As everyone knows, the price of higher education has been going up for years. At the University of California, for example, tuition was raised 32 percent in 2010 and 8 percent in 2011. The next increase could be as high as 20 percent in early 2013.
Naturally, a lot of students and parents are upset. So some people — very Learned People, of course — try to reassure the wretched masses by touting the availability of scholarships and financial aid, which can knock several thousand dollars per year off a college's sticker price. As Dr. Robert Weisbuch, former president of Drew University, puts it: "There is retail and net, and almost no one pays retail."
That may be true. But of course, funds from these kinds of programs are often labeled "awards" for a reason: they're competitive and limited. Not everyone who needs a scholarship will win one, and financial aid often doesn't go far enough. Loans must be taken out to make up the difference between what is needed and what is "awarded."
Still, the Learned People argue that the sheer number of colleges in America makes higher education a "buyer's market." With so many quality schools to choose from, students and parents who shop around are just bound to find a great deal. According to Weisbuch, at colleges where "competition for students is fierce," it's even possible to "bargain aggressively" for a better price.
In other words: if tuition is draining your bank account, it's your own fault, for either a) not going somewhere cheaper in the first place, or b) not using your psychic powers to predict all those tuition increases that occurred at your school after you matriculated. Weisbuch, for his part, graciously advises everybody concerned about the rising cost of higher education to "shaddup."
Frankly, this tone-deaf perspective sounds like something overheard at a Tea Party rally or (redundancy alert) the upcoming Republican National Convention. But in any event, preaching about the wonders of scholarships, financial aid, "investment," and (imaginary) market forces completely misses the bigger picture. The real problem is not that these affordability tools don't work quite as well as the Learned People would like them to. It's that they're needed in the first place.
College is the new high school. Decades ago, an eighteen-year-old could finish high school, find a job, and make a steady career of it. With nothing but a diploma and a good work ethic, he or she could own a piece of the American Dream. Today, of course, things are different. Practically speaking, to even think about securing a foothold in the middle class, you need a college degree.
Yes, there are a determined, lucky few who manage to hit the jackpot without going to college. But there's a reason these people make it on the evening news and have Aaron Sorkin write screenplays about them: they are very, very rare.
The career fields likely to drive the American economy in the coming decades are overwhelmingly technical, professional, and specialized: health care, information technology, engineering, and the sciences. Proficiency in any one of these basically requires post-secondary education, and colleges and universities have the infrastructure and resources to properly train people in them. Wikipedia and the public library do not.
A patchwork, limited financial aid "award" system was sufficient when America didn't need a large percentage of its graduates to be college-educated. If tuition increases rendered the "award" amounts insufficient for a lot of people, no big deal — students priced out of the ivory tower could still find meaningful work with their diplomas, and the manufacturing economy would keep chugging merrily along.
Reality has changed since then. America needs more of its workforce to receive higher education. However, fewer workers can afford to pay the bill for it — and there simply aren't enough "awards" available to cover the gap.
The system is obsolete, nothing more than a flimsy Band-Aid. It makes the surface look a little better, but it doesn't address the underlying problem. Which is this: college is a necessity, but it's being funded like an option.
Perhaps it's time to view higher education the same way we've viewed primary and secondary schooling for years — as a vital tool for developing a basically trained, educated citizenry. And if a degree is as important now as a diploma used to be, shouldn't it cost the same amount of money as the latter to obtain?
Kevin Wolfman is a a writer and project editor at the Center for Digital Education and the Center for Digital Government, divisions of e.Republic, Inc. He is a former teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science from the University of California at Davis. He is the author of Not Politics: The Student's Guide to Political Science. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwolfman.