Welcome to college, cash or credit?

Remember how the first day of school used to be?

Seeing friends you hadn’t played with during the summer. Hoping your teacher didn’t turn out to be a total monster. Meeting new people.

With new experiences came new and progressively more complicated stuff: new clothes and shoes, pencil boxes, calculators, erasers of various shapes. The latest lunch box, sporting whatever cartoon character was in at the time.

Like Christmas sales, back-to-school sales seem to start earlier every year. One day it’s the Fourth of July, and the next day supermarket aisles burgeon with backpacks, notebooks, Trapperkeepers, bike locks and pencils as parents careen through it all with shopping-cartloads of squirming, squealing youngsters.

But the consumer feeding-frenzy parents brave for their elementary and high-school-aged students is nothing compared to the financial gauntlet college students and their parents face at the start of each new school year.

This year, America’s university-level students will spend $34.4 billion on back-to-school items, according to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation. That’s $21 billion more than is spent for elementary and high school students.

UAA is no exception. As part of this year’s Campus Kickoff, Aug. 27, UAA students were invited to a Fred Meyer after-hours sale. From midnight to 1:30 a.m. DJ’s, raffles, free samples and discounts enticed hundreds of students to drop their dollars there.

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The survey lists books, electronics, clothing, shoes and furniture as the major purchases for college students.

The largest expenditure, expected to rack in an estimated $13.4 billion this year, are textbooks.

A ridiculous amount of money is being made off people who can ill afford to pay.

The Campus Bookstore claims its markup on textbooks is one of the lowest in the nation, arguing students at UAA pay less on average for textbooks than students in the Lower 48.

As any professor who’s authored a text will tell you, authors don’t make squat. The enormous expense of textbooks is the work of publication companies, who create new editions every 3 to 4 years, thereby slaughtering a book’s sellback value. Bastards.

We know it’s possible to mass-produce books because of Stephen King. If Signet can print a gazillion copies of every single one of his 6 zillion books and sell them worldwide for $6.95 in paperback, while paying him enormous sums for producing them, then textbooks can be manufactured for a lot cheaper.

But most of the bulk of purchases students will make this year are not required for any class: junk food, skis, spring break extravaganzas, manicures, recreational drugs and car decals. Dorms are pimped with accessories like black lights, blow-up furniture and aquariums filled with exotic fish.

Another $8.2 billion will be spent on electronics. This is a seemingly logical expense. What could be more important than a graphing calculator? Many other electronics purchases are completely superfluous considering the many computers and printers available on campus and the substantial technology fees each student pays every semester.

Electronics also includes XBoxes and PlayStations, PDA’s, televisions and cable, cell phone accessories and iPods. The list goes on and on.

$2 billion is expected to be spent on shoes and $5.7 billion will be spent on new clothing. Freshmen are expected to spend the largest amounts, dropping almost $1,200 each. Sophomores, on average, spend about $1,000. As the grade level increases, expenditures decrease. Not surprising, since most students stop living off their parents at some point.

Here’s a word of advice to all the first-year students fresh out of high school: college isn’t the popularity contest high school was. Nobody thinks your hot/popular/sick because you own a cell phone, so turn it off during class. Nobody cares if you’re wearing Abercrombie and Fitch. Anyone who thinks otherwise should know: you’re entering a world of ideas, not of stuff, so rearrange your priorities.

Like Christmas, the back-to-school season is about more than the stuff you get. It comes without presents. It comes without tags. It comes without packages, boxes or bags. The true spirit of back to school is found in what we discover about the universe we inhabit.

Latin dance and bioluminescent algae, Chef Vern’s chocolate and radio that doesn’t suck, revolutions and romance await us this year at UAA. No inflatable furniture necessary.