Why College Should Be Free: Student Debt Crisis

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When I was in second grade I had huge aspirations for my future. When I thought of who I would be when I became the age I am now, I envisioned myself doing big things, I thought I would be in some fancy school, studying smart subjects, innovating new ideas. I thought I would be the first person to cure cancer or revolutionize something miraculous. I am fortunate nobody ever told me that I couldn’t obtain any of those aspirations and let me dream big, most just thought it was cute. Now, here I am a decade later, and I’ve realized why nobody ever told me I couldn’t achieve these goals, because eventually reality would settle in for me and I would learn on my own terms that great things don’t happen that easily, and certainly not for free. I still have important aspirations and goals for myself, however my great plans in life, along with millions of other students, have become disrupted by a nationwide student debt crisis. When prompted to write about a current dilemma, I wanted to choose something that I feel personally affects me. There are several factors that contribute to the increase of the student debt crisis, some of which are unavoidable, such as inflation, but then we have the people involved in the student loan industry making loads of money off of broke college students, including banks, private investors, and the federal government. The consequences of this money greedy game, is millions of graduates enslaved to thousands of dollars of student debt, many of which these individuals can’t obtain well paying jobs post graduation to pay off their student loans because of the corruption of the job market.

Benrie Sanders, one of the current democratic running nominees for the 2020 presidential election, has spoken largely on the student debt crisis. A big part of his campaign is his advocacy for college students and his belief that college should be free. On his campaign on his website he writes “Just 30 years ago, tuition and fees at a public, four-year university totaled $3,360 per year in today’s dollars. That same degree today costs more than $10,000 per year in tuition and fees and more than $21,000 per year including room and board. Meanwhile, median hourly wages for college graduates have risen by less than $1 since 2001, when adjusted for inflation” ( Sanders). Many people validate the increase in tuition prices on inflation. However when put into perspective the way Bernie words it, it doesn’t seem as validating. According to Time, The total amount of student debt in the U.S right now tops 1.5 trillion dollars, averaging out to about 37,000 dollars of debt per graduate and over 2 million graduates with over 100,000 dollars in debt (Time). One of the aspects of this crisis that makes it worse is the fact that a lot of these students graduate and are unable to obtain good paying jobs because of the status of the job market, therefore struggle greatly to pay off their debt. On top of monthly payments for debt, a lot of these people are also trying to manage other payments such as rent, groceries, car payments, or raising a child.

There have been many theories on what exactly causes student debt to be a crisis and why tuition prices are increasing. In her article with Business Insider, Hillary Hoffower explores the different ideas people have had and also shows the statistics throughout the years. She begins by saying “Higher enrollment has brought an expansion of financial-aid programs, a need to

increase budgets for faculty pay and on-campus student services, and a decline in financial support from state governments” (Hoffower). She goes on to talk more specifically about the theory that financial aid has increased the price of tuition. When Congress passed the bill called the Middle Income Student Assistance Act back in 1978 it made “ all undergraduates regardless of income class eligible for subsidized loans and middle-income students eligible for Pell Grants, according to NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. More and more students started applying for financial aid” (Hofowwer). As a result of this act, enrollment rates increased greatly, so universities saw this as an opportunity to benefit from. 'Knowing that students will get this financial-aid money, the university raises fees and takes advantage to capture that themselves' (Hofowwer). Going more on financial aid, it is important to be considerate also of students whose parents make too much money to receive good financial aid but their parents don’t help them paying for school so they have no option than to take out loans. I know several students in this situation who want to seek higher education but don’t know how they will pay for it without the support of parents or financial aid from the government, and there are no other options for them besides trying to apply as an independent, which requires specific criteria to be eligible for.

Other causes that Hofowwer suggests contribute to the student debt crisis include the growth of student services, colleges needing to pay more professors, and state funding being unable to keep up with enrollment. Student services include academic support or advising, counselling, health care, and more, differentiating from school to school. These services are

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continuing to be added to colleges soley for students' needs, however they aren’t free of course. “Vedder says there has been an explosion in the number of non-teaching personnel on campus, with several administrators at top universities making six-figure salaries with fringe benefits and secretarial support. He said about two-thirds of university budgets had nothing to do with teaching but instead go toward things like advocates, dormitories, and facilities” (Hofowwer). Another cause of the increasing tuition can be contributed from the need to pay professors. A

large percentage of students' tuition goes toward paying the professors. Terry Hartle, a senior vice president of the American Council on Education has had input to expand on this topic, stating 'Acquiring and recruiting highly educated faculty and staff costs money, especially in jobs with significant demand outside academia' (Hofowwer). There have been attempts to find a happy median between the two as Hartle says “the sorts of things that could lower these costs — such as larger classes, more adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors, shorter hours, and fewer books in the library — were immensely unpopular with students, parents, and the public” (Hofowwer). The last cause Hofowwer includes in her article is that state funding isn’t able to keep up with the rate of student enrollment. She explains the ratio between tuition prices over the years compared to the level of support from the state; not surprisingly, when the level of support from the state is steady or increasing, tuition prices stay the same, versus when support from the state declines, tuition prices increase. 'For public institutions, state appropriations make up a significant portion of the college's revenue, and in recent years, the state appropriations have not been able to keep pace with enrollment” (Hofowwer). Essentially, when the state cuts back on operational assistance to colleges, they have to make up for the lost revenue so they increase tuition prices.

As an outcome of this crisis, more than 44 million Americans have become enslaved to student debt, totaling to over 1.5 trillion dollars all together. The sad truth is that many students who fall victim to student debt drop out before graduating or obtaining a degree to avoid paying back more loans. “As a result of this growing student debt crisis, many borrowers struggle to pay for day-to-day necessities like rent, groceries or car payments. For others, their student debt stands in the way of buying a home, starting a business or pursuing a new career opportunity”(Time). In the article Who Got Rich Off The Student Debt Crisis? James B Steele, analyzes the crisis, as what he calls “the profit center” that Wallstreet and the government has created, how it’s affected individuals, and more. He tells the story of a young woman named Susan who says she’s a slave to student debt. She graduated college, making her way through with student loans. By the time she finished school, a job she had set up fell through and she was left with a large amount of student debt and no job opportunities to pay it off. “In the years since then, Suren has scrambled to keep current on her loans, sometimes working 16 hours a day at two low-paying jobs. Her finances are incredibly tight, and she has made no headway on her loans. Today, her balance tops $90,000” (Steele). Susan’s story is just one of many. In another source, An example of this is portrayed very well by Karen Felsted in an article she writes about student debt which includes a story about a woman named Wendy Labrousse. She went to veterinary school for 6 years to follow her dreams of saving animals' lives. “After graduation,

her monthly loan payment was more than her rent. She had a newborn baby and a husband finishing college, so she was the primary wage earner. She was working 60 hours a week, missing out on time with her new daughter, and still there was nothing to show for it at the end of the month. No retirement savings. No financial security. Despite six years of education, she had a paycheck to-paycheck existence” (Felsted). This is the sad reality of millions of people after graduating.

There have been many people and ideas to try and create solutions to lessen the student debt crisis and relieve the bank accounts of college students and their families. As I mentioned before when I was talking about more professors needing to be paid, there have been attempts on campus to decrease the cost of tuition, such as having bigger classes, less textbooks, shorter hours, ect., however, these ideas were not very favored by families or the public. Presidential running nominees such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have spoken on the crisis very diligently. Elizabeth Warren has happened to drop out of the presidential running, but during her time in which she was participating she proposed possible solutions that she said she would move forward with if elected president. “Warren said she will direct her secretary of Education to begin to ‘compromise and modify’ federal student loans up to $50,000 for 95% of those with outstanding student debt, or 42 million people” (Higgins). Since Warren dropped out of the running, we won’t know if her proposed solution would have been successful, however it is still valuable considering we don’t know if it wouldn’t have been successful either. Bernie Sanders, one of the current democratic presidential nominees has also spoken largely on the crisis and has

included it as an important part of his campaign. In regards to the student debt crisis, Bernie says if he’s elected president that he will provide Pell grants to low-income students to cover the non-tuition costs of college, require states to cover the cost of tuition for low-income families, lessen the interest rates that the government profits off of, and triple funding for work study programs to help students gaining work experience as well (Sanders). Bernie also says he will “Provide $1.3 billion to private, nonprofit HBCUs and MSIs per year to eliminate or significantly reduce tuition and fees. This funding would support some 200 schools which serve at least 35 percent low-income students”(Sanders). In the article STUDENT DEBT: Why It’s Your Problem Too, Karen Felsted tells the story of a woman named Wendy that I shared earlier, but also shares possible solutions that she believes could be effective. Felsted suggests improving productivity and efficiency in practice, preparing students better, boosting students' confidence more, creating realistic work environment expectations, increasing government advocacy, creating alternative education models, cultivating core non-technical skills, and informing students more to encourage smart decision making (Felsted). To close her remarks, Felsted ends by saying “Student debt and the economic viability of the profession are complicated problems, but fortunately, many of the early steps toward change have already occurred. And while thoughtful analysis of the issues is critical, we must be careful not to get so discouraged that we end up fulfilling our own gloomy prophecies. If all stakeholders commit to positive change-including private practice investors -we will surmount the challenges presented by student debt” (Felsted). I thought this was a good note to leave off of and transition to my final thoughts as well.

Throughout all the negative effects that come from this crisis, it can be easy for many people to be discouraged by the lack of success so many have experienced post graduation, however, that does not make the solution to give up your aspirations and not give college a chance. For some people, college isn’t necessary or simply isn’t for them, and that’s okay too. But there are also millions of driven people out there too who need higher education to reach their goals, and it is not right for this crisis to hold them back. It is important to keep shedding light on this crisis and focusing attention on it to continue moving forward in relieving it. As felsted said, If all authority with the power to create a chance can commit to positive change, we will overcome this challenge, so it is important that we continue to speak up until that is done. Attending college is an experience that everyone deserves to have the opportunity to have, regardless socio-economic status, race, background, ect. Bernie Sanders wrote in his campaign “American people deserve freedom – true freedom. You are not truly free when you graduate college with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt. You are not truly free when you cannot pursue your dream of becoming a teacher, environmentalist, journalist or nurse because you cannot make enough money to cover your monthly student loan payments. And you are not truly free when the vast majority of good-paying jobs require a degree that requires taking out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to obtain” (Sanders). As a society we need to continue to fight for this freedom, not only for our young generation of today, but for the future generations to come after us that our country will rely on someday as well. 

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