An old friend from my URB Magazine days and beyond unintentionally crystallized this editorial in my head. He shared an article online about 500 students enrolled at University of California, Irvine having their admission rescinded. We’ll just use UC Irvine as a quicker shorthand going forward. Apparently UC Irvine took in more first year fall term applicants than they were going to have room for when it came to student housing, class sizes, and so on. Their genius solution was to target any student who made the slightest misstep in their application including not getting their high school transcript in by the July 1st deadline. In some cases the school trumped up blatantly false excuses and blamed the students just to kick them off enrollment. Many of the affected had flawless academic records and had specifically selected UC Irvine as their “dream school/first choice” and had already filed for student loans and financial aid to enable them to go to college.

This is obviously a horrible situation for all of the young men and women hurt by UC Irvine’s blatant mismanagement of the situation, both in enrolling more students than they thought they could handle and in the solution they chose. If they didn’t have enough housing they could have leased some temporary housing, or encouraged students to live off campus in nearby apartments, or even offered to let them enroll in online courses until the housing crisis was averted. If the issue was not having enough professors and TAs to educate all of the students, use the money from increased enrollment to hire more. If the class sizes were too big, split the class and offer additional sessions, or hold them in an amphitheater or ballroom big enough to accommodate more people. All of these things were routinely done when I was in college in the 1990’s except for online classes — the concept was so new they didn’t even know what to call it. One professor I knew specialized in “long distance learning” but even then the theories about how it would be applied varied wildly, and nobody was offering entire college degrees over the internet. That would change very quickly.

Anyway if you’re asking yourself why UC Irvine wouldn’t try any of these remedies and would instead resort to the extreme measure of rescinding admission for students who had already enrolled for the fall term, the answer to me is actually quite obvious but some like my aforementioned friend would suggest it throws shade on “higher learning” in general. If that’s the case maybe it’s about time we gave Richard Swift a call because this is something I’ve thought about for a long time and have never been given a better chance to articulate. For those of you on the cusp of going to college or preparing for the fall semester yourself I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news – COLLEGE IS A BUSINESS. Universities and colleges will gussy up what they do as “a life changing experience” and a “chance to discover who you are” but hidden beneath the flowery prose and ivy covered walls is the naked truth that you are spending tens of thousands of dollars to purchase a product and that product is a college degree. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a “for profit” or a “not for profit” in any way. It doesn’t even matter if you got a scholarship — that just means somebody other than you is paying for it. The school still sucks up cash like a Hoover vacuum. In turn it uses the money they rake in to pay the salaries of every person in the institution from the dean down to the janitor. Every credit hour you pay for quite literally keeps the lights on for everyone involved. Rescinding admissions keeps the profit margins higher. It’s that simple.

The academics I know would argue that this view is far too cynical. I won’t pretend it’s not at least a little bit cynical to say colleges care more about profit margins than the education of their students. On the other hand any system that is built around the premise that you have to go into debt for 10-20 years or more just for “the experience” of higher education may need more scrutiny than it currently gets. I wouldn’t argue that I had a world of new experiences by going to college. Some of them were wonderful, some were terrible, and at least a few were positively terrifying. They all shaped who I am today and I’m glad for having had those experiences. Is it possible to get that kind of life experience without taking on a massive debt load? Of course. The trick is that college is sold on the premise you take on debt today in exchange for a better paying job tomorrow thanks to the prestige of your degree. That notion has always been a little suspect and I think the changing national and global economy has made it moreso. Some people with fantastic degrees from prestigious elite schools end up slinging fries or working in bookstores. Some people who never even finished high school end up billionaires. A college degree guarantees you almost nothing other than the fact you or a well endowed scholarship spent a whole lot of money to get a piece of paper you can frame and hang on the wall.

The point of this editorial isn’t to discourage you from going to college if you’re thinking about your future. For me I wish someone had told me when I was 18 that I was about to have more debt than I could have ever imagined and what the true implications of that debt were. Signing your name on a bunch of forms doesn’t really nail that point home, and when you’re young and optimistic about your future, that kind of message may not ever sink in anyway. Instead I’d tell you to treat college exactly like what it is — a business that wants to take as much of your money as it can for as long as it can. Just like any other business transaction you should weigh the pros and the cons of your purchase. Is what you’re getting worth what you’re paying for it? Are the people taking your money pleasant or unpleasant to deal with? Are there more affordable options worth considering? I came from a generation that believed everyone should go to college so that we could do better than our parents did and use what we learned to make the world a better place. I still think those are goals worth pursuing and encourage anyone so inclined to go to college. If you get jerked around the way UC Irvine did these 500 kids though remember that no college or university DESERVES your money. It’s your lifetime of debt to deal with – not theirs – so shop around and spend your money wisely.