This University is Not a Handbag

Paul Campos wrote a thought provoking article comparing universities to luxury handbags using Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption”, the article begins:

If you happen to have $31,500 lying around, you could buy a Louis Vuitton PM Showgirl handbag. Or you could spend almost exactly the same sum to pay for one year’s worth of tuition (not including room and board) at an average American four-year private college.

He presents an interesting argument that the whole point of college degrees is that they are, like luxury handbags, valuable because they are unattainable for most of us. In addition to this they are important by signaling social status via the conspicuous consumption of a luxury good. See? Just like that ludicrously expensive handbag.

half skater half worker by Wrote CC BY

He gives an example from his own university:

The law school at which I teach provides a particularly striking example of this inversion of the normal laws of supply and demand. The school’s annual tuition increased from less than $5,000 in 1997 to more than $31,000 in 2011. This represented a 348 percent increase in constant, inflation-adjusted dollars… but the law school’s applications actually skyrocketed, from 1,846 in 1997 to 3,175 in 2011.

This is fascinating. But is it really correct? I’m sure the numbers are correct but is the interpretation (higher costs = more desirable) really true for academia? Take, for instance, Sweden. There are no tuition fees at Swedish universities so the ability to make them exclusive by price does not factor in to the equation. Often little or no additional social status is given to those who have studied at university. Swedish Statistics Yearbook of Educational Statistics (2012) has a table on page 270. The number of university entrants by sex and university/higher education institution in 2000/2001 was 72 118 and in 2009/2010 was 108 852. So despite the price of education remaining at zero the desirability of university education is on the increase. Or at least the number of people starting in university is increasing.

So if it isn’t about conspicuous consumption then what is it all about? There are several possible answers to this question. While I do like Campos argument about luxury and desirability. It doesn’t ring entirely true – maybe it’s specific to the US – or maybe there are other factors as to why higher education is desirable.

One obvious question is the number of young people. Are there simply more of them around? This should also be taken together with the question of whether there are acceptable jobs for young people to chose today? Is college “the only way out” because there is nothing else to do? In addition to this there is the expectations of peers and family – do more people expect young adults to go to college?

This latter point is connected to the parental expectations. If a parent has been to college then it is unsurprising that they would want their children to go to college. They have, after all, probably a positive experience of college. There is a myth that a college degree leads to education (a must see in this topic is Ken Robinson – Changing Education Paradigms)

Along with this is the growing demand from employers that entry level employees have degrees. And not to forget the social explanations. In particular the struggle of most groups not to be working class and the ways in which the squeezed middle class struggles to maintain status markers. This last group may be the closest to the luxury handbag group, but the rest seem to fit uncomfortably in the bag.

This post naturally cannot answer the question in a nice and easy manner but I feel that it is an important topic for everyone in academia to ponder on. Why are we all here? Of course the professors are not there for the same reason as the students, but it is important that the overlap of reasons is wide enough to encompass each parts needs.

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