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This summer I had the opportunity to do some traveling with a close friend (who we will call Sarah) and spent a few weeks on the road in Western Europe, doing the hostel thing. Our travels took us across the region, from Spain to Germany via Italy and Austria, places so saturated with art, music and decadence, it seemed you’d have to be made of stone to escape inspiration.
While the trip certainly involved many late nights courtesy of cosmopolitan cities like Barcelona, Rome, Munich and so forth, what really stuck with me were the relationships we built with people along the way — fellow travelers and locals alike. As Americans, our perspectives were constantly being challenged by individuals who seemed to know more about American politics, society and values than we did; gradually, very gradually, we allowed ourselves to be persuaded about the closed nature of American society, oblivious by choice to the character of its state and its impacts on the rest of the world.
I mean this with both humility and sincerity. My travel buddy and I aren’t idiots; we just couldn’t match the outsider’s perspective on things that we take for granted every day about both American society and the general, global presence of the U.S. But one conversation proved to be recurring: education. As two students in undergraduate programs at public universities, we had an interest in education abroad and learned a lot of first-hand knowledge about education systems in Western Europe, courtesy of the people that had gone through them. Our European friends around our age — in their early twenties or older — seemed eager to compare their schools to ours, for reasons that became crystal clear as we learned more and more.
The major glimpse we had into European education was through a friend of Sarah, a young Danish woman from Copenhagen named Trina. A third-year university student in Copenhagen, Trina was brilliant. Speaking multiple languages with ease and having a firm grasp on European history were just two of the ways in which she impressed Sarah and myself, who respectively had little more than broken phrases of Spanish and German under our belts. Trina studied the chemistry of foods and drinks such as cheese, meat, beer and wine, free of charge. Her education was paid for, as is the case in most public and private schools in Denmark. Undoubtedly, she was able to pursue her studies whole-heartedly, especially with the addition of a state-subsidized grant she received in order to cover living costs during school, which are available to all students in institutions of higher education over the age of 18. The benefits were clear, and we were in awe of the way she was able to live, taking full advantage of her student career without having to work multiple jobs and take out massive loans to cover costs.
After having extended conversations with Trina about all the benefits of her schooling, Sarah confided in me that she was having serious doubts about American society based on the cost of higher education in America. For Sarah the cost is huge, which contrasted easily with Trina’s experience. Sarah’s parents couldn’t help cover the costs of tuition at a public university, leaving her to bear the burden on her own — and she’s already thousands of dollars in debt. Sarah’s parents can’t help her with either housing or the costs of living, so Sarah has to work multiple jobs in order to survive.
The burden is far from only being financial. Having to work multiple jobs means paying the academic cost of devoting huge sums of time away from her studies; as a full-time student taking over 15 credit-hours, this means a cycle of exhaustion, stress and the knowledge that she isn’t doing as well as she could have if she didn’t have such an extra load to carry.
In other words, the opportunity cost paid by Sarah is huge, which includes not only the financial debt but also the time taken away from academic purposes and the potential opportunities missed due to work obligations. There are only so many hours in the day, and only so much time can be devoted to the areas outside of a physical workplace.
I have known Sarah for years, and have observed long before this summer that she is a naturally anxious person, even to the point where she has to use self-help techniques to lessen the severity of anxiety attacks. Naturally, the nexus of even an ordinary day in college and working two jobs plus volunteering is stressful; but midterms and finals provide a different story, exacerbating emotional and mental problems that may not be problems otherwise. On top of all this is the knowledge that she’s getting even farther into debt, which can deter students like her from pursuing the things that many students enroll in higher education in the first place: practical considerations like graduate school or further degrees, high-competition public or private-sector jobs, and even the assertion that there is more to life than a career (arguably the motivation for liberal arts programs).
Sarah’s story is not isolated. I have argued before that higher education in the United States is a privilege. When at least an undergraduate degree is (supposedly) necessary for a successful and prosperous career, it is clear that opportunity comes at a cost, which creates and maintains a less equal and less equitable society. Institutions of higher education thus maintain class distinctions, which was largely left unquestioned until the mass student movement of the 1960s. Indeed, even college or university degrees are little guarantee of a materially prosperous life, as finding a job that utilizes your major has become only more difficult since the Great Recession, even with business students still outnumbering the rest of the graduate field. But regardless of the degree a student completes, graduates are increasingly accepting low-wage or part-time work.
Will Sarah’s various investments — her financial, mental, social and physical health — pay off? A lot obviously depends on major, personal competence with her field, and even her status as a woman. Regardless, there shouldn’t have to be such an investment — all Americans have a right to accessible higher education. And even that, as has been noted, is no guarantee of a life without wage-labor jobs and drudgery. And if you want to pursue a career in practical nursing, then you may be interested in taking professional programs from CALC Institute of Technology / practical nursing program.