Tuition in America—a Fable for Egyptian Education?

Question: What if students at an Egyptian university decided to occupy the university president’s office in protest over his decision to raise the tuition and change the university into a private higher education institution affordable only to the rich, claiming that he sought to improve the quality of education?

Choose an answer:

1. The police would attack, arrest the students, and send them to military court.

2. Resolutions would be immediately issued to expel those students, and all their supporters, and ban them from entering any Egyptian university.

3. “Honorable” students and their families of “honorable” citizens would be called upon to free the office of the president and deal with “those saboteurs threatening the future of their sons and daughters, who have no objection to raising the tuition fees.”

4. All of the above.

Before you choose an answer, let me ask you another question: what if a group of students in a U.S. university took over the president’s office in objection to his policies and demanded his resignation?

Theoretically speaking, the police could interfere, because according to U.S. law occupying a university president’s office is illegal. However, this was not the case when Cooper Union University students in New York City occupied the office of its president for two months and asked him to resign. Mediators from the university administration sought to prevent police interference, placing the safety of the students above all. “They have a tremendous amount of passion for Cooper,” the president Jamshed Barucha, told The New York Times, “so this reflects a very understandable expression of their passion and frustration.”

The administrators saw that the suppression of students by the police force would be a shameful act, especially since those students were neither objecting to their grades nor seeking undeserved privileges, but were trying to defend the identity of the university, which has programs in art, architecture, engineering, humanities and the social sciences and was founded by a businessman, Peter Cooper, in 1859. Aiming to offer free, quality education to talented, underprivileged young people, Cooper created a real estate endowment including the land on which the famous Chrysler Building stands in the heart of New York.

Since its establishment until 2012, the university offered free tuition to admitted students, although they still had to pay some fees and live in an expensive city. But believing that free higher education was no longer feasible in the 21st century, President  Bharucha wanted to introduce tuition. He decided to expand and develop the university campus, for which he took out big bank loans, evoking controversy. The students failed to oust him, but the students reached an agreement with the university board of trustees that ended the occupation. Under this agreement, students’ representatives would be given a new task to explore options that might lead Cooper Union back to its original tuition-free policy. (Beginning in September 2014, a $39,600 annual tuition was set but all students get a scholarship for about half of that and needier students getting more aid.)

The story of the protest at Cooper Union was told in the U.S. documentary, “Ivory Tower“, directed by Andrew Rossi. “Ivory Tower” is a comprehensive study of the high cost and perceived benefit from higher education in the United States. The documentary sees higher-education students as being more like slaves who try to free themselves from slavery by repaying big loans taken by their families to pay for their education.

Studies reveal that at least half of the graduates fail to find suitable jobs, so they settle for low-income positions that have nothing to do with their studies. But other young people, who do not get any university education, and who trusted their creativity, became entrepreneurs and then millionaires. Ever heard of Bill Gates? The documentary raises an important question: “Is higher education worth its cost?” Can youth do without it? Can they try other alternatives?

The documentary depicts leading universities as a burden, because such universities, at the top of which is Harvard University, launched a race under the name “Ivy League.” This race aims to improve the quality of university education to better equip graduates with job market skills, and introduce advanced technology education, such as the famous “CS50” course of Harvard University, a popular introductory computer science course for students from all academic backgrounds.

However, such programs drove tuition to increase exponentially in the United States by 1200 percent since 1978, as universities sought to raise money by any possible means. Some universities revamped student residences to be more like luxury resorts than dormitories without any consideration to the social impact of raising tuition on students’ families, who have to take loans to be able to enroll their children in good universities. Some families’ debts would reach $350,000 plus interest. Students’ failure to find jobs after graduation only makes matters worse for their families, when they find that they cannot repay their loans, and their future is ultimately ruined.

At the same time, the film compares this situation to the deteriorating condition of state-subsidized public schools and universities. Lacking resources, these universities eventually turn into free recreational centers, where students just drink and party, as seen in some American movies.

While highlighting the major flaws of the U.S. university tuition system, which smashes the hopes of the underprivileged, the documentary sheds lights on some unique institutions that seek to create high quality education for students who are unable to pay expensive tuition.  The documentary shows Deep Springs College,  an alternative two-year all-male liberal arts college on a ranch in the California desert. There, students are completely isolated from their families. This plays a central role in the educational experience. Deep Springs’ agricultural setting, and activities create the conditions for a practical education that complements the academic one. Students learn handicrafts, farming, car repair, and livestock herding. Self-governance is a critical part of the Deep Springs educational program: Students hold decision-making authority in admissions, curriculum, and faculty hiring.

The documentary also presents the case of Spelman College, a four-year liberal arts women’s college located in Atlanta, Georgia. The college was founded to educate black women, and help them improve their families’ condition by providing them with better job opportunities. A more ground-breaking experience is the UnCollege social movement adopted by Thiel Foundation in San Francisco. Thiel Foundation was founded by Peter Thiel, co-founder and leader of PayPal. The foundation selects 20 to 25 fellows each year and gives them $100,000 to forgo college for two years and focus on their passions, which could involve scientific research, creating a startup, or working on a social movement. This fellowship saves students the unaffordable expenses of higher education and the risks of paying escalating loan interest.

When you watch this inspiring documentary, while fully aware that the U.S. universities are top ranking worldwide, you cannot help feeling frustrated about the mismanagement of Egyptian spending priorities. Billions are spent on developing repressive actions and military adventures, rather than spending on developing higher education and linking it to job market needs, or providing the poor with equal education  instead of transforming higher education into businesses only for the wealthy. You feel even more frustrated when you see how people, who criticize the catastrophic governmental performance and policies, are being severely attacked and accused of spreading negativity, seeing the glass half empty and weakening the morale, and attempting to destroy the nation.  Whereas a more developed society realizes that honest criticism of its conditions is not luxury or entertainment; it is a matter of life or death.  It is the only way a society can be freed from its fetal illusions of superiority and strive towards continuous reform and development.

Belal Fadl is an Egyptian screenwriter and columnist This article was translated from Arabic.
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