This article is a first-person look at the rising costs of a college education, based on the experience of an Ultius writer. The author explores his own experiences dealing with the hefty price tag of a college degree. Please also make sure to check out a related post on student loan forgiveness options if you are researching the subject.
The most serious problem in higher education – “Higher” costs
High school seniors spend hours slaving over their admissions portfolios (like essays and personal statements). They catalog the shared high school experience in a crystalline way, showing our interests, our involvement, our depth of talent, etc. As an institution, college is exclusive by nature. Even the public schools aren’t guaranteed options for everyone. On the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of both exclusivity and prestige are the Ivy League schools: a conference of schools in the Northeast representing the old guard of American higher education.
These schools are lionized for the research they produce, the academic atmosphere they nurture, and of course, the enormous resources they possess. Shocking though is that only .4% of undergrads in the United States attend one of these schools, a fact that almost heightens their prestige because of the exclusivity. According to USnews.com,
“Nationwide the number of high school graduates is expected to grow 10 percent in the next 10 years. The northeastern states will experience declines in growth, while high school grads will grow by 24 percent in both Texas and Florida.”
The rising number of high school seniors makes the few attainable spots even more precious, especially considering financial burdens associated with college.
The illusion of options
During my own application process (as an Ultius writer who writes as a freelancer) I was bombarded with the appearance of options. State schools, private schools, liberal arts schools could all be eliminated by ranking their locations by geographically desirable locations. Unfortunately, when this process comes to a slow skidding halt is when the conversation regarding cost arises. This sometimes awkward conversation between parents and their kids can sometimes be a shattering one for a child’s hopes.
I can remember sitting down with my parents to discuss college, our kitchen table swamped with information pamphlets, my parents acting unusually somber. I remember them telling me that two of the schools I was applying to were out of reach.
“We couldn’t afford to send you there,” they said, “not without serious scholarships or you taking out loans.”
They told me I needed to think hard about what I wanted out of this whole four years. They made it clear what a burden additional student loan debt could mean for the rest of my twenties. I was furious.
I was so ignorant of the matter-of-fact way my parents were handing the whole situation; I blinded myself from seeing the upside. While these two schools were out of my reach financially, I was so distracted by the limitations my parents were opposing, the luck of me being able to attend college at all was totally lost on me. From information available in the USnews.com article cited earlier,
“Less than one third of Americans hold at least a bachelor’s degree, but at least 30 percent of adults in 16 states—mostly on the coasts—have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.”
My background, my parent’s education, and my friends all convinced me that my own ascension to the collegiate ranks was assured. Having my parents tell me ‘no’ financially created a line of demarcation regarding the possibilities in store for my future. It was the first time anyone had switched their generic,“you can go anywhere if you put your mind to it” message to a message of limitations.
Education costs changed my perspective
There was something intensely unsettling about having other people circumscribe my possibilities for me. Yes, they were my parents, but the change in message was a harsh adjustment required by those who live in the adult world. Something about the intersection of commerce and education struck me as twisted. How can we ask citizens to cover the massive costs of college so they can be more competitive in the workforce? The New York Times alleges:
“Public colleges have seen net prices rise sharply, particularly since the last recession began, as they have raised prices to offset plummeting state aid.”
Ironically enough, the group suspected to have some of the most disadvantages in paying for college these days are upper-middle class families; families who do not generally qualify for large amounts of aid to offset the rising sticker prices of colleges their children are expected to attend due to their upbringing. Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College, is an economist who has researched college costs extensively.
“What’s happening with that upper-middle group is a real concern,” she said to the New York Times, “the net price for them is pretty challenging.”
The question for the American public can be well framed by understanding that family income does not always dictate how affordable college is. Because of the complex infrastructure of grants, loans, scholarships, both public and private, those who game the system best are those who are the most prepared to navigate the bureaucracy. But stepping back for some perspective, it seems insane that we make our eighteen year olds engage in such a complex process with such potentially long-ranging effects.
My own story has confronted me with the hard realization that education in this country is competitive, expensive, and exclusionary. The gifted are just as easily left out of the classrooms for not being able to write checks with multiple zeros, and the ones who we would assume to be well off, e.g. the upper-middle class, are being exposed by educational policy which puts them at the end of the bench. In no way are we meeting our goals as a nation in terms of education, something wholly disconcerting because of the implication that an uneducated electorate is responsible for electing policy makers who will, in turn, be tasked with fixing our broken system.
The alternative options – Thanks to technology
Technological advances (especially within educational tools and resources) have spurred the advance of new educational paradigms. MOOC’s (Massive Online Open Courses) have opened the door for thousands of global citizens looking to advance their education for no cost. Though these courses do require internet access to participate, the connectivism inherent in organizations grounded in internet technology offers us new was to contextualize education.
Connectivism, which stresses a theory of learning which places a newfound importance on the cultural context of the information being learned, could possibly help enlighten people in new ways, broadening their horizons by pushing them through doors only education can unlock. Whereas before, college degrees were more readily available to those who could afford one, colleges have now begun to offer these Massive Online Open Courses for credit at a fraction of the cost. There are drawbacks however, mainly stemming from the low completion rate (typically lower than 10%).
Materials, like books and academic journals are always going up in price. Sometimes a fee is required to just be able to access material needed for research. The only resource for some students is using research material that is pirated to save money by visiting sites such as Sci-Hub.
The new challenge then, as far as higher education is concerned, is to figure out how to integrate the technological advances in such a way that these MOOC’s, gaining in popularity, will no longer be viewed as a supplemental aspect to a normal, face-to-face education. Upping the retention rate of those who enroll will be the single biggest challenge facing education innovators. But, on the upside, these courses could spell the end of the high-cost, high-privilege model that has defined college globally. My sincere wish is that one day, choices related to the pursuit of higher education will no longer be based on things as trivial as cost.
I hope that future students will be able to enroll at prestigious institutions they whole-heartedly wish to attend without regard to the debt they may or may not accrue along the way.
O’Shaughnessy, Lynn. “20 Surprising Higher Education Facts.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 06 Sept. 2011. Web. 09 Nov. 2013.
PÉREZ-PEÑA, Richard. “Despite Rising Sticker Prices, Actual College Costs Stable Over Decade, Study Says.” NY Times. N.p., Oct.-Nov. 2013. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.