Right now the cost of tuition is rising at twice the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, the federal government is making it easier than ever to borrow money for higher education. To top it off, our society is placing greater emphasis on the importance of higher education. Consequently, a generation of students is now burdened by inevitable – and often severe – college debt. Student debt is currently at an outstanding $1.2 trillion, a third of which is in default, and it is time to act.
Many concerned college students wonder if a college degree is worth the debt incurred in the process. Even so, it is clear that our society values higher education. Statistics show that those with bachelor’s degrees earn an average of nearly $1 million more over their lifetimes than those with only high school diplomas.
Because of the importance our society places on higher education for professional success, competition is intense for degrees from elite colleges. Efforts to make college affordable are necessary to provide equal opportunity for vocational success.
While more colleges are aiming to meet the demonstrated financial needs of all academically eligible students, low-income students often do not reap the benefits of these efforts.
According to The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, the majority of low-income students who have received high test scores and demonstrated academic excellence do not even apply to, let alone attend, highly competitive colleges. The institute reports that these students are often unaware of the amount of financial aid available or have never met someone who attended college with whom they can talk about their financial situation.
Many low-income students enroll in community colleges with low graduation rates before exploring financial aid at elite colleges. In the workplace, this choice may separate them from the students who attended elite colleges and were given better resources and vocational opportunities.
The College Board has started a nationwide outreach program to educate low-income high school seniors who scored highly on standardized tests, about their financial aid options. The program encourages students to apply to select colleges by mailing a package of information on top colleges to every senior who has an SAT or Preliminary SAT score in the top 15% and whose family is in the bottom 25% of income distribution.
The package, which includes application fee waivers to six colleges of the student’s choice, will be sent to roughly 28,000 seniors.
Although these efforts put forth by the College Board are admirable, many colleges are still expecting families to pay more than they are able. According to the New America Foundation, hundreds of colleges expect the needy students to pay equal to or even more than their family’s annual earnings. Students may then have to sacrifice study time for working hours in order to pay for their education, which will make it even more difficult for them to graduate.
Additionally, many colleges are spending as much as sustainably possible of their financial aid endowments. While this may seem like a fiscally responsible approach, it presents its own problems. About two-thirds of America’s top 150 private colleges and universities with the highest endowments per student are not need-blind in admissions and reject talented low-income applicants because they are unable to satisfy students’ financial need. Additionally, many private institutions use their financial aid to lure in affluent students to increase their revenue and ratings.
These private schools need incentives to provide financial aid. Moreover, they should take a more need-blind approach to admissions and then assess how they should distribute their endowments. The federal government can play a role by making its higher education budget more accessible. States need to stop cutting funding for public colleges in order to stop the “high tuition, high aid” trend.
The high cost of tuition scares students away from applying to elite colleges. Education is a privilege, but all students should have equal opportunity to receive its benefits.
Emma Keiski ’16 firstname.lastname@example.org is from Minneapolis, Minn. She majors in political science.
Image by Emma Johnson