Higher education in the United States began as religious training for wealthy, white, Protestant men and this remained the standard for a couple centuries. Slowly we moved away from this elitist practice and advanced to include students of all socioeconomic levels, ethnicities, religions, and women. While there are still many debates as to whether higher education is indeed a level playing field in regards to all of these demographics, this article will focus on socioeconomic status.
According to the College Board, Tuition and fees at colleges and universities have increased 14% in the last five years. For 4-year private colleges and universities, 27% for 4-year public colleges and universities, and 29% for 2-year public colleges. This is far beyond the standard rate of inflation in the US. Prevailing theories for this increase include overall lack of efficiency, increased need for technology updates, and high expectations for services amongst others.
In addition to dramatically increasing college tuition and fees, students also have the cost of living (which can drastically vary depending on location) to contend with in a society where the economy is highly unstable. This includes job salaries that aren’t increasing with the rate of inflation and they and/or their parents being laid off due to job cuts. The combination of increased college costs and a poor economy is making college less and less affordable to those in the lower and middle socioeconomic classes.
I’ve got no problem with supporting and developing talent. My beef is with the important difference between élite (which is a status) and élitism (which is an attitude). It’s simply unacceptable, for example, that private school pupils dominate entry into the best universities because of the cultural capital of their parents and teachers. It’s a scandal of epic proportions that privately-educated politicians harp on about the importance of narrowly-focused league tables for state schools whilst private schools are left (by and large) to carry on activities that perpetuate hegemonic power. It’s not just about the goalposts, it’s about how level the playing field is to begin with. ~Doug Belshaw
Unfortunately, even student financial aid is no longer a solid solution to leveling the playing field. The bulk of that aid consists of student loans, which of course, you have to pay back. This includes interest, which even with rates capped at 8.5%, is still a hefty chunk of change in addition to what had to be borrowed to obtain a degree. The U.S. currently has 1.2 billion dollars in national student loan debt! This was not always how financial aid worked. From its inception, the bulk of financial aid was grant-based leaving financially needy students with little debt upon graduation.
However, in the 1980s due to significant federal budget cuts, grants shifted toward loans and this continues to the present day. So, those students who are not lucky or gifted enough to receive free rides have to take out large amounts of student loans in order to get a college education. This, in addition to the aforementioned economy, leaves many college graduates with a mountain of debt and unable to obtain well paying jobs upon graduation.
Now, of course, college isn’t for everyone; however, for those who do want to attend college it should be a viable option regardless of socioeconomic status. If we’re going to tout our country as the land of equal opportunity for all, it really should be equal opportunity for all. However, the rising college costs coupled with the thought of crippling debt is leading more and more low and middle income students to forgo college or drop out once they’re in and realize they can’t make ends meet. This doesn’t sound like equal opportunity to me. If this trend continues colleges and universities will become more socioeconomically homogenous, which detracts from diversity in other areas as well given that many of low socioeconomic status are in the country’s minority in some form.
Thus, it could be possible to return to what higher education once was, an elitist institution. With that being said, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. There are many working toward solutions to ensure that higher education is available to all who would like to obtain it. One such program is called the no loan pledge, which approximately 70 colleges and universities have replaced loans with grants for the most financially needy students (like the old days). With programs such as this, there is more of an opportunity to level the playing field. This program and other solutions will be explored in a future article.
Photo Credit: Photobucket via StudentUniverse