This post concerns an issue which affects me personally, and which I likely will become even more invested in during the coming months. This issue is that of the costs surrounding the pursuit of a higher education in the United States of America. We know they are significantly high; what matters is why, and what we can do to change that. This week’s quote comes from Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont who has described himself as a democratic socialist, the only one in over six decades. I typically find more ground with him than most politicians in America these days.
The cost of an undergraduate education has been rising for decades, and has only been rising more sharply in the past few years. We can already see that the average cost of education at a public university is over 13,000 dollars each year, while the cost of attending a private college is more than double that price at over 32,000 dollars each year. This does not even factor in costs beyond tuition, room and board. Students often purchase fairly expensive meal plans at college, and must put in large sums of cash to get textbooks each semester. There are bountiful ways for a college or university to charge more money for a student to attend, and these costs will only be compounded further as time passes if we do nothing.
If certain conditions were met, these rising costs would not matter. If average GDP per capita and household wealth had been rising alongside average American salaries, these numbers would not matter nearly as much. If the ratio between financial aid and loans for education had not been increasing so rapidly or had been decreasing to a more stable level, these rising costs would mean even less. If these conditions were met, every average American family could afford to send their children to most every school without having to suffer enormous financial hardship, or put that hardship on the shoulders of their kids. However, none of these conditions have been met in recent years.
Unfortunately, the average American GDP per capita (PPP) is about 49,000 dollars, and this number swings on a pendulum quite immediately in differing regions. The median household income is about 50,000 dollars, an 8 percent drop since 2007. The American per capita personal income is about 40,000 dollars. This too varies by state, with Mississippi having the lowest median personal income of about 31,000 dollars. The average cost of living in the United States has only been rising in the past years, to about 27,000 dollars each year, and that cost cuts out the possible costs of marriage/divorce, college/student loans, credit debt, and retirement all together. If all the possible yearly costs are averaged properly and added together, the total comes to about 40,000 dollars. That’s quite a bit of cash for a man or woman who doesn’t own their home permanently, has never married or divorced and is not raising a family of any kind. This is especially frightening, to know that the cost of living and median personal income are at about the exact same cost. That means a person making 40,000 dollars a year cannot spend anything on luxuries if they fulfill the average costs of necessities. This situation is especially scary for those people making the minimum wage, set at 7 dollars and 25 cents per hour. At an average of 2080 hours of work for any American per year, these people make about 15,000 dollars each year. This is far less than the average cost of living, even when many of the pieces of that cost are cut away. These people will have to skimp on many essentials, like food, just to survive in America today, let alone afford college for themselves or their children. The worst thing among them all is the amount of financial aid being given to students on average: just 12,000 dollars. Not particularly frightening for public university students until you realize the majority of that is made up in the form of student or parent loans, whose costs will rise and compound exponentially each year. Just imagine how much worse that is for private university students and parents.
By now, I’ve established that the costs of college versus how much Americans can afford are far too high. In fact, it’s plain absurd how bad it can get; some university tuition costs alone are more than entire household incomes each year. How are students expected to be able to pay these amounts without wallowing in unmanageable debt? The answer, in many cases, is that they are not. The goal of most private universities is to pull a profit, so if a student can’t pay their debt for a long time the college will continually collect more and more money from them through interest, fees, and penalties. Meanwhile, fresh-out-of-college employment rates and average salaries are even lower than the national total averages, and this has persisted for years. All of this equates to students and parents suffering for years on end just to achieve an education through undergraduate school. This can become doubly worse for those pursuing graduate school, as the extra years pile on the costs even further.
Let me establish why this is wrong in the first place. It’s easy to suggest that colleges should feel free to charge however much money they want for students in order to turn a profit; this is the free-market, so they should be able to function the same way as a business, right? Nope, not even close. You see, this would only be true if education were a privilege and not a right, and if less-costly yet equally as academically honorable institutions existed across the nation. None of these cases are true. To address the latter, we all know the big name schools across the country: Rice, Caltech, Berkeley, New York, Boston, Chapel Hill, Chicago, the Ivy League, etc. Not only are all of these schools highly expensive for most students and significantly difficult to get into, but many are concentrated on the eastern or western portions of the United States. Meanwhile, there are a good lot of students in the Midwestern states that would have to travel halfway across the country to attend a highly competitive school, let alone afford the costs associated with such travel. Therefore no, there are not enough competitive and affordable universities across the nation for colleges to charge these enormous sums.
The former point, that education is a right, is one I must elaborate more uniquely on. Education is clearly not a privilege; if it was, elementary, middle, and high schools would all charge tuition. But they don’t; all primary education is publicly funded by taxpayer dollars. True, private options exist, though comparatively few students attend these schools for results that are not always better than the public option. However, it seems our country values education as a right only up until the age of majority, because at that point a good portion of education is cut off from public funding. Even public universities still charge fairly ludicrous sums for students’ tuition, room and board. This is, frankly, both obscene and absurd. Why should education not be a right? If education is a privilege, only those with money and connections can afford higher education. This forces the poor and middle class to either abandon hope of ever getting an education and a good job, or forces them into the army so they can hope to afford college at a later date. Either way, we end up with an inevitable plutocracy in which the rich completely control the nation’s wealth, politics, and educational institutions, a wildly unstable situation that hurts the majority.
Education is a right, up to and through tertiary education; why should people be forcibly restricted from pursuing their dreams by wealth? If education is a right, then it should therefore be publicly funded in absolutely all cases; this means that even private universities should be willing to give in to public funding, and public funding needs to be increased significantly. Let’s take a look at nations in the European Union, which value education as a right in full. Most students in these nations either pay tuition close to just 1,000 dollars, or none at all in several cases. Imagine that, paying nothing for college and still getting a fairly competitive academic value out of it. Students are paying whopping loads less for their education in Europe, and they still pump out a large deal of Nobel Prize winners. The E.U. is still holding onto a very high standard of living and median wages, and has a very highly educated population in most every member state. I’m sure you can see the disparity, and the comparatively easy solution to the crisis. Simply make college a public institution, charge more on taxes, and make the costs of higher education much lower much quicker for students from all economic groups. It pays off in the long run to not have our incoming work-seekers laden with debt immediately.
That concludes my piece this week, and I hope I’ve provided all the information necessary to bolster my argument. I am always open for response here in the comments section, or on my email at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, I can be contacted through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Steam, and DeviantArt. I have also recently opened myself a Tumblr account by the name of KnoFear through which I can be contacted; I will likely be posting links to my work there as well. Good night, and this is KnoFear, signing off.