College Hunt Turned Back-Alley Bid

Ronnie Steinitz/Guardian

HIGHER EDUCATION — Another unusual market has emerged on Craigslist (only this one doesn’t involve Nixon-era furniture or locks of Angelina Jolie’s hair).

Credit vouchers for university classes, or certificates that can be applied for discounted tuition, are being seedily auctioned off to the highest bidder. While these underhanded online exchanges might seem harmless, they should remind universities of the shadiness of distributing flashy certificates in the first place.

Although the University of California does not currently offer them, a number of private Midwestern and East-Coast schools — Harvard included — offer certificates ranging from several hundred to a few thousand dollars. Some vouchers, though, leave a blank space for the recipient’s name — so once these gift cards leave colleges’ hands, they have no say in what happens to them, thereby paving the way for online exploitation. At schools like St. John’s University, St. Joseph’s University and Mount St. Mary College in New York, this is often the case.

The auctions do have some sweet deals: a 1.5-credit course at St. John’s is currently listed for $950 and a three-credit course at St. Joseph’s for $1000 on Craigslist. Depending on the program, that’s about $800 off the regular price. A Craigslist advertisement for a three-credit voucher at the New York Institute of Technology reads, “Can be used as undergraduate OR graduate credits!!! Must sell fast!!!” With that kind of deal on the line, it’s no wonder voucher-hunting is on the rise.

Vouchers are sometimes gifted as a ‘Thank you’ to schoolteachers who allow university students majoring in education to sit in on their lessons, or as “store credit” when students drop classes.

Otterbein College also doles out the vouchers to high-school seniors it hopes to enroll. But of the 40 students who received Otterbein vouchers last spring, only one has actually redeemed it — which is probably because Otterbein’s non-transferable vouchers are Craigslist-proof.

At the very least, tuition vouchers should avoid the black-market game. Clearly, no admissions office wants to see its good name whispered in the seedier depths of online auction sites.

But the mere existence of university vouchers presents a problem. Sure, in a tougher economic climate, expensive private universities have to create more attractive eye-catchers for prospective students — but handing out gift certificates that might deceive prospective students into choosing a school that doesn’t best fit their needs or one they can’t ultimately afford isn’t the answer.

There are countless other ways for universities to offer financial assistance to both those in need and those it hopes to attract. Need-based financial aid and merit scholarships serve the same general purpose as vouchers — and avoid the degrading car-salesman aesthetic of an official school-sanctioned goody bag.

Awarding a tuition voucher to a prospective student without clarifying the myriad hidden costs of attendance convolutes an already complicated financial aid process.

It’s certainly a good business plan to tempt students with free credit; it’s the same idea as getting store credit from a returned Christmas gift at Macy’s. In offering vouchers, participating universities aim to make return shoppers of these recipients.

But the business tactics of department stores don’t behoove higher education. The aim of financial aid is not to deceive as many student shoppers into plunking down as possible; it’s to increase accessibility. Credit vouchers — whether obtained rightfully or through a caps-locked Craigslist ad — don’t increase this access, just create the illusion of it. Additional reporting by Trevor Cox.

Readers can contact Arik Burakovsky at [email protected].

More to Discover
Donate to The UCSD Guardian
$200
$500
Contributed
Our Goal

Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

Donate to The UCSD Guardian
$200
$500
Contributed
Our Goal