Education is the key to producing a successful society because without an educated and skillful workforce, a nation cannot progress. However imperative higher education may be, it is becoming increasingly difficult for students to afford. So why is education an unworthy investment for our Government? This is one of the many multifaceted and debated questions of our country today, as young people across the nation campaign for their right to learn.
As a high school student, the looming stress of college is perpetually on my mind. I am blessed to attend a school that provides world-class college counseling and endless support at my disposal, unlike many teenagers my age. I am also privileged to have a college fund that makes it possible for me to apply to many schools, knowing I have the support of my family. However, as a member of a single parent, middle-class household, the high cost of any tuition would be impossible to afford without taking student loans. As statistics have shown, more and more people are making it a priority to attend college, yet many say that the weight of their student debt is heavier than their degree advances them, as they may have been better off not attending university at all (Baum). That is problematic. Students are the future of our country. Without an educated or motivated working class, our economy, productions, and innovations will falter. I firmly believe that investing in the education of young people is one of the most crucial uses of our time, and requires extensive investments from our public funds.
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Throughout American history, college tuition has slowly become increasingly more expensive. Beginning with Harvard University, the first colonial college 1636, the college was free because educating priests were seen as a valuable service to society. The more mainstream education became, however, the higher the price, though tuition costs did not begin to skyrocket until the 20th century (Lee).
Following WWII, the United States found themselves with millions of veterans in need of support, and thus in 1944, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act was put in place, most commonly known as the G.I. Bill (Olson). This Act most notably provided veterans with free college tuition, among many other benefits. The government’s noble act to create free college tuition for over 2 million veterans was not initially placed to honor the brave soldiers. It was created to prevent an economic collapse or a revolution (Olson). When announcing the bill in 1944, National Commander Warren H. Atherton said, “The [veterans] can make our country or break it. They can restore our democracy or scrap it,” exemplifying the fear our government had of these military trained citizens at the time (Olson). Additionally, the country was trying to prevent another depression and needed to ensure a strong workforce for the future (Olson). Thus, sensibly, the government invested millions of federal dollars in the education of its population for its own benefit, because a college-educated generation makes for economic success. The question lingers, however, why this adjustment to our economic system was an isolated event, and why does the government
The 1950s and the 1960s are when we began to see a drastic rise in tuition costs. More and more young adults were going to college, and acceptance and access began to increase. Due to this, affordability became a growing issue for middle-class families because they could not qualify for scholarships, yet they could not afford tuition costs without family hardship. A 1968 New York Times article wrote, “Each school year heralds and inexorable [tuition] rise of 3 to 5 percent”. With this public concern of outrageous tuition costs, The Tuition Plan, a federal loan organization, had a large increase in student loans in 1965, providing 50,000 loans by 1968. This was followed by the Higher Education Act of 1965, created to help middle-class families afford college. Through this act, undergraduate students were able to borrow $1,000 (roughly $7,000 today) per year (Brenton).
During this time, there was also talk about free higher education. This did not make much headway, but the “Educational Opportunity Bank” was proposed by President Johnson for free tuition. Essentially, his plan was to fund every college students’ tuition solely through loans, and have the recipients pay these loans back in a 40 year period through an additional income tax. This, of course, was angrily rejected by many, as it would bond adults to debt for a majority of their life. Though ironically, this is the situation we find ourselves in today (Brenton).
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Where are we Now?
First, a look at college statistics will give us a view of students’ current economic situation: In the last 18 years, the number of undergraduates has increased by 30% (Marx). Further, America’s student loan debt reached 1.4 trillion dollars as of 2018, and 37% of adults ages 18-19 have student debt (Marx). This, in part, is due to the 19% rise in tuition in public colleges and 42% rise of private college tuition in the last 10 years (Larkin). So why do we have this sudden increase? One reason is the 2008 recession, as budget cuts took funding money out of state schools, forcing a rise in tuition costs (Ripley). Additionally, President Barack Obama passed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, and the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act in 2010 which consolidated all federal student loans, making the process simpler and more uniform (Flanagan). What results now, is a generation of students with 30 years of debt, detrimental to the economy because if graduates are needing to pay off loans instead of buying a car or a house, the value will decrease and the market could crash (Larkin). Equally as concerning, 1 in 5 students are in loan default and do not have the means to get out of debt (Sattelmeyer).
A Flawed System
So what is America doing wrong? The 2018 Education at a Glance report stated that the United States spends almost double the amount of money on college than any other country, and yet, students still have to pay outrageous tuitions. Compared to one-third of developed countries who have free college tuition, and another one-third who have tuition below $2,400 per year, America is draining its federal funds wastefully. One difference between American colleges and many European schools is the amount of money dedicated to student welfare, such as housing and meals. The college culture has been formed into a summer camp-like experience, with inclusive benefits that are not a necessity. The biggest spending area, however, is staff. As opposed to paying for a product, where the value will decrease as time goes on, students are paying for an education taught by professors who need an increasing salary as the world progresses. This, of course, is dependent on the economy, and many professions like lawyers, professors, and dentists have increased their rate for services similar to colleges since 1995. An yet, other countries deal with a growing economy as well and still manage to pay for students’ tuition (Ripley).
The recession of 2008 brought even more economic hardship. Federal funds were significantly cut from the state college budgets, forcing them to cope with the decreased flow of money. Instead of becoming more efficient, however, state colleges simply sought out wealthier applicants to make up for the loss. Additionally, they enrolled a significantly higher number of international students, who pay triple the tuition than that of an in-state applicant. This, of course, decreases access to education for deserving students, simply for the purpose of making more money. Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD says, “Universities extract money from students because they can. It’s the inevitable outcome of an unregulated fee structure” (Ripley). Alluding to our country’s federal institutions being run like businesses, Schleicher is pointing out the unfortunate downfall of not having a charging cap placed on college tuitions (Ripley).
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Finding Solutions to Debt
The first problem we must tackle is our student loan crisis. America is passively allowing $1.4 trillion in debt to continue to increase every day, putting the country at risk of a future catastrophe. To aid this problem, The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College proposes a radical solution of canceling all student loan debt. This is believed to lead to a $86 billion to $108 billion dollar annual GDP increase, and unemployment rates should improve.
On a smaller scale, however, the government can adapt student loan regulations to create a more forgiving system. Unlike most federal loans, federal student loans are not excused when the recipient declares bankruptcy (Baum). Essentially, students will carry this debt around for the entirety of their lives if they cannot pay it back, furthering the government’s illusions of receiving all of their money back. Excusing loans after bankruptcy is the first small step to eventually excusing all student debt if necessary.
While student loan debt a pressing issue, it is only a short-term problem and requires a short-term solution if America is unable to reform our current higher education system that is clearly broken. In an ideal future, all higher education would be free; though with our current political climate, and America’s deep rooted ties to capitalism, free college is a far reach. Bernie Sanders’ College for All Act aims to “eliminate undergraduate tuition at 4-year public colleges and universities” by allocating $47 billion per year to state college funds for the sole purpose of eliminating tuition. The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College plan paired with Sanders’ Act would not only solve our current economic crisis of trillions of dollars of debt, it would also create a better system moving forward: one that would increase everyone’s access to higher education, while simultaneously making it more affordable.
What you can Do
So how can you get involved? The solutions above can only be passed by government officials, many of whom are influenced by funding and big businesses, but that does not mean you don’t have a voice. One simple contribution you can make is to support the 2020 Presidential candidates who aim to cut down college tuition costs, like Bernie Sanders and his College for All Act. By contributing your vote, you are also contributing your voice and your desires into the decisions of our country.
Not only can you make an educated vote in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, you can also educate yourself on student loans. Major tuition reform is not instantly attainable, and for students applying for college today, we need an immediate fix. The most beneficial and reasonable solution to student loan debt is to make an educated decision on the loans you take out and create a plan of repayment. This means being more comfortable with expensive loans if you plan on entering STEM fields, or becoming a doctor. Or this can means you chose the less expensive school over the ivy league. The name or the price tag of a college will not define your experience, and it will certainly not define your success in life.
While an unsatisfying conclusion, individual solutions to this astronomical problem of unaffordable college is to simply navigate intelligently through the land mines. Large scale change will happen, but in the meantime, it is our jobs as individuals to survive the system in order to defy the unjust.
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