Why Is College in America So Expensive?

Université et argent
Before the automobile, before the Statue of Liberty, before the vast majority of contemporary colleges existed, the rising cost of higher education was shocking the American conscience: “Gentlemen have to pay for their sons in one year more than they spent themselves in the whole four years of their course,” The New York Times lamented in 1875.

Decadence was to blame, the writer argued: fancy student apartments, expensive meals, and “the mania for athletic sports.”

Today, the U.S. spends more on college than almost any other country, according to the 2018 Education at a Glance report released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

All told, including the contributions of individual families and the government (in the form of student loans, grants, and other assistance), Americans spend about $30,000 per student a year — nearly twice as much as the average developed country. “The U.S. is in a class of its own,” says Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the OECD, and he does not mean this as a compliment. “Spending per student is exorbitant, and it has virtually no relationship to the value that students could possibly get in exchange.”

Only one country spends more per student, and that country is Luxembourg — where tuition is nevertheless free for students, thanks to government outlays. In fact, a third of developed countries offer college free of charge to their citizens. (And another third keep tuition very cheap — less than $2,400 a year.) The farther away you get from the United States, the more baffling it looks.

This back-to-school season, The Atlantic is investigating a classic American mystery: Why does college cost so much? And is it worth it?

At first, like the 19th-century writer of yore, I wanted to blame the curdled indulgences of campus life: fancy dormitories, climbing walls, lazy rivers, dining halls with open-fire-pit grills. And most of all — college sports. Certainly sports deserved blame.

On first glance, the new international data provide some support for this narrative. The U.S. ranks No. 1 in the world for spending on student-welfare services such as housing, meals, health care, and transportation, a category of spending that the OECD lumps together under “ancillary services.” All in all, American taxpayers and families spend about $3,370 on these services per student — more than three times the average for the developed world.

NewImageOne reason for this difference is that American college students are far more likely to live away from home. And living away from home is expensive, with or without a lazy river. Experts say that campuses in Canada and Europe tend to have fewer dormitories and dining halls than campuses in the U.S. “The bundle of services that an American university provides and what a French university provides are very different,” says David Feldman, an economist focused on education at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Reasonable people can argue about whether American universities should have these kind of services, but the fact that we do does not mark American universities as inherently inefficient. It marks them as different.”

But on closer inspection, the data suggest a bigger problem than fancy room and board. Even if we were to zero out all these ancillary services tomorrow, the U.S. would still spend more per college student than any other country (except, again, Luxembourg). It turns out that the vast majority of American college spending goes to routine educational operations — like paying staff and faculty — not to dining halls. These costs add up to about $23,000 per student a year — more than twice what Finland, Sweden, or Germany spends on core services. “Lazy rivers are decadent and unnecessary, but they are not in and of themselves the main culprit,” says Kevin Carey, the author of The End of College and the director of the education-policy program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank.

The business of providing an education is so expensive because college is different from other things that people buy, argue Feldman and his colleague Robert Archibald in their 2011 book, Why Does College Cost So Much? College is a service, for one thing, not a product, which means it doesn’t get cheaper along with changes in manufacturing technology (economists call this affliction “cost disease”). And college is a service delivered mostly by workers with college degrees — whose salaries have risen more dramatically than those of low-skilled service workers over the past several decades.

College is not the only service to have gotten wildly more expensive in recent decades, Feldman and Archibald point out. Since 1950, the real prices of the services of doctors, dentists, and lawyers have risen at similar rates as the price of higher education, according to Feldman and Archibald’s book. “The villain, as much as there is one, is economic growth itself,” they write.

This all makes sense, if we just focus on the U.S. But what about the rest of the world? These broader economic trends exist there, too. So why does college still cost half as much, on average, in other countries?

One oddity of America’s higher-education system is that it is actually three different systems masquerading as one: There is one system of public colleges; another of private, nonprofit institutions; and one made up of for-profit colleges.

The biggest system by far is the public one, which includes two-year community colleges and four-year institutions. Three out of every four American college students attend a school in this public system, which is funded through state and local subsidies, along with students’ tuition dollars and some federal aid.

In this public system, the high cost of college has as much to do with politics as economics. Many state legislatures have been spending less and less per student on higher education for the past three decades. Bewitched by the ideology of small government (and forced by law to balance their budgets during a period of mounting health-care costs), states have been leaving once-world-class public universities begging for money. The cuts were particularly stark after the 2008 recession, and they set off a cascading series of consequences, some of which were never intended.

The easiest way for universities to make up for the cuts was to shift some of the cost to students — and to find richer students. “Once that sustainable public funding was taken out from under these schools, they started acting more like businesses,” says Maggie Thompson, the executive director of Generation Progress, a nonprofit education-advocacy group. State cutbacks did not necessarily make colleges more efficient, which was the hope; they made colleges more entrepreneurial.

Some universities began to enroll more full-paying foreign and out-of-state students to make up the difference. Over the past decade, for example, Purdue University has reduced its in-state student population by 4,300 while adding 5,300 out-of-state and foreign students, who pay triple the tuition. “They moved away from working to educate people in their region to competing for the most elite and wealthy students — in a way that was unprecedented,” Thompson says.

This competition eventually crept beyond climbing walls and dining halls into major, long-term operating expenses. For example, U.S. colleges spend, relative to other countries, a startling amount of money on their nonteaching staff, according to the OECD data. Some of these people are librarians or career or mental-health counselors who directly benefit students, but many others do tangential jobs that may have more to do with attracting students than with learning. Many U.S. colleges employ armies of fund-raisers, athletic staff, lawyers, admissions and financial-aid officers, diversity-and-inclusion managers, building-operations and maintenance staff, security personnel, transportation workers, and food-service workers.

The international data is not detailed enough to reveal exactly which jobs are diverting the most money, but we can say that U.S. colleges spend more on nonteaching staff than on teachers, which is upside down compared with every other country that provided data to the OECD (with the exception of Luxembourg, naturally).

In addition, most global rankings of universities heavily weight the amount of research published by faculty — a metric that has no relationship to whether students are learning. But in a heated race for students, these rankings get the attention of college administrators, who push faculty to focus on research and pay star professors accordingly.

Likewise, the new data show that U.S. colleges currently have a slightly lower ratio of students to teachers than the average for the developed world — another metric favored in college rankings. But that is a very expensive way to compete. And among education researchers, there is no clear consensus about whether smaller classes are worth the money.

In the beginning, university administrators may have started competing for full-freight paying students in order to help subsidize other, less affluent students. But once other colleges got into the racket, it became a spending arms race. More and more universities had to participate, including private colleges unaffected by state cuts, just to keep their application numbers up. “There is such a thing as wasteful competition,” Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University professor and the author of Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity, wrote me in an email.

All that said, it’s also true that state budget cuts were uneven across the country. Today, in-state tuition in Wyoming is about a third of the cost of Vermont, for example. In places where higher education has not been gutted and the cost of living is low, an American college degree can still be a bargain — especially for students who don’t mind living at home and are poor enough to qualify for federal aid. Taking into account living expenses, says Alex Usher of the consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, a student at a public university in Mississippi will likely end up with similar out-of-pocket costs as a student in Sweden.

Usher, who is based in Toronto, is one of the few researchers to have looked carefully at the costs of higher education globally. And much of what he finds is surprising. In 2010, he and his colleague Jon Medow created a clever ranking of 15 countries’ higher-education systems — using a variety of ways to assess affordability and access. Reading the report is like peeling an onion. The first layer focuses on the most obvious question: the affordability of college based on the cost of tuition, books, and living expenses divided by the median income in a given country. By this metric, the U.S. does very poorly, ranking third from the bottom. Only Mexico and Japan do worse.

But the U.S. moves up one place when grants and tax credits are included. “Your grants are actually really generous compared to everybody else,” Usher says. Tuition is higher in the U.S., so the grants don’t fully cover the price, but 70 percent of full-time students do receive some kind of grant aid, according to the College Board. From this perspective, sometimes called “net cost,” Australia is more expensive than the U.S.

Next, looking only at our public colleges, the U.S. rises higher still, ranking in the middle of the pack in Usher’s analysis, above Canada and New Zealand. This data is from 2010, and things may look less rosy if he were to redo the study now, Usher cautions. But still, he sounds weirdly hopeful. “The public system in the U.S. is working as well as most systems,” he says. “Parts of the U.S. look like France.”

The problem, of course, is that other parts of the U.S. look more like a Louis Vuitton store. America basically contains 50 different higher-education systems, one per state, each with public, private, and for-profit institutions, making generalizations all but impossible. The U.S. does relatively well on measures of access to college, but the price varies wildly depending on the place and the person. Somehow, students have to find their way through this thicket of competition and choose wisely, or suffer the consequences.

The more I studied America’s baffling higher-education system, the more it reminded me of health care. In both spaces, Americans pay twice as much as people in other developed countries—and get very uneven results. The U.S. spends nearly $10,000 a person on health care each year (25 percent more than Switzerland, the next biggest spender), according to the OECD’s 2017 Health at a Glance report, but our life expectancy is now almost two years below the average for the developed world.

“I used to joke that I could just take all my papers and statistical programs and globally replace hospitals with schools, doctors with teachers and patients with students,” says Dartmouth College’s Douglas Staiger, one of the few U.S. economists who studies both education and health care.

Both systems are more market driven than in just about any other country, which makes them more innovative — but also less coherent and more exploitive. Hospitals and colleges charge different prices to different people, rendering both systems bewilderingly complex, Staiger notes. It is very hard for regular people to make informed decisions about either, and yet few decisions could be more important.

In both cases, the most vulnerable people tend to make less-than-ideal decisions. For example, among high-achieving, low-income students (who have grades and test scores that put them in the top 4 percent of U.S. students and would be eligible for generous financial aid at elite colleges), the vast majority apply to no selective colleges at all, according to research by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery. “Ironically, these students are often paying more to go to a nonselective four-year college or even a community college than they would pay to go to the most selective, most resource-rich institutions in the United States,” as Hoxby told NPR.

Meanwhile, when it comes to health care, low-income Americans tend to be less familiar with the concepts of deductibles, coinsurance rates, and provider networks, according to a variety of studies, which makes it extremely difficult to choose a health-care plan. “These are both sectors where consumers are too poorly informed and societal costs and benefits too great to leave decision-making entirely in the hands of individuals,” as Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution has written.

Ultimately, college is expensive in the U.S. for the same reason MRIs are expensive: There is no central mechanism to control price increases. “Universities extract money from students because they can,” says Schleicher at the OECD. “It’s the inevitable outcome of an unregulated fee structure.” In places like the United Kingdom, the government limits how much universities can extract by capping tuition. The same is true when it comes to health care in most developed countries, where a centralized government authority contains the prices.

The U.S. federal government has historically been unwilling to perform this role. So Americans pay more for pharmaceuticals — and for college classes. Meanwhile, more and more of the risk gets shifted from government onto families, in both sectors.

At the very least, the American government could do a better job sharing information about the quality of colleges in ways everyone can understand, Schleicher says. “You can’t force people to buy good things or bad things, but they should be able to see what the value is.”

Spending a lot of money can be worth it, if you get something awesome in exchange. “America has the best colleges and universities in the world!” President Donald Trump exclaimed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year. Former President Barack Obama said the same thing before him.

But is it actually true? No meaningful data exist on the quality of universities globally. America does have a disproportionate number of elite colleges, which accept fewer than 10 percent of applicants, and these places do employ some brilliant scholars who do groundbreaking research. But fewer than 1 percent of American students attend highly selective colleges like those.

Instead, more than three-quarters of students attend nonselective colleges, which admit at least half of their applicants. No one knows for sure how good these colleges are at their core job of educating students. But in one of the only careful, recent studies on adult skills, the OECD’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Americans under age 35 with a bachelor’s degree performed below their similarly educated peers in 14 other countries on the test of practical math skills. In other words, they did only slightly better than high-school graduates in Finland. America’s college grads did better in reading, performing below just six other countries, but dropped off again in another test, scoring below 13 other countries in their ability to solve problems using digital technology.

If American colleges are not adding obvious and consistent academic value, they are adding financial value. Americans with college degrees earn 75 percent more than those who only completed high school. Over a lifetime, people with bachelor’s degrees earn more than half a million dollars more than people with no college degree in the U.S. In fact, no other country rewards a college degree as richly as the United States, and few other countries punish people so relentlessly for not having one. It’s a diabolical cycle: Colleges are very expensive to run, partly because of the high salaries earned by their skilled workers. But those higher salaries make college degrees extremely valuable, which means Americans will pay a lot to get them. And so colleges can charge more. As Carey, the End of College author, summarizes: “Students are over a barrel.”

Still, the return varies wildly depending on the college one attends. One in four college grads earns no more than the average high-school graduate. Associate’s degrees from for-profit universities lead to smaller salary bumps than associate’s degrees from community colleges, which are cheaper. And two-thirds of students at for-profits drop out before earning their degree anyway, meaning many will spend years struggling with debt they cannot afford to pay off — and cannot, under U.S. law, off-load through bankruptcy.

This convoluted, complicated, inconsistent system continues to exist, and continues to be so expensive because college in America is still worth the price. At certain colleges, for certain people. Especially if they finish. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and almost everywhere else, it isn’t.

First published, September 11, 2018

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Notre congrès à Marseille des 22 et 23 novembre 2019 : le compte rendu

Quelques remerciements tout d’abord :

  • au journal La Marseillaise qui nous a accueillis dans ses locaux,
  • à Jean-Pierre Brundu responsable de l’Université populaire de Marseille-Métropole et Boris Humbert pour la belle plaquette qu’il a réalisée,
  • à l’équipe de rédaction de l’Internationale des Savoirs pour Tous (IDST) et de son blog, Patricia Pol, Pierre Bitoun et Philippe Quandalle,
  • aux nombreux membres qui, faute de moyens financiers ou de disponibilité à la date fixée, nous ont envoyé des messages d’encouragement et, pour certains, des contributions écrites,
  • et, enfin, à tous les participants qui, de France ou d’ailleurs, sont venus à Marseille ou se sont connectés en visioconférence pour les débats de ces deux jours. Ainsi, bien sûr, qu’à Alexandre qui a refait devant nous sa conférence gesticulée, « Paye ta science », que tous les présents ont vivement appréciée.

First of all, a few words of thanks:

  • to the newspaper La Marseillaise who welcomed us in its building,
  • to Jean-Pierre Brundu in charge of the Université Populaire de Marseille-Métropole (UPOP) and Boris Humbert for the beautiful brochure he produced,
  • to the editorial team of the International of Knowledge for All (IKA) and its blog, Patricia Pol, Pierre Bitoun and Philippe Quandalle,
  • to the many members who, due to lack of financial means or unavailability on the set date, sent us messages of encouragement and, for some, written contributions,
  • and, finally, to all the participants who, from France or elsewhere, came to Marseille or connected by videoconference for the debates of these two days. And, of course, to Alexandre, who gave his gesticulated lecture, "Pay for your science", which was greatly appreciated by all present.

En primer lugar, unas palabras de agradecimiento:

  • al periódico La Marsellesa que nos acogió en sus instalaciones,
  • a Jean-Pierre Brundu, responsable de la Universidad popular de Marsella-Métropole (UPOP) y a Boris Humbert por el hermoso folleto que ha realizado,
  • al equipo editorial de la Internacional del Saber para Todos (IDST) y su blog, Patricia Pol, Pierre Bitoun y Philippe Quandalle,
  • a los numerosos miembros que, por falta de medios económicos o por no estar disponibles en la fecha fijada, nos enviaron mensajes de aliento y, para algunos, contribuciones escritas,
  • y, por último, a todos los participantes que, desde Francia o desde otros lugares, vinieron a Marsella o se conectaron por videoconferencia para los debates de estos dos días. Y, por supuesto, a Alejandro, que dio su conferencia gesticulada, "Paga tu ciencia", que fue muy apreciada por todos los presentes.

Intitulé « Vers une société du partage des savoirs, de tous, par tous et pour tous », le congrès s’est déroulé autour de trois principaux moments : qu’est-ce que la future société du partage des savoirs, de tous, par tous et pour tous ?, où en est-on, aujourd’hui, de cette société à venir ?, comment avancer, demain, vers cette société du partage des savoirs ?

On trouvera en lien les propos introductifs de Pierre et Patricia pour les deux premiers temps, un texte de Christian Laval sur le passage de « l’université néolibérale à l’université comme commun », le manifeste pour une université démocratique lancé par des universitaires canadiens, une contribution de nos amis du Sénégal, intitulée « Expériences alternatives : limites, bienfaits, pièges, espoirs », et l'intervention de Christophe Pébarthe, de l’université française de Bordeaux. Vous pourrez aussi écouter quelques morceaux choisis parmi les enregistrements des débats qui ont pu être faits au cours de ces deux journées.

Grâce à ces éléments et à la diversité des participants (agriculteurs, cadres, personnels de santé, étudiants, enseignants, universitaires, chercheurs du privé et du public, retraités ou en activité…), les débats ont été, de l’avis de tous, de très bonne qualité. Ils ont permis de mettre l’accent sur le nécessaire dépassement de la société capitaliste et productiviste, la montée d’une intelligence collective et les indispensables initiatives à construire, dans les murs comme en dehors des murs de l’université ou des institutions de recherche, et tant à un niveau local, national qu’international.

Au cours de ce congrès, un certain nombre de décisions ont été prises :

  • résoudre le manque de moyens financiers de l’IDST (création d’une association loi 1901 en France, mise en place d’un système de cotisations, recours éventuel au financement participatif pour certains événements, etc.).
  • lancer un projet de formation qui contribue à la décolonisation néolibérale des esprits et des institutions. José Manuel, de l’Université de Valence en Espagne, se charge de préciser ce projet alternatif aux masters de la prétendue excellence néolibérale et de nous transmettre sa proposition.
  • en réponse à la future et énième conférence ministérielle du processus de Bologne, organiser du 23 au 25 juin 2020 une nouvelle rencontre de l’IDST à Rome. Valeria Pinto, de l'université Federico II de Naples, qui a permis l’entrée dans notre réseau du mouvement Potere al Popolo, a bien voulu prendre en charge la préparation de cet événement et nous tient au courant.

Enfin, rappelons qu’à l’issue du congrès, nous avons naturellement appelé les membres de l’IDST, aujourd’hui présents dans 35 pays, à rejoindre les combats qui se développent un peu partout dans le monde contre les réformes néolibérales et les désordres engendrés par un capitalisme illimité, qui marchandise nos vies et met en péril l’avenir de la planète. Combats dont nous rendons régulièrement compte dans le billet « météo des luttes » de notre blog et bien d’autres articles. N’hésitez donc pas à continuer de nous envoyer vos contributions…

La Rédaction du blog

Entitled "Towards a society of the sharing of knowledge from all, by all and for all", the congress was organized around three main topics: what is the future knowledge-sharing society from all, by all and for all; where are we today in this future society; and how can we move tomorrow towards this society of the sharing of knowledge?

You will find in the link the introductory remarks of Pierre and Patricia for the first two topics, a text by Christian Laval on “the transition from the neo-liberal university to the university as common”, the manifesto for a democratic university launched by Canadian academics, a contribution by our friends from Senegal, entitled "Alternative Experiences: Limits, Benefits, Pitfalls, Hopes", and the communication of Christophe Pébarthe, from the French University of Bordeaux. You will also be able to listen to some of the recordings of the debates that were made during these two days.

Thanks to these elements and to the diversity of the participants (farmers, executives, health staff, students, teachers, academics, researchers from the private and public sectors, retired or active...), the debates were, according to every one’s opinion, of very good quality. They highlighted the need to move beyond capitalist and productivist society, the rise of a collective intelligence and the indispensable initiatives to be built, both within and outside the walls of universities and research institutions, and at local, national and international levels.

During this congress, a number of decisions were taken:

  • to resolve the lack of financial means of IKA (creation of a 1901 law association in France, setting up a system of membership fees, possible fund-raising through participatory financing for certain events, etc.).
  • launch a training project that contributes to the neo-liberal decolonization of minds and institutions. José Manuel, from the University of Valencia in Spain, is in charge of specifying this alternative project to the Masters of so-called neo-liberal excellence and to transmit his proposal to us.
  • to organise a new IKA meeting in Rome from 23 to 25 June 2020, in response to the future and umpteenth ministerial conference of the Bologna process. Valeria Pinto, from the University Federico II of Naples, who has allowed the Potere al Popolo movement to join our network, has kindly agreed to take charge of the preparation of this event and keeps us informed.

Finally, let us recall that at the end of the congress, we naturally called on IKA members, now present in 35 countries, to join the struggles that are developing all over the world against neo-liberal reforms and the disorders caused by unlimited capitalism, which commodifies our lives and endangers the future of the planet. We regularly report on these struggles in our blog's "barometer of struggles" post and many other articles. So do not hesitate to continue to send us your contributions...

Blog editorial team

Bajo el título "Hacia una sociedad del conocimiento de todos, por todos y para todos", el congreso se organizó en torno a tres temas principales: cuál es la futura sociedad del conocimiento de todos, por todos y para todos; dónde estamos hoy en esta sociedad futura; y cómo podemos avanzar hacia esta sociedad del conocimiento del futuro.

Encontrarán en el enlace las observaciones introductorias de Pierre y Patricia sobre los dos primeros temas, un texto de Christian Laval sobre « la transición de la universidad neoliberal hacia la universidad como común », el manifiesto por una universidad democrática lanzado por los universitarios canadienses, una contribución de nuestros amigos de Senegal, titulada "Experiencias alternativas: límites, beneficios, escollos, esperanzas", y las palabras de Christophe Pébarthe, de la Universidad francesa de Burdeos. También podrán escuchar algunas de las grabaciones de los debates que se realizaron durante estos dos días.

Gracias a estos elementos y a la diversidad de los participantes (agricultores, ejecutivos, personal sanitario, estudiantes, profesores, académicos, investigadores del sector privado y público, jubilados o activos...), los debates fueron, según todos los presentes, de muy buena calidad. Destacaron la necesidad de superar la sociedad capitalista y productivista, el surgimiento de una inteligencia colectiva y las iniciativas indispensables que hay que construir, tanto dentro como fuera de los muros de las universidades e instituciones de investigación, y a nivel local, nacional e internacional.

Durante este congreso se tomaron varias decisiones:

  • para resolver la falta de medios financieros de la IDST (creación de una asociación de derecho de 1901 en Francia, establecimiento de un sistema de cuotas de miembros, posible recurso a la financiación participativa para determinados eventos, etc.).
  • lanzar un proyecto de formación que contribuya a la descolonización neoliberal de las mentes e instituciones. José Manuel, de la Universidad de Valencia en España, es el encargado de concretar este proyecto alternativo a los “master” de la llamada excelencia neoliberal y de transmitirnos su propuesta.
  • En respuesta a la futura y enésima conferencia ministerial del proceso de Bolonia, organizar una nueva reunión de la IDST en Roma del 23 al 25 de junio de 2020. Valeria Pinto, de la Universidad Federico II de Nápoles, que ha permitido al movimiento Potere al Popolo unirse a nuestra red, ha aceptado amablemente encargarse de la preparación de este evento y nos mantiene informados.

Por último, recordemos que al final del congreso, llamamos naturalmente a los miembros de la IDST, presentes hoy en 35 países, a unirse a las luchas que se desarrollan en todo el mundo contra las reformas neoliberales y los desórdenes causados por el capitalismo ilimitado, que mercantiliza nuestras vidas y pone en peligro el futuro del planeta. Informamos regularmente sobre estas luchas en la entrada "barómetro de las luchas" de nuestro blog y en muchos otros artículos. Así que no duden en seguir enviándonos sus contribuciones...

La redacción del blog

Patricia Pol
Christophe Pébarthe
Valeria Pinto
Sabine Rubin
Hendrik Davi
José Manuel
Pierre Bitoun
Valeria Pinto & José Manuel

Universidad de la Tierra : autonomía, saberes y rebeldías



Universidad de la Tierra : autonomía, saberes y rebeldías

La idea generalizada que tenemos de la Universidad es la de un lugar en el que estudiar durante un tiempo y acabar consiguiendo un título que certifica el supuesto aprendizaje obtenido. La continua mercantilización de la enseñanza promovida por el sistema capitalista también nos lleva a pensar en la Universidad como un lugar excesivamente caro, al que solo algunos tienen la posibilidad de ingresar y en el que, finalmente, recibes un título que ya no te sirve para trabajar (y que, a veces, tampoco refleja los conocimientos adquiridos). Si pensamos en alguna facultad concreta acabamos pensando en un edificio grande, de hormigón gris, quizás adornado con un césped y formado por las últimas tecnologías (en lo que sea). A veces también pensamos en facultades que se caen a pedazos y aulas masificadas. Esto es exactamente lo que no quería el Doctor Raymundo Sánchez Barraza. El Centro Indígena de Capacitación Integral – Universidad de la Tierra (CIDECI-UniTierra) se plantea como todo lo contrario a esa concepción capitalista del aprendizaje que tan asumida tenemos. Por eso es imposible acercarse al proyecto (hoy realidad tangible) sin que se derrumben los esquemas aprehendidos. No se concibe entender el Sistema Indígena Intercultural de Aprendizaje sin la destrucción de lo establecido. Este proyecto comienza a andar en 1983, sin embargo, no es hasta 1989 que se define como autónomo. En ese año es auspiciado por el obispo de San Cristóbal de las Casas, Samuel Ruiz, conocido por su labor indigenista y de apoyo a los pueblos originarios del Estado de Chiapas. Y por ser obispo de la ciudad durante más de 40 años (hasta que el poder consiguió alejarlo de allí para que dejara de provocar fallas en el sistema). Coordinado en todo momento por Raymundo Sánchez Barraza, quién también regala su vida a la causa indigenista. En 1994 los ideales zapatistas se entroncan con los del CIDECI y no se entiende su filosofía sin ellos. Según su coordinador (quien suelta una carcajada al momento de dirigirnos a él como Rector) la denominación de Universidad es un acto de rebeldía, una respuesta a las burlas del sistema al referirse a ellos y al no considerar la capacitación que allí se recibe como un aprendizaje real. Y es que UniTierra ni es oficial ni busca el reconocimiento oficial, sino el de los pueblos y las comunidades indígenas. Indudablemente, ese ya lo tiene. Entonces “¿por qué no podemos tener el prestigio de las universidades?”, se pregunta Raymundo Sánchez.

Estructura y organización

Niños y niñas venidos de comunidades indígenas, a partir de los 12 años y con independencia de que sepan leer o escribir o de que conozcan el idioma castellano. Este es el perfil de los y las alumnas que ingresan al centro. No hay un número fijo de estudiantes en cada momento, ya que si lo normal es que se tomen cursos de (más o menos) 9 meses, jóvenes van y vienen según su disponibilidad. Pueden tomar 15 días de curso, un mes o varios años. Dependiendo de la distancia entre su comunidad y el centro, quienes allí estudian estarán internos o externos. Esto es, quienes vienen de comunidades más lejanas serán internos y harán uso de los albergues con los que cuenta el centro mientras que quienes residan en comunidades circundantes estarán externos, yendo y viniendo a sus cursos a diario. Así como el número de alumnos es variable en cada momento, lo que si se mantiene es la proporción de hombres y mujeres. Sobresalen los chicos sobre las chicas. En número, claro. También son constantes los y las estudiantes que desconocen el castellano al llegar a sus cursos. Las lenguas que predominan son el tzotsil, el tzeltal y el ch’ol; aunque son muchas más las que se cruzan en los talleres del CIDECI. Los profesores conocen esas lenguas, aunque no siempre hablan a los y las alumnas en su lengua materna, “porque si no nunca aprendemos” como dice uno de los chicos que allí desarrolla su actividad.

Los saberes que se imparten van desde cursos de tortillería y panadería (con los que se abastece el comedor en el que colaboran los y las estudiantes) hasta cursos de herrería, electricidad, carpintería y alfarería. Es gracias a la aplicación de estos aprendizajes que el centro es lo que es hoy en día, ya que ha sido totalmente construido por quienes allí estudian. Igual que la mantención del mismo. Un ejemplo, las cortinas se hacen en el taller de telares, y luego se cosen y preparan para su uso en el taller de corte y confección y luego, en el caso de que queramos que las cortinas lleven algún motivo dibujado este se hará en el taller de pintura. Así cualquier cosa que veamos en el vasto terreno del CIDECI habrá sido construida gracias a los saberes que allí se han transmitido. Todo esto sin dejar a un lado la música, mecanografía o computación, donde además se practica el arte de arreglar con las manos todos los instrumentos necesarios para estas actividades. Junto con estos saberes hay unas cuantas áreas de estudios como son: Derecho Autónomo, Arquitectura Vernácula, Agroecología, Hidrotopografía, Administración de Iniciativas y Proyectos comunitarios, Interculturalidad o Análisis de los Sistemas – Mundo. Al terminar su estancia en la UniTierra, los y las alumnas reciben apoyo en un proyecto para aplicar sus conocimientos en la comunidad de la que provienen. Así se les surte de conocimientos, asistencia y las herramientas necesarias para echar a andar sus ideas en sus comunidades. Unas ideas que luego repercutirán en sus compañeros más cercanos facilitándole o mejorándole sus vidas en comunidad ¿Cómo no considerarla Universidad, cuando quizás sea la más digna de todas?

Instalaciones y autonomía

La autonomía se respira en el aire de la Universidad de la Tierra. En el taller de zapatería se hacen los zapatos para los y las alumnas, el huerto ofrece las verduras que se cocinarán en el comedor, pero también las que sirven de alimento a los animales de la granja (conejos, borregos, ocas, cerdos, gallinas y pavos). Trabajar en el mantenimiento de estas instalaciones es la reciprocidad que ofrecen quienes allí estudian a cambio de la gratuidad lugar. Y a su vez, todo lo producido sirve para abastecer a las personas que allí residen. ¿Y la luz y el agua? Evidentemente, no vienen por parte del gobierno o de alguna institución oficial ya que lo único que se ha recibido por parte de estos ha sido un cruel hostigamiento. La CFE (Comisión Federal de Electricidad) ha merodeado por la zona de manera amenazante en busca de pagos. Eso se supera gracias a la instalación de generadores de electricidad. El agua que abastece a todos y que corre por el sistema de riego que hay instalado proviene de un profundo pozo cavado en sus terrenos. Autonomía total.

NewImageCada jueves los y las estudiantes se reúnen aquí para tratar temas de actualidad, movimientos sociales o problemas que se planteen en sus comunidades.

Lejos de tener carencias, la Universidad de la Tierra se muestra como un paraíso. Las instalaciones y su integración en la naturaleza distan mucho de lo que podemos pensar de esta universidad sin zapatos, como se autodenomina. Además de las decenas de talleres (entendidos como lugar físico), del comedor y de las construcciones que guardan los generadores; son varias las salas para seminarios y aulas que se prestan a otros movimientos sociales. Una colorida capilla se presta a la realización del culto y un enorme auditorio se abre a grandes celebraciones y tiene siempre las puertas abiertas al EZLN, quien celebró en dicho auditorio la Clausura del Primer Festival de las Resistencias y las Rebeldías Contra el Capitalismo este pasado mes de enero.

Filosofía e inspiración

Además de inspirarse en el EZLN y el obispo Samuel Ruiz, este centro por y para indígenas se asienta sobre los principios de Imanuel Wallerstein y de Iván Illich. Del primero agarran su análisis sobre el capitalismo basado en conceptos como Sistema – Mundo. Es de Iván Illich de quien beben sus concepciones acerca de la enseñanza, el aprendizaje y la desescolarización. Se olvidan del tipo de enseñanza impuesto por el capitalismo al que hacíamos referencia al comienzo de este texto y priman el aprendizaje en relación con las personas. Cómo diría Illich en La sociedad desescolarizada:

  • Los profesores de habilidades se hacen escasos por la creencia en el valor de los títulos. La certificación es una manera de manipular el mercado y es concebible sólo para una mente escolarizada. La mayoría de los profesores de artes y oficios son menos diestros, tiene menor inventiva y son menos comunicativos que los mejores artesanos y maestros.
  • La instrucción libre y rutinaria es una blasfemia subversiva para el educador ortodoxo. Ella desliga la adquisición de destrezas de la educación ‘humana’, que la escuela empaca conjuntamente, y fomenta así el aprendizaje sin título o permiso no menos que la enseñanza sin título para fines imprevisibles.

Dos citas muy prácticas para entender la filosofía del CIDECI que se basa en tres principios inquebrantables: “aprender haciendo”, “aprender a aprender” y “aprender a ser más”. Estos principios ejercen de guía principal a la vez que sirven de bola de demolición contra lo ya impuesto en materia de educación por el sistema actual. Una red entretejida por y para los indígenas de la mano del “Doc” Raymundo. “Seguir haciendo, seguir formando sin perder de vista las directrices del EZLN y de los pueblos originarios”. Porque la Universidad de la Tierra es por y para ellos.

Publicado en el blog
5 de marzo de 2015.

Para más información sobre los seminarios organizados por la Universidad de la
Tierra consulta las transmisiónes en vivo en el sitio: