Middle Class Dreams: A College Education

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.

By Thelma

Thelma is a photographer and traveler currently residing in Sydney, Australia. In her free time she can be found with her nose behind a camera or obsessing over koalas.

8 replies on “Middle Class Dreams: A College Education”

It’s good to finally see someone blame the university system for the costs instead of blaming banks for lending money to students…well…sort of…

A couple of points…  The university system served us well in the 20th century when we needed lots and lots of middle managers.  Nowadays, not so much.  Having a college degree doesn’t necessarily scream “hire me” because with all due respect, those coming out of college really have nothing in the way of skills to deserve hiring.  Obviously each specialty is going to have it’s own markets, but unless you’re coming out of say law, medicine, or science, you can almost expect to work a minimum wage job until you have some good experience and make connections (networking).  It was that way when I graduated in the 90’s and that was the supposedly booming Clinton economy.  Being on the side of someone who’s sifted through resumes, we always look at work experience first in my specialty, and only look at college degree as a tie breaker (and sometimes even ex-military beats out college degree in a tie).  So to say that college is the new high-school diploma is really not entirely true.

But let’s say that it IS true.  Draw the dotted line out here…  Universities are a scarce resource (there’s not one in every neighborhood like a high-school).  Throwing loan money and government money at the problem has made that resource even more scarce as more people fight to get in (and prices go up astronomically).  We would have to change the system fundamentally to double or triple our University system just to make a dent.  If we make Universities a “right” to everyone, how exactly would any graduate stand out from any other?  It’s hard enough to get inner city kids to graduate from high school, and now we’re going to raise the bar to graduate from college too?  At that rate, you’ll have to have an 8-year degree just to stand out in the crowd and soon Masters or higher will be the new high-school diploma.  I’m not dissing college here, but I do think it’s time our society figure out what disciplines a 4 year degree really make sense in, what disciplines would do better with say internship based training or trade-school type training, etc., so students don’t go overpaying for an “education” they may not really need or that may not really make them qualified for anything.  We probably ought to take a hard look at our public school systems in general and start preparing students for work in high school instead of dumbing our systems down to the point that the Freshman and Sophomore year of college are basically rehashes of high school.  There’s other facets, but I’m just trying to show you how complex the issue is…a lot more than your average OWS person seems to comprehend.  The concept of an automatic job out of college was dead decades ago…it’s a shame that the myth has still been pushed on today’s young people to the point they are racking up $100K’s in debt for a degree that’ll only get them a minimum wage job now and may or may not propel them along later on down the road.

You think unemployment is bad now, just wait until you add a guaranteed minimum wage for disciplines.  Let me tell you how an HR department thinks when dealing with minimum wages.  If there are no minimum wages (or they are very low), you are more apt to add extra bodies to your staff (read here college graduates and entry levels) to groom them.  It makes it nice to get to know people, see how they perform, and promote internally.  However, if you MUST pay a higher wage + benefits for someone, then an HR department basically stops looking at entry level people basically saying “if I have to pay this much for an employee, I might as well get an experienced one” and new graduates are basically tossed from the resume stack unless you are desperate because of worker shortages.  This makes it almost impossible for college grads and entry levels to find jobs.

Universities do not actually make a profit the way people assume they do; tuition increases reflect the cost of keeping the school afloat with little excess (and while we may not care about football, sports bring in money that further offset your tuition fees).  It’s not enough to say that college should be cheaper because the money has to come from somewhere or the school wouldn’t function at all.

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