This year, Occidental’s tuition and fees broached $50,000. For reference, when Occidental first opened its doors in 1880, tuition was $1,108 (adjusted for inflation). The average student will graduate from Occidental $25,836 in debt. Does organic salmon at the grill station and a forced triple without AC really deserve such a high price? Let’s ask ourselves if the additional $49,000 is being spent wisely and if we actually need the amenities our college provides currently.
The “college experience” involves the extra opportunities that are not found in a syllabus or discussed during office hours. It is the absurd amount of clubs and extracurriculars in which we participate every day. It is the requirement to live on campus and have a meal plan until senior year, unless you have special permission. Basically, it is all of the sexy and unnecessary amenities that your tour guides tried to sell to you on your first tour of Occidental.
One stellar example of money spent poorly is the Global Crossroads display in Johnson — the demented offspring of an atrium and too many LCD screens. That combined with the constantly watered lawns (sometimes sidewalks) and the Marketplace’s ranking as 8th best college cafeteria in the country seem to be our school’s strongest selling points. The problem is that these amenities are not necessary to truly have a successful college career and do not bolster employability post-graduation.
This is called the signaling theory in economics. In essence, signaling theory says that our employability is mostly dependent on the simple fact that we graduate after four years, rather than on the rigor of our classes or the prowess of the professors that teach them. So colleges can get away with increasing tuition without increasing the quality of the education simply because the end results are the same.
While subsidizing snacks and expensive speakers, Occidental has decreased the amount of tenure-track faculty employed and pays adjunct professors by class instead of yearly salary. This system ensures maximum profit by reducing costs such as healthcare and faculty development. Instead of starting to revitalize our tenure program for professors, the revenue has gone to less important projects that make the school look more appealing to prospective students and donors — it is easier to impress a visiting family with manicured rose beds on the quad than with an abstract, clichéd description of your close relationship with a professor that they’ve heard on every other liberal arts college tour.
Occidental, like many other small liberal arts colleges, has generated the most profit by saving money to compensate for the offset that occurs every year. Meanwhile, our administration saves, loan default rates for students who graduated from for-profit colleges hit a staggering 15 percent in late Septemeber this year. To contextualize, this means that one in seven Occidental students (with loans) reading this article will default, meaning those students won’t pay off their loans. With 96 percent of all Occidental students receiving either subsidized or unsubsidized loans, there’s an even higher chance of students defaulting because they don’t have the money to pay initially. These rates expose the financial toll that college takes on students post-graduation. The “Oxy bubble” is more like an indebting pit.
To put things into perspective, If you are on meal plan A, your daily allotment of food is $15.69. That is equal to 5.8 pounds of organic chicken from Trader Joe’s or 22 pounds of organic Idaho potatoes. While six pounds of chicken and 22 pounds of potatoes is a lot of food for two days, comparatively, a meal plan barely allows you to have a full breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus two snacks every day during the semester. At Occidental, we have to pay for a meal plan and end up hungry anyway.
Right now, college campuses provide “the necessities.” Not necessities like water and food, but necessities like Instagram and Facebook. American society is predicated on the evolution of luxuries that we deem necessary; the majority of these wants are monetized and profit-generating, instead of inspiring and academically stimulating.
At Occidental, we as a student body have historically demanded institutional change and pushed hard to acquire funding for diversity initiatives. That is why we now require a $10 student fee for our Diversity and Equity Board. Yet, while we ask for more money for our education to be equitable and cognizant of privilege, we ignore the constant landscape renovations and frivolous spending on campus safety’s second (!) electric Roman chariot, otherwise known as Barry’s Campus Safety segway, the funding for which could be redirected to the things we really care about.
We need to protest expensive landscaping renovations, like perpetual lawn watering (aren’t we in a drought?). We need to protest the tendency to rate institutions by the growth of their endowment, instead of by the intellectual growth of their students.
When we choose to spend four years living the “college experience,” we deny ourselves the ability to make informed choices about our time and money during this formative chapter of our lives. We as individuals in a consumer society must be eager to critique what is considered “necessary” and ask ourselves whether or not we actually need to pay for Meal Plan A and live on campus for three years in order to be content and successful (read: employable) later in life. It’s time to rethink our priorities and demand colleges like Occidental do the utmost to help shape student futures before they spend more money on watering the roses.
Gabe Watson is a junior Urban and Evironmental Policy major. He can be reached at [email protected]