College is a great steppingstone, and in our global economy it has become all but a prerequisite for those who wish to compete. Historically, the privilege of matriculation was the exclusive right of the wealthy and gifted. However, as time went on, America began to realize that an educated citizenry can push the world forward. The American ideals of opportunity and “the pursuit” would spill over into the world of higher education, such that historically underrepresented groups — minorities and low-income individuals — could also study at post-secondary institutions. This egalitarian practice was, I think, a noble one. However, the system that was set up to achieve this goal fell short.
The system I allude to is financial aid. Everyone knows college is expensive — and over the years, it’s only gotten more so. In fact, according to a recent report published by the College Board, the average cost to attend a public university rose about 5.4 percent this year. Likewise, the price tag for private institutions increased 4.3 percent. These increases, coupled with the sobering fact that household incomes have been on a steady decline over the past three years, have left families all over the country with no recourse but to take out loans — private or federal — to finance their children’s education. And this is where things break down.
Families and individuals are now borrowing at record-breaking rates. According to a USA Today article, “the amount of student loans taken out last year crossed the $100 billion mark for the first time, and total loans outstanding will exceed $1 trillion for the first time this year.” This exorbitant amount of borrowing is symptomatic of the larger problem: When everything is driven by capitalism, there can be no limit to prices, fees and profit — and a college is a business.
What has emerged, as a result of the financial aid system and ever increasing tuition, is a cycle of borrowing that students and their families must enter in order to study and train in their profession of choice. This presents a paradox: While financial aid is supposed to be a means to secure the opportunity of higher education, it ends up leaving students with the immense monetary burden of their hopes and dreams. Nowadays, one must fight tooth and nail only to find a mountain of debt at the end of the rainbow — debt that is symbolically conferred via diploma.
It makes sense — we buy everything. Now we must add education to that list. The outrage that students feel in response to this seemingly crippling system is just. We are the ones who must train and learn to better prepare ourselves for the fast-paced, highly specialized world out there — but in order to get there, we have to willingly encumber ourselves with debt. This will affect ‘life-cycle events’ such as purchasing a car or a home, and deciding when, or if, we can start a family.
What we need is reform. President Obama recently announced a small step in the right direction. However, for those overburdened with debt already, his plan falls short. While we may be able to consolidate debt and see loans forgiven after 20 years of timely payments, we need more. The higher education system needs a cap on tuition raises and borrowing rates. Students everywhere should pressure their politicians for reform, and in the meantime manage their debt as responsibly as they can. Raising awareness constructively through petitioning and on-campus forums have to be our weapons in this fight to free ourselves from this bondage. After all, if we don’t speak out for ourselves, then who will?