Is Higher Education Just One Big Grift???

It seems like all college students — no matter their background, institution, or postgraduate goals — know one thing to be true: College is a scam.

The phrase is one that everyone’s heard at least a dozen times by the end of their first semester. We say it when we buy textbooks, when we take a class we don’t like, during finals season, and certainly when we look at our five-figure tuition bills.

It just rolls off the tongue, as if to even be on a college campus is to have an intrinsic understanding that higher education is just a four-year shakedown. But don’t take my word for it:

You could say that we’re all just cynical, but I would argue that we have good reason to be. Frankly, people don’t trust institutions of higher education. The public thinks they’re sketchy, and in some cases downright corrupt.

Opinions may differ depending on your political affiliation, but at the end of the day, only half of American adults think colleges and universities have a positive effect on the nation, according to a Pew Research Center survey from 2019.

And college means something very different for my generation than it did for those before us. It used to be possible to work your way to the middle class with just a high school education. Now a college degree, once a prestigious but not entirely necessary path to a professional job, is pretty much the only way to achieve that.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce looked at the three main pathways to get a “good job” (meaning you make at least $35,000 a year): workers with a high school education, an associate’s degree or certification, and those with bachelor’s or more. Turns out people with a bachelor’s account for more than half of good jobs in the U.S.

We can all admit $35,000 is not nearly enough money, right?

To get a good job (again, that’s just $35,000 a year!!) your best bet is to go to college, and given the rising cost of higher education in this country, that likely means you’ll have to take on debt.

There are 44 million of us out there trying to pay off more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. My own small piece of that pie is more money than I’ve ever seen in my life, and when I think about how I’ll likely spend the next decade of my life paying off four years of education I can’t help but come back to that familiar refrain.

Still, for first-generation students, the situation isn’t so clear cut. As disadvantaged as we may feel in and by academia, college is often our only way of fulfilling the “American dream.”

When I spoke to my mom earlier this month about what my going to college means to her, she spoke about higher education as a means to an end. That end being building a career that’ll allow me to avoid the struggles she faces as a working-class immigrant.

Even the first-generation students whose parents didn’t immigrate here feel the pressure of the American dream weighing on them. Their parents may have come up in a time where a degree wasn’t a prerequisite to a good life. But now that it is, going to college is the only way to cling to the precarious place in the middle class that their parents struggled to get.

It’s hard to say the whole process is a racket when there’s so much to be gained by going through it.

I don’t mean to paint a picture of millions of undergrads filled with regret and disdain as they move through their college careers. I can’t speak for us all, but I know that I certainly don’t regret my decision to go to college.

There are experiences that would’ve never been available to me had I not come to Northeastern for school, and on a practical level I understand that having a college degree will afford me professional opportunities when others may get the benefit of the doubt. In a tweet thread last week, journalist Stacy-Marie Ishmael, talked about different relationship people from underprivileged backgrounds have to credentials like higher education.

I knew that lesson when I was applying to college and it’s in the back of my mind even when I feel like I’m being fleeced out of tens of thousands of dollars. So is college a scam? Ask me after I’ve gotten my degree.

Good reads:

  • “I Was Charged $6,000 to Be an Intern,” by Kristin Hugo for Vice
  • Column: “By suspending protesting students, what lessons are Syracuse University leaders teaching?,” by Andre Perry for The Hechinger Report
  • “U.S.C. Offers Free Tuition to Students Whose Families Make $80,000 or Less,” by Anemona Hartocollis for The New York Times
  • “In College and Homeless,” by Kyle Spencer for The New York Times

And here’s a little something that made me laugh:

Thanks for reading,


If you are, or know of, a first-generation college student who’d like to be featured in future editions of this newsletter, email me at

A journalist and first-generation college student originally from Yonkers, N.Y., Zipporah is in her last year at Northeastern University. She has reported for The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education,...