Opinion: The hypocritical cost of a college education – Why public higher education should be universally free

LEONARD BOPP

The American Dream is built on the principles of equal opportunity and social mobility, the idea that if someone works hard, they should be able to define their own destiny. It’s a term that has shaped our national ethos of freedom and prosperity and our ideals of success and advancement; it’s the idea we’ve used to welcome immigrants, fight for equality, and exemplify socioeconomic advancement; this is the rhetoric we use when we try to define the idiomatic idea of American greatness.

But when it comes to obtaining a college education, the American Dream is failing too many American students. Equal access to higher education is an imperative key to overcoming socioeconomic disparities, as it can give people of diverse backgrounds the tools they need to have a fair shot at a bright future. But as students are faced with rapidly increasing tuition and the crippling burden of debt from student loans, the cost of a college education is becoming a barrier to what should be a pathway to opportunity.

Many of us were hit with this reality this year as when we applied to college. Even at public schools, government-sponsored and taxpayer-funded institutions that have lower costs than private colleges, the cost of attendance can be a burden on students and families. In New York, the average total cost of tuition, room, and board at a SUNY school is more than $23,000 per year – no small sum for a typical family.

Yes, need-based financial aid programs make noble and often substantial attempts to make a college education affordable for people of all economic backgrounds, and merit-based scholarships attempt to reward bright students with a well-deserved discount. However, such programs, while helpful, perpetuate the idea that a college education is a privilege to be awarded rather than an opportunity that anyone who will work hard should be able to access. I’d offer a more equitable solution: let public colleges and universities be free for everyone.

Thomas Jefferson, in his autobiography, wrote that “instead of an aristocracy of wealth, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent is essential to a well-ordered republic.” The way to realize this, he said, was to ensure that everyone, regardless of their social or economic class, has access to a quality education. Social mobility depends on equal opportunity, and it is undeniable that, on the whole, a college education is a critical opportunity for economic gain. Based on a 2013 analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute, Americans with a four-year degree make 98 percent more on average than those without a degree. Furthermore, the Pew Research Center found that young millennials with a college degree will make an average of $17,500 more than those with only a high school diploma. Following these trends, it would ultimately cost a person more not to go to college than it would to pay for their degree. The salary gap between those who went to college and those who didn’t illuminates why it is so important that everyone has access to a college education. Pursuing a college education is the most reliable route to financial security, and especially for students raised in lower-class families, it offers a pathway out of poverty.

Public universities were originally designed to meet the need for higher education at a more reasonable price than private colleges. But as tuition increases at public colleges, more and more students, particularly those from lower-class families, are barred from this opportunity. Even among those who do go to college, many are faced with the undue burden of massive debt. On average, college students graduate with an average of $30,000 in debt, and the total debt from student loans in this country has reached over 1 trillion dollars. In a nation that proclaims a conviction in social mobility, to impose a financial burden on those for whom education should be a path for economic advancement is a hypocritical action. This is not characteristic of a “land of opportunity;” this is indicative of an academic aristocracy that is out of line with American values, one in which a college education is seen more as a privilege given to the wealthy than as a resource available to everyone.

Here’s the thing: when our students succeed, our nation succeeds. Making a college education accessible to everyone would lead to a stronger economy, as those who earn higher wages would, in theory, be able to spend more. If people have access to education as a tool to economic prosperity, then more people would be lifted out of poverty, allowing them to contribute further to a stronger economy. Furthermore, if a college education could be free, students would not graduate with at much debt, which has become a tremendous drag on our economy.

And believe it or not, it seems that our country actually could afford it. As of 2012, according to Department of Education statistics and an analysis in The Atlantic, the total tuition of students at public colleges and universities was $62.6 billion. Currently, the government spends $69 million dollars in patchwork attempts to subsidize the cost of public colleges – programs like Pell Grants, tax breaks, and work study funding. Beyond that, the government spends another $107.4 billion dollars on federal students loans, which often serve students attending public schools. Therefore, it seems it would cost the government less to fully subsidize tuition at public colleges and universities than it currently spends on its various programs to try to make these colleges more affordable.

Critics will argue that a system of free higher education will only allow people to slack off in college, as there will be no economic incentive to do well. There is some merit to this argument: when people are paying for their education, they are probably more likely to take it seriously. However, there are other ways to encourage students to work hard in college. When President Obama proposed making community colleges free, his plan included the rule that students must maintain a minimum GPA of 2.5 in order to have their tuition waived. The minimum GPA approach could work very well, as it would give students an incentive to work hard in school without giving them unjust costs. Fundamentally, however, these ideas represent a wrongful mistrust in American students. I have faith that for most students, the pursuit of economic security and the pursuit of broader knowledge would be incentive enough to work hard and do well. We must not allow fear-driven “moocher” stereotypes to invalidate a system that would overwhelmingly benefit our students and our nation as a whole.

I’m not saying that students should always choose public schools over private schools, nor am I saying that private schools should become institutions only for the elite upper class. For students who feel that a private college offers them the best educational opportunity, the government should continue to offer the option of federal student loans to help tuitions be more affordable. Furthermore, private colleges should follow the practices, as many, but not all, already do, of need-blind admissions, which ensures that students are admitted or rejected based on academic strength and not their financial situation, and fully-funded financial aid, which aims to give each student as much as they need in financial aid to make that college affordable. Even if public colleges became free, private colleges must remain places of socioeconomic diversity, and must continue or initiate programs to do so.

I’m also not saying that everyone needs to go to college. Many respectable and lucrative careers do not require a college education, and students who wish to pursue such a path should be encouraged to do so – after all, our society depends on its people to fill all jobs, including those that do not require a college degree. Furthermore, some of the richest, most innovative people in the world did not go to college – this is a perfect time to remind you that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both college dropouts.

But what I am saying is that everyone should have the opportunity. Economically, a college education is a pathway to financial security that benefits students and, in turn, our country. Academically, a college education is a pathway to intellectual fulfillment and enlightenment, a way for everyone to reach their full intellectual capacity. And morally, a college education is an imperative path to overcome socioeconomic inequality, a critical tool to ensure equal opportunity for all. We must come to see a college education not as a privilege for a few, but as a worthy investment in our citizens, and making higher education free reflects this fundamental principle. Until we do, the American Dream of social mobility and equal opportunity will remain just that – a dream, an unreachable standard, a hypocritical myth.

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