Notes from the desk: The façade of higher education is crumbling

By Lily Laesch 

Sabrina Templeton

The illustrious institution of American higher education is a machine that runs on pressure, prestige and promise. But what if these promises — of prosperity, stability and satisfaction — are distressingly false? Colleges, whether subliminally or explicitly, are revered as equalizers that bring students from a myriad of walks of life to a level playing field. 

As feminist scholar bell hooks wrote in Teaching to Transgress, “we are all encouraged to cross the threshold of the classroom believing we are entering a democratic space — a free zone where the desire to study and learn makes us all equal. And even if we enter accepting the reality of class differences, most of us still believe knowledge will be meted out in fair and equal proportions.” 

Bell hooks outlines a widely held belief that has remained remarkably unyielding. Students fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars knowing damn well they may be up to their knees in debt for the rest of their life. For many, the allure appears worth it — but have these fair and equal proportions ever existed?

“We foster the inquiry, equity, and agency necessary for them to practice ethical citizenship at home and far beyond our Vermont campus,” reads our current mission statement, adopted in 2017. Whether this statement is intentionally crafted for glossy admissions catalogs or not, it’s imperative to note that Middlebury, in their educational doctrine, promises equity. They promise, as bell hooks describes, to beckon us into an egalitarian “free zone.” But there are gaping holes in this promise, holes that are perhaps camouflaged by guarantees of need-blind financial aid — as countless invisible, inevitable price tags emerge during our years here. 

At Middlebury, there is an unspoken pressure to frequent the Snow Bowl and to eat out a few nights a month in town. Whatever puffy winter coat is on trend in a particular year costs a couple hundred dollars. You’re expected to afford weekly trips to BevCo to replenish your drink stash, in addition to the conventional costs of textbooks and parking fees. And if you don’t check all of these boxes (and more), you’re “missing out” on the authentic college experience. These pressures are already heightened within a normal semester, and our current circumstances only serve to exacerbate them. 

This week, when news broke that J-Term will be conducted remotely and the spring semester will be pushed back, students immediately began planning for those three unanticipated and vacant months. And while it’s unsurprising that the discourse surrounding these plans seem to disproportionately focus on renting Airbnbs or houses in Middlebury with friends, this reality remains increasingly unsettling in terms of access and financial feasibility. I’m not going to fault anyone for trying to salvage the cherished Midd moments that Covid-19 unexpectedly deprived them of, but it’s imperative that we acknowledge how these independently replicated college experiences are widely unattainable. While many shrugged their shoulders in response to last week’s email, gleefully realizing the extended opportunity to hit the slopes and slug PBR away from the watchful eye of PubSafe, others panicked as they reckoned with the affordability of these winter months, or even the potential reality of not having a home to return to. 

Over the last 6 months, many have justifiably questioned whether or not the entirety of the college experience in itself is fraudulent. In mid-March, when college campuses across the nation rapidly emptied, students and their families nationwide were forced to reckon with their monumental financial sacrifices — questioning the value of the education they empty their pockets for. This academic year, Middlebury increased tuition by 3.73%, tipping the overall tuition expenditure over the $74k mark. However, only 12% of fall courses are being taught fully in-person. Is Middlebury asserting that contrived online discussion board posts and awkward breakout room silences are equivalent to the authentic classroom experience? Are we paying for a stimulating and fulfilling education — learning because we truly want to — or are we paying for a piece of paper that ascribes a nebulous, flimsy promise of lifelong financial comfort? 

If we reframe our perspective to think of Middlebury College as a business, then it becomes evident that they expect a return on their investment: hefty alumni donations 50 years down the line, maybe a couple big names that can be touted to prospective students, implying: we made them what they are…we could make you like that too. This begs the question: what is Middlebury actually selling to us? Sleek gray stone buildings and cushy dorm rooms plucked straight out of a Pinterest algorithm? An “exotic” semester abroad sandwiched in between lucrative internships? Or are we solely paying for the promise of profit, as Americans with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 84% more in their lifetimes than they would with just a high school diploma? It is becoming increasingly unclear if we are more accurately positioned as hedge fund clients than students, and if our education has become another marketable product instead of an invaluable, unparalleled pedagogical experience. 

But what about our investment — does the promise of economic prosperity post-Middlebury actually carry weight? If so, how is this weight distributed? Although a Bachelor’s degree, on average, is worth $2.8 million over a lifetime, Black and Latinx graduates earn nearly a million dollars less over the same span as compared to their white and Asian counterparts. 

Therefore we must ask who exactly our distinguished education benefits. Despite the recent, critical underscoring of higher education inequities, this is a precedent that is woven into the very fabric and founding of the American university. Students are now wondering, and no longer hypothetically, what the purpose of their education is. And despite the ubiquitous nature of these unrelenting and panicked questions, the unease among students is far from comparable across class backgrounds. So much is unknown — will our investment actually pay off in a world that becomes more erratically uncertain each day? But one thing we do know now is that we can no longer naively laud Middlebury as a great equalizer — Covid or not. 

Lily Laesch ’23 is an Opinion Editor for The Middlebury Campus