullet and do what we have to do to finance our educations? Simple -- because college is still worth the cost.

And for precisely the reasons you mentioned:

When a college degree is the bare minimum threshold for most jobs -- and college admins are the gatekeepers to that magical golden ticket -- what can a determined student do except suck it up and find a way to pay?

I'm not saying the astronomical tuition increases are right, or even fair. But when you weigh increased earnings, plus job skills backed with a university name for the rest of your life against a few hundred dollars, or even a few thousands more to pay today, the answer is still clear -- you have to choose your future, precisely because this recession and its accompanying layoffs are fast turning that golden ticket into a meal ticket.

And again, not to argue in any way that cuts to education are a positive development, but it's abundantly clear that states are simply tapped out across the board, and not singling out educational budgets for punishment. Student protesters (who, as a kind word of advice, should avoid violence in order to give their cause a fighting chance) will just have to get in line behind all the other protestors against state cuts to pension funds, state cuts to elementary and secondary education, state cuts to social services, state cuts to transportation, state cuts to ... well, you get the picture.

In Illinois, my current home turf, the piggy bank is just simply "maxed out." Even if lawmakers did find a way to pay up the money they owe to the universities, chances are they'll either have to raise taxes or cut services and/or government jobs to free up the cash to do it-and is that not as much of a burden on society as shortchanging colleges?

Turning our attention then to the universities themselves, I think you're right, Nick, in pointing out that an arms race is well underway in higher education today. However, I don't think administrators themselves are the root cause it. After all, the battle for bigger and bigger and bigger facilities (which invariably involves an indoor climbing wall, for reasons I still can't fathom--as if the ability to practice rock scrambling indoors is coming to represent the overindulgent waste of the American higher education system) isn't just an arbitrary decision on the part of administrators.

Who would willingly waste millions of dollars on capital campaigns nobody wants anyway? Rather, rightly or wrongly, administrators will tell you they feel compelled to make those changes just to keep up with the Joneses because (you guessed it) WE STUDENTS of the millennial generation are used to having the best and having it now, and won't pick their college if they can't compete.

I saw it firsthand while touring colleges during my senior year of high school. Fellow tour-groupers shuffled along starry-eyed and enchanted as a backward-walking sophomore extolled the academic reputation of his university -- until you hit the dorms that look like Marcia Brady might have lived there. Starry eyes extinguished, no deal, Mommy let's pick somewhere pretty instead.

Don't like the ugly, pricy awnings at Haverford? Or Wesleyan's $47 million student center? Then don't go there. You don't need a degree in money and/or English to see that most colleges are being run like big businesseses now anyway, exercise consumer discretion and "vote with your dollar," so to speak, against the institutions beefing themselves up for the facilities arms race.

For example, private colleges during the recession have unveiled "no frills degrees," stripping away the trappings (and awnings, apparently) of luxury and bringing a higher education back down to its most essential element-the education. Sure, student life suffers when you choose to go this route, but tough times make for tough choices, and if sacrificing the frills to keep college affordable is the way to get through these economic times, so be it.

Until the rising tide of recession passes and states can get back on their feet, the only way we students will get through this is to focus not on how much we have to sacrifice to stay in school, but how much we're gaining in the long term-that degree is the ticket to our future.

LeeAnn Maton is a senior at Loyola University Chicago.

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