The Cost of Opportunity: Student Debt and Social Mobility

63 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2016 Last revised: 20 Jun 2016

See all articles by Daniela I. Kraiem

Daniela I. Kraiem

American University Washington College of Law, Women and the Law Program

Date Written: 2015


The language of the market permeates thinking about higher education: College is an investment in your own human capital. College is a commodity. A necessity. Students are consumers who must shop around.

The “education is a commodity” metaphor is not a benign turn of phrase. Using a commodity metaphor to has led us to regulate education as though it were a real commodity with a single purpose: generating return on investment for the individual student in the form of higher wages. The rise of this simplistic framework has led us to finance and regulate it in ways that have created the astronomical rise in student debt. Economic reductionism naturalizes a shift from public investment to private pay, with loans as the primary mechanism. Since the students are the primary “investors” in the “commodity” of higher education, they became the “consumer” in free market terms: a savvy individual who bears both the risks and rewards of his or her own investment.

This article explores how this “education is a commodity” metaphor operates in law to increase debt, reduce social mobility and degrade higher education itself. To make clear the direct connection between market rhetoric, law, and the negative consequences of default and debt burden, I present three examples. The first explores how the myth of “consumer choice” results in a weak “buyer beware” approach to regulation of quality, and allows for punitive debt collection measures that destroy social mobility. The second explores how the commodity metaphor opened the door for the Department of Justice to impose antitrust rules in the higher education sector, which increased rather than decreased costs by setting off a “merit scholarship” arms race. The final example looks at how a frame focused on individual return on investment justifies state disinvestment in low-cost public institutions. Cuts in public capacity force students into low-quality, high-cost schools, where they face a much greater risk of both default and unmanageable debt burden. Cuts also undermine the many ways in which colleges and universities serve the public, both at the national and community levels.

Unmanageable student loan debt and default threaten widespread social mobility, feed inequality, and jeopardize the economic recovery. By undermining widespread public support for institutions of higher education, the commodity frame weakens the larger institution of higher education itself. The article concludes with a call to reframe higher education so that legal and educational policy structures shore up widespread social mobility, revalue the production and preservation of knowledge, and strengthen communities.

Keywords: cost of higher education, student debt

Suggested Citation

Kraiem, Daniela I., The Cost of Opportunity: Student Debt and Social Mobility (2015). 48 Suffolk University Law Review 689 (2015), American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2016-14, Available at SSRN:

Daniela I. Kraiem (Contact Author)

American University Washington College of Law, Women and the Law Program ( email )

4300 Nebraska Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States

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