by Kate Harveston
If there is a list of things the millennial generation feels allegedly entitled to, affordable education must be near the top. Conservative naysayers cite the fact that current wages compare favorably to those of 15 years ago. Technically that’s true, but a look at the hard numbers tells a different story.
Wages have increased roughly 10% for the average worker between 1979 and 2013. That number creeps towards 18% if you’re in the top 80th percentile or higher. The cost of school has increased more than 440% during the same period. In the era of modern education, when a four-year degree is expected just to escape the poverty line, paying for school has never been tougher. So what are we doing about it?
Politicians Bicker While Students Struggle
Arguing, mostly. While it might not attract the same attention as high-profile issues like abortion or foreign policy, the way we fund education has become a political issue. Liberals have championed aid packages, grants and scholarships that have some effect for a finite number of applicants but fail to resolve the larger issue.
Conservatives want to re-hash our existing loan system to alleviate the issue, but the crushing weight of loans is already one of the biggest deterrents for young people who want to get an education. A more holistic solution, one that reduces the overall cost-per-student on institutions and cuts the fat from bloated school staffs, might be a more realistic idea that we could get behind.
Liberals, on the other hand, are against shrinking educational institutions during a time when more Americans than ever want to go to college. Bernie Sanders has proposed free four-year programs for all Americans, but only by saddling the government with tuition costs. Hillary Clinton also recommended throwing money at the problem, but with the national debt not getting any smaller, are these solutions anymore realistic than those of the right?
The Job Market Fails to Reward New Talent
Many young people with four-year degrees are convinced college might not have been a good choice. Instead of putting their new skills to work at a well-paying job, they find themselves taking whatever work is available in a stagnating market. Things are better today than they were in 2010, but when you’re staring down the prospect of paying off a six-figure loan, you need to feel confident the income will present itself.
At the moment, that's just not the case. Students are expected to pay thousands upon thousands for schooling, but many emerge from college to work internships that sometimes pay nothing at all. We have a young workforce doing jobs they're overqualified for and losing valuable opportunities to develop real-life experience. They are often assigned secretarial-like duties, and intern positions do not have the same human rights that a working professional should.
It’s no wonder so many young people are losing interest in going to college — it’s a high price to pay for an education that may or may not prepare them for the next phase of life.
The Societal Impact of Expensive Education
There’s nothing wrong with young people giving some serious thought to whether college is a good investment instead of blindly enrolling on the assumption that a degree guarantees a well-paying job. Teaching pragmatism and planning, however, won’t resolve the problem of exclusivity.
Poverty-stricken minority groups have been kept down by a lack of access to education for decades. If the government chooses not to act, it is a clear message of disregard, an endorsement of “those who’ve got, get” society.
Our government representatives are supposed to work toward solutions for these types of issues. It’s hard to make the argument that any American willing to put the work in should be denied the benefits linked to a quality education. Sadly, the back-and-forth political volleying and brinksmanship that has come to define Congress in the 21st century has overshadowed the real issue here.
Neglect from Congress Will Cost Schools Dearly
Since the attitude toward mandatory college is already shifting, it’s only a matter of time before schools feel the impact of lower enrollment. While many institutions have built excellent facilities and staff, their ability to afford these comfortable amenities is primarily supported by high tuition rates and propped up by questionable accreditation practices that suppress institutions with a leaner approach.
If class numbers shrink, schools won’t make up the difference through private or public means. That could have a larger long-term impact on our educational system. It could mean those students who still choose to attend school won’t enjoy the same quality education they can today. It could also drive quality teaching staff out of the business, leaving vacancies for less qualified educators.
A lose-lose Situation
No one wins from any of these outcomes. Students don't get the education they want, and schools suffer from falling enrollment. Politicians fail to help the people that they represent, and society becomes increasingly stratified. The politics of education should not be divisive — let's agree on that and get down to finding an actionable solution.