Analysis: Is A College Education a Right or a Privilege?

When I first began this blog, I wanted to write about rising tuition at public universities in North Carolina. As I have further explored this topic and realized all the factors involved in tuition costs, my topic has gradually evolved. The question of “Is Higher Education a Right or a Privilege?” related to tuition costs at universities is an area within the social sciences that I have been exploring. With increased tuition rates at public universities in North Carolina and all over the country, there are fewer opportunities for students from low-income areas, less diversity on college campuses, and increased student debt. I am exploring why college tuition is increasing and how these increased tuition rates are related to diversity on campuses.

The rise of tuition cost may be justified by people reasoning that in order to provide the highest quality of education, universities need the finest professors and the finest buildings with state of the art equipment, all of which cost money. However, an article featured in the New York Times discussed how while tuition has almost quadrupled over the past 35 years, teachers’ salaries have not risen much. The money has been directed to college administration positions as most universities have expanded their administration staff and raised their pay. In order to invest in students as best they can, universities need more money invested into the school and one of the most effective ways to do this is by taking more money from all the students enrolled. For public universities, there has been a decline in state support for higher education. Between 1987 and 2012 government supported has declined from $8,497 to $5,906 per student. Eric Houck, associate professor at the UNC School of Education, said “until students refuse to pay higher tuition fees that there is little incentive for college administrators to decrease them”.

People challenge that education is a right not a luxury, and everyone should be entitled to a college education. A postsecondary education should not be a privilege for only the people who are able to afford the increasingly expensive price tag that college is. What value do we place on a college education? Is it something that we believe can only be achieved by costing a lot of money, or do we believe that a college education does not need to be backed by a lot of money from students in order to function effectively and efficiently? With the 2016 Presidential Election rapidly approaching, college tuition is a topic of conversation that many politicians are speaking out on. Senator Bernie Sanders of North Carolina believes tuition at public universities should be free. $120 billion dollars was taken out alone in 2012 for student loans to help students meeting rising tuitions, and Tom Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Policy Institute, went as far to say “student loans are the closest thing we have to indentured servitude in the United States”.

President Barack Obama recognizes that as college tuition rises, the people who are most affected are those in the lower and middle classes and he has made it a priority of his presidency to bring awareness and hopefully change to student debt. He believes the price of college should not prevent anyone from receiving a higher education. However, he was making plans in 2012 at the beginning of his second term of presidency to reduce tuition yet the price of higher education has continued to rise since 2012. Politicians and administration at universities continue to address the issue of rising tuition and student debt, but significant action has not been taken to truly make a difference. Half of people from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25 but just 1 in 10 people from low-income families do.

In 2004, a study of high school graduates reported 40% of qualified low-income high school graduates enrolled in a 4-year college, which decreased from 54% in 1992. Fewer students from low-income and moderate-income families enrolled in postsecondary education, which is believed to be triggered by the increasing finances of college tuition.

By limiting the types of students and raising tuition to a point where certain socioeconomic groups are at a severe disadvantage and do not have the same opportunities to attend a four-year university as students from higher income groups, campuses are not welcoming as much diversity to their campuses. In 2009, a U.S. Census Bureau revealed that from 1990 to 2014 the percentage of 25-29 year olds who had attained at least a bachelor’s decrease for Caucasians was 41%, 22% for African Americans, and 15% for Hispanics. From 1990 to 2014, the gap between Whites and Blacks in the rate of attaining at least a bachelor’s degree increased from 13-18 percentage points, and the gap between Whites and Hispanics widened from 18 to 26 percentage points. This increase in the gap between races could be related to the increase in tuition as Caucasians coming from a higher socioeconomic class are continuing to have less difficulty in keeping up with rising tuition costs. By raising tuition and certain races and socioeconomic classes being affected by it more than others, the student body population is not as diverse. Diversity on college campuses is beneficial for many reasons. “Research shows that the overall academic and social effects of increased racial diversity on campus are likely to be positive, ranging from higher levels of academic achievement to the improvement of near-and long-term intergroup relations”.

In conclusion, we as a society must ask ourselves what the repercussions of rising tuition are. In North Carolina, enrollment at public universities declined 27.6% since 2010. North Carolina Board of Governors member Scott Lampe said, “tuition is going to have to go up some just about every year”. While tuition at public universities in America in the 2013-2014 academic year was raised by 4% for in-state students and 3% for out-of-state students. If the attitude of board members is that tuition will continue to increase this way every year, will tuition quadruple again in the next 35 years? UNC Chapel Hill student Kacey Williams said the additional costs do not upset her because “For where I want to go in the future, the prices I pay now, even if they do continue to increase, will be well worth it”. While tuition increasing 4% is not too troubling to Kacey, the question I have is what will tuition look like if she were to have children attending college in 20 years? If tuition were to raise 4% every year for the next 20 years, would she mind paying an 80% tuition increase for her children or even be able to?

Rising tuition has many widespread effects in areas besides diversity within college campuses. Students are choosing different majors as a result and the expensive price of college sways their decision when choosing a career because they feel more pressure to make sure the investment of college was a smart decision by choosing a more lucrative career.

Students can feel as though they are a slave to the government. The idea of thousands of dollars of debt awaiting them when they graduate college can affect the decisions they make in college. With the price of college continuing to be so expensive, the worth of the education and where your degree can take you are questions that more value is placed on. Certain education professionals continue to advise students to follow their passions and that their major does not determine what their career will be or their success. However, Jason Tyszko, a senior director of policy, education, and workforce for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce declared “assessing the return on investment of colleges and majors has never been more important to the growth of our economy and the economic well-being of our graduates”.

Marina Keegan, a late journalist from Yale University, penned an essay where she revealed that in the last 10 years around 10% of employed Yale graduates would enter the consulting or finance industry. Keegan conducted a scientific study asking freshman what they thought they might pursue as a profession after college and not one of them said they wanted to be a consultant or investment banker. As entering college freshman, many people still fantasize about their dreams and passions, but the allure of paying off their student debt sooner when a lucrative position at a Wall Street company becomes more attractive as they get older. One student she interviewed wanted to be a writer for films, but admitted “it’s just very scary to watch as many of your friends have already secured six-figure salaries and are going to be living in luxury next year. I’m trying to figure out if I love art enough to be poor”.

Whether it is diversity, career choices, student debt or college majors selected, the continued increase of tuition touches many areas and groups of people. While the topic receives attention from media and is spoken about by politicians and high-powered people, real action needs to be taken in order to invoke change.


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