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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Are we pushing students out of college?

Bianca Oppedisano

A college student works on their budget.

The UMass Boston Fall 2022 semester is racing to a close with slightly less than two weeks before the last day of classes. When this term closes, many students will be spending their winter break reflecting over their accomplishments and their failures, all the while worrying about the continued costs of being a full-time student.

First, let’s review a common college assumption. “Students who decide to attend college will improve their prospects in the workforce.” This is a traditional working-class attitude that misses out on the better arguments for going to college. While education is the traditional way to escape the quicksand of poverty, if you let this attitude control your college decisions, you’ll often get burned.

Declaring a computer science major, for example, embodies exactly this ideal of achieving status through a purportedly practical major. And yet, it is also the major with the highest dropout rates in the United States. This common misconception that college is only valuable as an investment reveals a rather embarrassing obsession with class status in our culture.

The cliché is true—acquiring a bachelor’s degree seriously rockets your earnings. According to federal reports, over a working lifetime, students who earn a bachelor’s degree will earn up to $1.5 million more, on average, than their non-degree peers.(1) Overwhelmingly, in the factors of wages, time unemployed and earning potential, you will return your investment.

Despite the possibility of this enormous difference, nearly a third of college freshmen will drop out of college within the first twelve months. The national dropout rate is roughly 56 percent.(2)

If college is a statistically backed formula for advancement, then why do we have so many dropouts? What could compel a student to step away from this opportunity? One reason is that one of the only ways for students to even attend college is to take on debt. In this repressive learning environment, who’s left to study anything that doesn’t return their investment? The obsession with this sad, conservative style of thinking weighs heavily on students’ choices of education and often leads them to regret their major.

The more poignant part of this situation for me is the way that we rush students into education without preparing them for the complex externalities which college entails. Keeping up with class work is only one part of the formula. You must also secure housing, food, textbooks and transportation, which accumulates into thousands of dollars per semester. The economics of education can’t be divorced from the economics of living. Students without funds are then pushed to loading on debt.

So, students are under extreme pressure when it comes to their finances. Not only must the major make money for you, but it also commodifies you. When incredible debt is the only way to attend an institution of higher education, it’s only logical to seek a major based on how well it can repay that debt or how it elevates your social status.

When we regress to this type of thinking, the choices we make cheapen and erode our civil society. A technocratic society can build bridges, drain swamps and keep social order, but it can’t fix every human need. We’re too complex for that; humans need a greater source of nourishment.

The way we invest in our curriculum matters. The resources that are committed to students are insufficient—but more importantly, they are inequitable. UMass Boston is also obsessed with “practical majors.” Take a quick look around the remodel of campus and you can see it.

The two buildings most used in the humanities and social sciences, Wheatley and McCormack, are both dilapidated and decayed buildings sorely in need of renovation. The humanities departments have been restrained, research opportunities are limited and yet, there’s money to raise a great new science building. What is being given to the other deserving subjects?

UMass Boston refused to fill positions in the Africana Studies department. There’s a lack of several majors entirely, including journalism. What are the real priorities of this college? If “hard” subjects are all we care about, then we could just open a technical school, and everyone could get to work being an engineer or technician.

When I talked to people about college dropout rates, what they didn’t understand about students is also what they didn’t understand about college. Older folks in my community seem to have fallen for common misconceptions pushed by the mainstream media about students—for example, that students are lazy or apathetic. If they do indeed appear that way to people, then it came about through this technocratic cynicism. Almost every hour of every student’s day is spent worrying about their future, and it stunts their creativity and spirit to pursue the kind of higher education that matters to them.

The individuals here are probably spending most of their month or week working to pay their rent, food and clothing. Then, after these necessities are bought, they contribute money to their savings for personal security. Considering this precarious position, it’s no wonder they are desperate to find a new path for living a better life. Economic mobility is a lifelong project that relies on strong foundations, such as education and savings.

For students attending a public university, this implicates all of us. In 2019, UMass Boston held a graduation retention rate of 49 percent for first-time students.(3) That means for every semester you re-enroll, you can expect some peers not to continue beside you.

Much of the work to be done rests in the university’s hands. Tuition is only rising; parking fees are rising; housing prices are rising. The university has the funding to embark on grand projects and edifices yet, with a retention rate this low, how can UMass Boston claim to be upholding the mission of public education? Students are not going to be made dynamic or innovative by pressuring them into conventional career paths. This cynical and pragmatic approach to education needs to be renovated.




About the Contributor
Bianca Oppedisano, Illustrator