Taking Back Our Education

The Rising Cost of College Tuition

Author Scott Rossiter
Author Scott Rossiter

I recently overheard a father discussing college tuition and loans with his son. “When I was in college, I just took a summer job to pay my tuition,” the father earnestly argued. He was genuinely confused that his son was not able to pay his way through college using the same methods he used to obtain his own education. However, the reality of higher education today is that many students work full-time jobs while enrolled as full-time students and still can’t earn enough to pay tuition without going into debt. And I’m not just talking about summer jobs; I’m talking about full-time employment during the academic year.

Today in the United States, a college education is considered by many to be a necessary next step for people who want to improve their economic and social conditions. Sir Ken Robinson, an English author and speaker, has commented on the increase in post-secondary education requirements to fill skilled positions. “Where a bachelors degree was necessary, now a masters is. Where a masters was required, now a doctoral.” This means that, for students who wish to work in a professional field, it is becoming increasingly critical to pursue higher and higher levels of college education. Our society has created a culture in which, one could argue, the increased number of people who are college-educated has professionally normalized, perhaps even in a sense devalued, a college education.

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The reality today is that many students work full-time jobs while enrolled as full-time students and still can’t earn enough to pay tuition without going into debt.
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Unfortunately, as the professional value of the college decree decreases from an asset to a necessity, the financial cost continues to increase, causing an unnerving majority of college students to graduate with tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

So how did this happen? How did a college education become so necessary, yet so financially inaccessible?

Photo Credit: truthusa.org
Photo Credit: truthusa.org

Over the past 25 years the minimum wage has increased about 170%, from $4.25 to $7.25. Over the same period of time, the average cost of one semester of college tuition, at public four-year institutions, has gone from $1,908 to $9,139, an increase of nearly 480%. The result is what you might predict: a situation of educational elitism where higher education is reserved for those who can afford it (or at least those who are willing to take the risk of assuming thousands of dollars in debt with no guarantee of employment after they graduate).

The immediate and obvious implications of this disparity are abundant. Many students who cannot afford a college education due to their family’s socio-economic status are foregoing college altogether, searching for a job that does not require further education. If the cost of higher education continues to increase at this rate, American society will undoubtedly witness a widening of the already-staggering gap between the wealthy, educated elite and middle/lower-classes.

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Over the past 25 years the minimum wage has increased about 170%, from $4.25 to $7.25. Over the same period of time, the average cost of one semester of college tuition has gone from $1,908 to $9,139, an increase of nearly 480%.
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Let us also remember that these disparities cannot be measured simply in career and economic success. Continued education is an important factor in a person’s ability to think critically and analytically about everyday life. Take for example, reading the Bible. Even for people who are literate and can read and understand the surface meaning of a text, much of Bible study and general Scriptural exposition requires a person to dissect what they have read, process it through a critical lens, and draw upon personal experience in order to make meaning of the text. We recognize in our own day what Presbyterian forefather John Calvin advocated in his: analytical and critical thinking skills are necessary in order to fully embrace our religious faith.

Hands with dollar signEven outside of the religious realm, the point remains that colleges don’t exclusively teach their students content. Much of higher education is imparting to students the skills and knowledge needed in order to become critical thinkers and lifelong learners. Ideally, along with professional skills and knowledge, a college student graduates having learned how to learn. Ideally, a college education equips students to take responsibility for their own continued learning, wherever life may take them.

The good news, at least in part, is that students have several paths to choose from as they attempt to overcome these obstacles. Many colleges have a “need-blind” admissions process, in which students are evaluated – and accepted or rejected – before individual student finances are taken into account, with the promise that the college or university will work with all accepted students on how to finance their education. Financial aid is a major way for many universities to support their students, but this aid may not cover all of tuition and stills leave students with the cost of textbooks, housing, food, and travel.

Scholarships are often where students turn next, before finally resorting to student loans. The scholarships available to students may seem innumerable, but there are also an incredible number of students applying for the same scholarships. I don’t mean to discount the real financial relief scholarships offer to many students and families, but the sad truth is that scholarship money is usually just a drop in the bucket compared to the astronomical costs of higher education.

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The road to accessible college education is already beginning to be paved with Obama unveiling of the Free Two Year College Option.
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Continued education is not something that should be accessible only to the select few who can afford it. Colleges and universities are designed to propel our society to a higher level by bringing people together to share their ideas and knowledge. This system is severely compromised when we admit to this exchange of knowledge only those who can afford to pay the increasingly high price colleges and universities are putting on education.

If you ask me, the first step in taking back our education is asserting our right to learn and to have access to knowledge.

Smashed Piggy Bank - shutterstockThis is not an issue that can be tackled all at once, and there is no easy solution. Many European countries have made university education more accessible through government funding. In some countries like Argentina, Norway, Greece, and Finland, a college education is free! Certainly to do this in a larger country like the United States, would require ample funding, and many will insist that we do not have the economic capacity. However, the road to accessible college education is already beginning to be paved with Obama unveiling of the Free Two Year College Option. Through this program, anyone who has graduated high school can “obtain a 13th and 14th year of education for free in exchange for a modest amount of work while attending school.”

In the time it takes for the United States to move toward universally accessible higher education, there are some important steps we can all take. First, we can’t afford to lose hope in our education system. Even as we seek to reform the current system of higher education, which continues to raise tuition costs, it is crucial that we continue to recognize and lift up both the explicit and implicit values of higher education.

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AUTHOR BIO: Scott Rossiter grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where he attended and eventually became a member of the Presbyterian Church of Deep Run. He is currently a senior at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA. He will graduate in May 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in Early Elementary and Special Education.

Read more articles in this issue: A Pedagogy for the Distressed!

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