If you’ve studied social psychology, economics, sociology, or law, you’ve probably heard of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The story goes like this: A long time ago, towns used to have a “common”—a shared field or piece of land—where people let their cattle graze. In order for there to be enough grass for all the cattle, people had to take turns letting their cows graze on the common. The tragedy occurred when some people decided to secretly bring their cows in at night to let them eat extra grass. When only a few “cheaters” did it, they might have gotten away with it, but when enough people did it, the grass died, and the resource dried up for everyone.
I was talking to a former athlete this morning about how it’s more common for people to take a gap year in between high school and college than it used to be. He said that people used to do it in sports to take a year to lift weights and get bigger and stronger to be more competitive in college football. He said, back then, they called them “cheaters” and taunted them. But today, this kind of behavior is completely normal and accepted.
Have you noticed that, today, it’s normal and accepted to use every loophole, advantage, tutor, coach, and even cross the line to exaggerate the truth or have others do the work for you to get ahead of the competition to get into college, to get a job, to get elected, or simply to get anything you want? It’s so normal, in fact, that we don’t even flinch anymore when we see it. We just sigh and lament how things are today. And, if we have the resources, we tend to jump on board. I hear over and over again, “I’m afraid if we don’t do it, we’ll be left behind.”
Today’s tragedy is coming about in a different way than the commons of yesteryear. We are cheating the system and destroying it in the process. Our individualism is spoiling the commons—our common resources, our communities, and our unitedness—and it’s spreading around the world. Look at the environment for an obvious example. It’s okay for a few people to pollute, but when many people do it, the atmosphere gets destroyed and global warming impacts us all.
This whole conversation started when the former athlete said that he overheard one affluent mother in a coffee shop telling another that her kid just got back from a college tour in Sweden. The other affluent mother responded by saying hers had just returned from a college tour in Norway. Now, you may have heard that studying abroad can be less expensive than attending college in the States, but, for the most part, that is not true. Even if tuition is cheaper, the travel and living expenses can be quite high. In any case, undergraduates from the most affluent families are up to five times more likely to go abroad as part of their degree than less privileged students, a new study says.
Why is this important? Because so many people are trying to cheat the college system in our country that it’s become a less desirable resource. The cost to get into college is so much higher than it used to be—both financially and because of the toll it takes on the children spending every waking hour boosting their resumes and test scores to get in. What’s more, college students are increasingly anxious, tuition costs are skyrocketing, and, because so many people have college degrees now, the degree means less.
It’s even more tragic because the people who could benefit the most from a college degree—poor and middle-class Americans—get the least benefit because they incur so much debt. But no worries for the rich, because as the American college system dries up, the rich increasingly use their resources to send their kids abroad to get educated. And so it goes.