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


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.


The hypocrisy of “progress:” the state of racism in America


On Sunday, March 7, 1965, nearly six hundred marchers assembled on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to protest the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young, unarmed black man who was an activist for African-American voting rights. In the tragedy that became known as “Bloody Sunday,” the nonviolent demonstrators were sprayed with tear gas and beaten with billy clubs by Alabama State Troopers as they fought to march across the bridge. The events of “Bloody Sunday” sparked national outrage, with protesters pouring into Selma from around the country for further demonstrations; they also prompted political action, ultimately leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The tragedy was one of the most important events of the civil rights movement; the heroic acts by the protesters on Bloody Sunday are a vital part of the long story of civil rights in America.

But the story of civil rights in America is not over. Last month, thousands of people gathered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedies in Selma. Led by President Barack Obama and Congressman John Lewis, who was beaten on the bridge on Bloody Sunday, the demonstrators walked across the bridge, symbolically completing the march from fifty years ago. But despite the air of hope and optimism, the event was cast against a backdrop of desperation. Two years ago, a Supreme Court decision dismantled a key aspect of the Voting Rights Act, the very legislation that resulted from the protests in Selma. And in the past year, America saw the murders of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, casting a stark reminder to the needless deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson and countless other African-American lives. Indeed, it seems the struggle for racial equality is as much a part of the present as it is a part of our past.

A few years ago, the underlying and often-ignored racial tensions in America were reawakened when Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager, was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator who thought Martin “looked suspicious.” Personally, following the case of Trayvon Martin was the early spark to my convictions about racial equality and social justice. Prior to Martin’s death, my concept of America was only what I had been taught in history books; I knew that racial discrimination had been a part of our nation’s past, but was ignorant of it’s lasting impact. But through absorbing the nation-wide discussions stemming from Trayvon’s death, I became increasingly aware of the systemic racism that has permeated American society and the cultural implications it has caused. Racism, I realized, is not merely buried in history books – it is, sadly, an integral aspect of modern society.

Some, however, refuse to acknowledge this reality, and continue to ignore our society’s inherent racial bias while only admonishing those who call for change. When millions of people demonstrated in cities across the country in protest of the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, carrying signs declaring “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner before he was choked to death by an NYPD officer, they were met with criticism for being, as Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly labeled them, “racial agitators” who “set back race relations in America years” with their “tactics of violence.” Similarly, when the Department of Justice released a scathing report showing a horrific pattern of racial bias within the Ferguson police department, including blatantly racist emails and evidence that police officers arrested African-Americans only to raise revenue, the Lieutenant Governor of Missouri pointed his finger back at the Justice Department, saying “there is more racism in the Justice Department” than anywhere in the St. Louis area; “it is the left,” he says, “[Attorney General] Eric Holder and the Obama-left and their minions who are obsessed with race. The rest of us are moving on beyond it.”

But the painful truth is that the institution of racism exists today in much the same way that it did in the 1960’s. Racism exists in the city blocks where helpless people are detained and victimized by crime and gun violence with no option of escape. Racism exists in our nation’s prison system, where most of the inmates are minority citizens. And perhaps most painfully, racism exists in the messages sent to minority children through the injustices in our society that there will be more barriers to their success than they can overcome, that their hopes and dreams are invalid, their futures held hostage by the color of their skin. Racism, systemic racism, is alive and well in America, but in the post-racial paradox in which we live, many refuse to see it.

So when an African-American student at the University of Virginia is thrown against the pavement by the police, it must be viewed in the context of a larger cultural problem of race relations; when a University of Oklahoma fraternity is caught on video chanting a racist cheer, it must be seen not merely as an isolated incident, but rather as a reflection of the cloud of racism that hangs above our nation. In today’s society, we seem to have a tendency to pinpoint racism as if it exists only in specific places and the minds of certain people. Instead, if we are to truly make progress, we must accept that racism is a prevalent problem in our nation, an issue that is deeply rooted in our society.

Before we, as a nation, blindly accept that we have made progress since the days of Jim Crow and complacently claim to live in a post-racial society, we must deeply analyze the present state of race in America. When we do, we will see that the progress we speak of exists only in our minds as a source of comfort and innocence. To accept this false reality as fact is an injustice to the victims of our innocence, a truly hypocritical action against our national doctrine of liberty and justice for all.

After all, today’s similarities to our nation’s past seem more pronounced than the differences we speak of. In 1955, Emmett Till, an African-American teenager, was beaten, shot, and drowned with a cotton gin fan tied to his neck because he allegedly “threatened” a white woman. At his funeral, his mother, Mamie Till, issued a call for change by leaving her son’s casket open, exposing the deformities caused by his murder. But in the past few years, we’ve seen the murderers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner slip through the cracks of the court system, and with each acquittal, Mamie Till’s hope for change slipped further and further into the foggy abyss of the forgotten past.

Progress? Sadly, it seems not.

After Charlie Hebdo, a new foreign policy


The smoke had hardly cleared from the Manhattan skyline before the quest for justice began. While police officers and firefighters pulled lifeless bodies from the rubble, the country called for retaliation. As the world mourned the victims of the attack, Washington prepared for war.

On the day after the September 11 attacks, President Bush put before Congress an Authorization for the Use of Military Force. The bill called for the authorization of “all necessary and appropriate force” by the President against “the nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks.” Democrats and Republicans in Congress were decisively unified in their support of the authorization, and the bill passed the Senate unanimously. But in the House of Representatives, one person – Democratic Representative Barbara Lee of California – stood in stark opposition to the otherwise unanimous military fervor.

Speaking on the House floor, Lee warned against passing a “blank check” for the President that did not include specific military actions or time parameters. Citing “my conscience, my moral compass, my God,” she begged Congress to “take a step back,” saying that “we don’t know what the implications of our actions will be.” In the end, the authorization passed the House by a vote of 420 to one, with Barbara Lee casting the lone “nay” vote in Congress.

Now, more than 13 years after Barbara Lee voted no to the War on Terror, history has repeated itself.

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A Year in review: the ten most beautiful moments of 2014


In the midst of storms of darkness, we must look for rays of hope. From foreign policy crises to the Ebola epidemic, racial unrest to political gridlock, 2014 was a difficult, often turbulent year in world news. But amidst difficult times, we must celebrate the moments that remind us of the world we hope to see. Take a look at the ten most beautiful moments of 2014.

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