When I was a dreamy, idealistic child, my future plans always included Harvard. My father told me for as long as I can remember that I could attend whichever college I worked hard enough to be admitted to, financial concerns set aside. “Honey, if you get into Harvard, I’ll work until I’m eighty to pay for it.” So, like every other dreamy, idealistic child with an intangible goal, I worked passionately towards achieving mine.
However, when my junior year rolled around, my parents sat me down for a serious, bring-Monica-down-to-Earth-talk. They began with praise and appreciation for my motivation and hard work, evident in my class rank and SAT scores. Then, with averted eyes and soft, apologetic words, they began discussing financial issues, explaining that the stock market crash had occurred at an unfortunate time in my college fund’s appreciation, and that I should consider competitive state schools over more costly Ivy league schools. After tears of frustration, I came to terms with abandoning the Harvard dream, focusing on top public schools such as William and Mary. I soon recognized and grew to appreciate the many state schools that rivaled private schools in their academic rigor and selectivity.
However, upon further investigation and navigation through the college selection process, I quickly found that the costs of out-of-state public schools are only marginally lower than those of private schools and their admit rates are just as low. For example, William and Mary is required by the state of Virginia to admit two-thirds of its applicants from Virginia, even though two-third of its applicant pool is actually comprised of out-of-state applicants. Furthermore, the total ticket price for out-of-state applicants hovers around $47,131 for the 2011-2012 school year, matching and even exceeding some of its private school competitors. This forced me to narrow my options to New Jersey public schools and the few private institutions that offered significant amounts of merit aid.
Speaking with friends, I realized that many of my middle-class peers were in the exact same positions, if not in less fortunate predicaments. Some were forced to attend two-year community colleges so that their families could save money to send them to four-year institutions later on. Others took out large loans so that they could afford private-school education, an option my parents had refused to entertain. I began to see that the burden of college tuition affected almost all my middle-class friends, much more so than my lower and upper class friends. Those who struggled economically to make ends meet were met with significant amounts of government financial aid in form of Stafford Loans and financial/merit combination scholarships. Those who lived in comfortable extravagance in big mansions on the outskirts of town, had no issue paying 50K a year for Ivy League and other highly regarded private schools.
It struck me that the middle class is the one that suffers the most in the college tuition game. They are the middle and lower rungs of the broad termed “middle” class, those who attempt to live within their moderate means, but are always plagued by worries about “making ends meet.” They are just well-off enough to not receive federal aid, yet too poor to afford the full cost of some of the country’s most competitive schools, both public and private. Because of this, middle class families and their students suffer disproportionately to those of lower and upper classes in the financial aid college process.
The crux of the middle class’s struggles with college tuition is that their incomes have remained more or less stagnant whereas tuition prices are skyrocketing. From 1988 to 2008, the average college tuition has surged approximately one-hundred and thirty percent. Sarah Lawrence College leads private universities at the most expensive price of $58,716, but most others are also quite costly, averaging between forty-three and forty-eight thousand dollars a year (Censky). In fact, if annual income were to be on par with such exorbitant university price inflations, the average middle class family would be making approximately $77,000 annually, when in fact it is just shy of making $50,000 (Censky). This disparate gap between what is necessary and what is reality has placed an incredible burden on the middle class, whose members must often attempt to spread their limited resources to multiple children and endeavors, including college education. Consequently, middle-class parents are sending their children to two-year county colleges of lesser rigor in attempt to raise money through those two years for their following two years and completion of their degrees at more esteemed four year public or private colleges (Jacobe).
While this financial gap is the primary cause for the middle class’s struggles in affording college tuition, there are also other factors exacerbating the situation. The stress caused by the struggling American economy, in which unemployment wavers around 10%, has prompted the depletion of federal state aid for public colleges, making the once affordable schools less and less so. It has also prompted cutthroat competition, forcing state schools to award their limited scholarships to only the brightest or poorest (Watkins). This leaves the majority, intelligent, middle class students with moderate economic means, paying full-price tickets or taking out extravagant loans that often lead to cycles of debt. As of 2012, college tuition debt is now in the trillions, exceeding credit card debt for the first time. Furthermore, and directly related to this competition, students are attending college at much higher rates than they have in the past. This means that universities are forced to expand, building new dorms, updating academic buildings, and hiring additional professors (Damast). This growth comes at a high cost, which universities are forced to pass to students.
An upper-class argument concerning this gap between income and tuition affecting the middle class, is that not everyone can or should attend college. Many upper-class citizens claim that our society and economy are built on a strata that requires a labor force drawn from the lower classes, who do not need high education to perform menial or technical jobs. They point out that the middle class can take out collegiate loans and apply for financial aid. Indeed many students have done so, refusing to compromise their ideal college experience for financial deficiencies (Damast). Approximately two-thirds of college graduates juggled student debt in 2004, and the amount of debt has risen with the tuition hikes. However, loans compound interest and many students are forced to pay them for over twenty years after their graduations. They become an additional burden to the middle class’s limited financial resources, perpetuating the cycle of struggle with tuition as far as the next generation. And to compound the frustration, the percentage of federal grants awarded fell from 61% to 45% in the past fifteen years, while loans rose from 36% to 49% (Watkins).
It is clear that taking out loans is not the best solution for members of the middle class in approaching high college tuition prices. By doing so, they send a message to colleges that they give in to and support their unfair and costly biases. Instead, those most disadvantaged in the process should appeal to the federal government to influence change in the country’s economic and education spheres. President Barack Obama stated that government aid should be kept from universities that refuse to keep tuition down and provide good worth to their students. He has likewise suggested a Race to the Top competition for higher education, similar to the one available for K-12 students, to encourage states to use higher education money more wisely in exchange for $1 billion in grants (Jacobe). These federal grants, commonly called Pell Grants, are not loans though they are likewise given to students with financial need. This kind of government intervention is necessary to bridge the gap of inequality between the classes in terms of education opportunities and economic struggles. Statistics aside, at the core of this pressing issue is whether all students, regardless of class, should be afforded equal higher education opportunities. It is agreed that all Americans should be given a basic public education—why should it be denied at the higher collegiate level? If children are aware that their college options are limited or non-existent, we run the risk of raising an unmotivated generation that settles for less than it can achieve.
Censky, Annalyn. “Surging College Costs Price Out Middle Class.” CNN Money. 13 June 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.
Damast, Alison. “Tuition Assistance for the Middle Class.” Business Week. 3 Feb. 2008. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.
Jacobe, Monica F. “Making It.” Ebsco Host. Sept.-Oct. 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.
Watkins, Marilyn. “High-Tuition/High-Aid College Financing.” Washington Policy Watch. 30 July 2009. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.