How Accessible IS Higher Education?

All told, student loans, including a mix of loans from private and federal sources, exceed one billion dollars. Students under thirty represent the largest group of borrowers, accounting for over one third of the 37 million people with outstanding student loans. Perhaps not a major surprise since people under thirty are most likely to be in college or recent graduates, and thus the least likely to have paid off their loans (compare with, for example, the 2.2 million borrowers over 60), but there’s more happening here than just that; the price of college attendance has risen by 1,000% in three decades, which is a mind-boggling amount in an unprecedented amount of time.

Over half of students must borrow some money to complete their college educations, and many rely heavily on loans along with other assistance like grants and scholarships to successfully go to college. Money is a huge deciding factor in whether and where students go to college, more so than ever before; at the same time college degrees are being pushed on new graduates in the US, and people are being encouraged to go to college to improve their chances, college is being made much more difficult to access, through sheer cost alone.

There are tremendous barriers to attending college and university in the United States, and I’ve written about many of them here. There are the class disparities, for example, that make it easy for some students to rack up extracurriculars and good grades in well-reputed schools that provide a thorough grounding in subjects they’ll need to know. The same stratifications ensure that some students get a world-class education in classes with low student to teacher ratios, the best possible equipment, and a safe learning environment, while others are moved through institutions designed to treat students like objects to be shuffled around a game board.

Disabled students may find it difficult to apply to school and stay in college in a system that doesn’t provide accommodations or consider the needs of disabled students. Other students may have obligations outside college like children or family remembers who need their attention, splitting their focus between school and caregiving needs, making it impossible to attend full-time. Some need to work, while others have to consider still more factors in their lives that complicate the college experience. Notably, many of these issues come down to class, though not all of them do.

But finances on their own are a barrier worth looking at, because the US prides itself on the quality of its college and university system, insists that education is the way of the future, and then shuts many students out of the system, making it impossible for them to take advantage. This presents a stark contrast to the way such systems are administered in many other nations, where students test into the system and those with acceptable scores are taken and provided with a free or low-cost education on the grounds that investing in students now will yield results in the future, both in terms of providing a new generation of skilled professionals and in an innate cultural sense.

Obviously numerous factors are circling to create a jump in college prices, including the recession, a rising jobless rate, declines in university endowments, cuts in government spending, and the rise of for-profit education in the United States, which has acted quickly to gut government agencies and assault traditional public and private education. It was not that long ago that students could expect to attend state schools for modest fees, allowing them access to an excellent public education at some of the most renowned colleges and universities in the world. Today, the same education is so expensive that it’s on par with some private education.

How has this happened? How, first of all, has the United States allowed the student debt crisis to get as large as it has, refusing to recognise that it presents a very serious and credible financial bubble? While bankruptcy laws in the United States may be structured to allow student loans to persist through bankruptcy, with tight laws on debt forgiveness, the fact is that blood cannot be squeezed from a stone. Many people do not have the money to repay their loans and won’t have it, into the foreseeable future. Even if their debts aren’t forgiven, that doesn’t mean they’re going to pay them, at least, not right away.

And unpaid debts makes it both difficult to make new loans for people who need them, and to control the balance of the student loan system, which relies on a steady flow of monies in, monies out. Meanwhile, private student loans, many of which have exploitative terms and interested, have sprouted up everywhere to take advantage of people struggling with high college costs. Like the housing loans that brought down the economy in 2008, these loans often come with a minimal screening process designed to get signatures on dotted lines and figure the rest out later, creating the very real risk of a serious bubble.

As students rebel against the high cost of education and the obscene amount they owe to the government, these issues are growing more pressing, and behind them all lies the fundamental question: why is education valued so little in the United States that we allowed it to become a for-profit enterprise and pushed it out of the reach of many of the people who want it so desperately? As a method for reinforcing class stratification, the state of the education system in the US is superb, funneling only those with the most money and power to colleges and universities with a small allotment of ‘underprivileged’ students treated like zoo displays to gawk at.

But as a method for rebuilding a nation flailing in an economic crisis? As a method for achieving true liberty and justice for all? It leaves much to be desired.