Higher Education, But Only for the Wealthy

There was a time when people believed that higher education should be available to people of all social classes. Along with exclusive private colleges and universities, public establishments were founded, to make it possible for anyone, theoretically, to be able to go to college. The California State University/University of California systems, for example, were meant to increase access to education, to improve quality of life in California, to create a functional public education framework that would make it possible to educate members of the professional class.

Education, you know, can be a tremendous tool for social change as well as an opportunity out of poverty traps. While education is not a golden ticket that will magically transport people to a better world, it can be a very, very useful means to an end, a valuable thing for people to have access to. People trapped in the lower classes have trouble climbing out because they lack the tools to do so, because they live in a society that actively works to keep them there, and education can be a form of escape hatch.

We are reminded, repeatedly, of the value of a degree. There are stark earning differentials between high school diplomas, bachelors, and postgraduate degrees, highlighting the monetary value of education. Having a degree can make you more employable, can create more access to work, can increase your chances of making good wages. Menial labour does not pay well, does not come with benefits, and does not require a degree. Positions that require degrees pay more and come with better chances for something else, something larger, something better. You need education to get to that.

So it’s dismaying to see that education is increasingly out of reach for people in the lower classes, and for some of the middle classes as well. There’s a complex confluence of circumstances going on to push people out of the higher education system. Starting, of course, with rising costs. Even public schools are getting extremely expensive, to the point that they are cost prohibitive. It used to be possible for middle class families to pay cash for tuition, for lower class students to get financial aid to cover relatively low per-unit costs. This is no longer the case.

Along with rising costs have come falling aid—these issues are not new to you, I discuss them all the time, but they are sinister and troubling and they appear to be increasing. Even as society becomes more aware of the fact that college is more expensive and there’s less money for college, nothing is happening to change that. Colleges argue that they have to increase costs to pay operating expenses, that they need to increase enrollment to raise revenues, while funding shrivels because of the economy, and the government cuts grants and other funding programmes because austerity measures are in place and it’s time for ‘shared sacrifice’ which of course involves the lower classes first.

Student loans are not a solution to college expenses. Aside from the fact that it may not be possible to get enough loan coverage to pay for a degree, graduating with extremely high student debt is not sustainable. Already, recent graduates are struggling with high debt and the fact that their valuable degrees still don’t earn enough to make their monthly loan payments. This is a problem that will grow worse, not better. Saddling college graduates with debt they cannot possibly hope to discharge is really nothing short of inhumane, and yet people pretend that this kind of financing is acceptable because college is an investment and those loans will pay for themselves. Cold comfort for people struggling with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

And, of course, there are all the class barriers to college admission that seem to be mounting by the day. There’s the expectation that applicants have long lists of extracurriculars, some of which cost money, while others require time. These are things that are not available to all students. Schools claim to consider this issue, to balance different life experiences, but they often fall back on the argument that lower class students are not prepared for school and thus wouldn’t make good students.

It’s true, many students coming from poor backgrounds aren’t prepared for school. Because they attend underfunded districts with inadequate programmes, they may need to work while in school, to care for family members. They do not have access to the things that middle class students do. Outreach attempts to counter that, to create a mechanism to get students ready for higher education, but it’s another example of charities doing the government’s job, and they cannot be everywhere. They cannot provide the level of coverage needed. They cannot, functionally, replace the public education system.

Some middle and upper class students aren’t prepared for college either, something people seem reluctant to discuss. Students from all classes don’t understand how to write essays, how to research, how to cite sources. There’s a plagiarism epidemic in US colleges and universities and a lot of that plagiarism isn’t malice, it’s lack of understanding about how to do academic work. So forgive me if the claim that lower class students are inadequately prepared doesn’t ring quite right to me, when middle and upper class students are just as likely to plagiarise, to demonstrate inadequate preparedness for higher education, illustrating that we have a problem throughout the education system, one that is exacerbated in areas where people lack advantages because of their social class.

Education should be freely available to all who want it. The fact that it is not, that public education was once available and now it is very hard to access, is indicative of deep problems within the United States. Is this the kind of world we want to build, where a poorly educated lower class builds wealth for the upper classes? Apparently, it is.