I can clearly remember a phone call I had with my mom five years ago, when I was still a junior in college. She was telling me the great news that she was getting promoted from an on-call mail route carrier to a permanent position but I begged her to not take it. “Please, just stay poor for a few more months so I can get financial aid for school,” I said.I begged my mom to stay poor because it was the only way I was going to make it through college. If she had earned just $3,000 more a year, she would have moved to the other side of the poverty line and the financial aid would have been too little to cover my costs. So like any good momma would do, she turned down a higher paying job and stayed poor so her baby could go to college. This is what America has come to: if you want an education that doesn’t cost you 40 years of debt, you need to either get rich fast or stay poor.
I’ve heard a lot of chatter on Facebook in the last week about how we should all start saving for our kids’ education now, but how? How does one save for an education that costs $27,000 a year to obtain? Is that even possible? In 18 years of diapers, food, cars, houses, bills, soccer teams, clothes, birthdays, Christmases, where will the average middle class family come up with $100,000 savings for each child to go to school?
The Occupy Wall Street movement has brought a lot of much-needed attention to this problem, but so far, results have been minimal. While the government is still talking about H. Res. 365–a resolution to forgive all student loan debt in order to stimulate the economy (which, by the way, has a petition you should sign)–the rest of us continue to slog on without jobs or as under-employed individuals with minimum wage jobs. Forgiving student loans can alleviate a lot of our problems now but it’s still just a reactionary measure and not a fix. The real problem is the rising cost of education and people’s ability to meet those costs.
When Baby Boomers complain that we are just an ungrateful, lazy, “I want everything handed to me” generation, we should point them to statistics that prove we have it worse and that the costs of education are indeed harder to finance today than they were 40 yeas ago. According to The Economist, “Median household income has grown by a factor of 6.5 in the past 40 years, but the cost of attending a state college has increased by a factor of 15 for in-state students and 24 for out-of-state students. The cost of attending a private college has increased by a factor of more than 13.” If it’s hard to think about that in numbers, perhaps a visual representation of US inflation will help:
So it’s not that we don’t work hard enough. It’s not that we are asking for too much. It’s that those hypothetical “bootstraps” are just too damn big to pull up.
Why the huge increase in prices? Are you getting 15x the value of your education? Are you 15x more likely to be hired? Are you making 15x more money than your parents? Are you living in dormitories 15x nicer than those in the ’70s? (If you went to my school, you were actually living in dormitories built in the ’70s!) I have yet to hear a satisfying answer as to why the costs are so high and why I should pay them.
The Economist speculates that perhaps this is “administrative bloat” or universities spending on “luxury” facilities. They also posture that maybe this is because so many universities are focusing their money on research and sabbaticals to gain media exposure rather than actual classroom instruction. Whatever the cause, students are not receiving the benefits. I certainly didn’t have fewer headaches because there were more administrators in the financial aid office. Nor am I smarter because of the new football stadium. And fancy research projects are great but they only really benefit graduate level students, not us lowly undergrads. It doesn’t seem like my money is working for me.
So how are we going to fix this problem? Reducing student loan payments or eliminating the debt all together is just another Band-aid. A better way to fix the problem is to reduce the cost of education itself and increase employment awards so graduates can pay for their educations (think proactive vs. reactive measures).
For starters, a college and university tuition cap similar to the UK would ensure that while higher education is an increasing work necessity, it is still obtainable for all people. Gone are the days of “optional” college degrees; nowadays, career opportunities are quite limited for people without degrees and many entry-level positions are requiring them. Even most internships require applicants to be currently enrolled. The Economist has another illuminating statistic for us: 33% of all college and university graduates between ages 25-29 are working at a low-skill job. In America, the bachelor degree is the new high school diploma. We need to make sure obtaining one is possible for all people.
Additionally, position and age based minimum wage rates (similar to Australia’s Fair Work department) that reflect the difficulty of the job and costs of living most adults face would do well to ensure that people can pay for their educations while still feeding themselves. I’ve heard a lot of stories about people who graduated with degrees, got hired for jobs that required degrees, and still made minimum wage (or a little higher). That is pretty shameful. Minimum wage should be reserved for young people in their first job. Paying educated and experienced 27-year-olds $7.25 an hour to serve coffee next to high schoolers is criminal. The financial needs of these two groups are vastly different and should be paid accordingly.
Unless changes are made to scale back the rising costs of a college education, we will soon price ourselves out of what is becoming an increasing necessity for a successful life. We can’t afford to continue paying these prices and we can’t afford to go on without degrees either. The gap between poor and middle class is quickly disappearing. My mom gave up a promotion so I could finish college; four years later, she still works three part time jobs to make ends meet. I got my degree but I’m still in debt and hovering just slightly above the poverty line. It appears there is no golden ticket to a successful life anymore and that a college education is a dream that doesn’t deliver.