Higher Education Reform and College Affordability

March 22, 2016
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The recent economic recession greatly impacted American Higher Education. For a large number of public universities, the loss of federal funding caused a drastic hike in student tuition cost, and universities were forced to cut spending in order to keep their universities open.

As a result, students have taken on the burden of increased tuition costs, which have risen by an estimated 1,120 percent since the late 70’s, and collectively, today’s students have amassed trillions of dollars in student loan debt. Many are no better off for it, as employers frequently point out that today’s graduates are by and large unprepared for the workforce.

Education has been a hotly debated issue on both sides of the presidential race, and for young Americans especially, the nominees stances on higher education are being heavily scrutinized and considered.

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Though the Republican candidates have addressed their opposition to rising student loan debt, none have offered substantive plans to combat the issue at hand. In comparison, Democratic hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have proposed similar plans to address the rising cost of tuition.

Last May, Sanders introduced a bill which promised to eliminate undergraduate tuition at public universities via “The College for All Act.” The legislation promises to “eliminate the $70 billion students spend in tuition costs at all 4-year public colleges and universities,” instead leaving the Federal and State Governments to cover the cost.

Clinton’s plan is all too similar, but rather than offering “free tuition” her plan instead focuses on “debt-free education.” “I believe that we should make community college free. We should have debt-free college if you go to a public college or university. You should not have to borrow a dime to pay tuition,” Clinton argued in last year’s Democratic debate. “I disagree with free college for everybody. I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.”

However, optimistic campaign promises may not be enough to address the root cause of America’s education crisis.

Professors and thought leaders in academia find themselves questioning whether or not the current state of higher education is sustainable as it currently stands. Huffington Post contributor and Boston University professor Jay Halfond argues that the rise of for-profit schools, the loss of state funding for public universities, and the increase in faculty cost have all contributed to America’s education woes.

“Rising student debt has become the scary byproduct of these trends,” Halfond wrote, “[It’s] grown to what is now an unsustainable bubble.”

It’s a cost that has shifted from the government to the individual, and for many students, the burdensome price tag of student loan debt doesn’t align with the quality of education they receive. To students relegated to mid-tier state universities this sentiment rings especially true.

According to analysis by Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors, the most recent graduating class is the most indebted class in American history–the average student leaving university at least $35,000 in debt.

In an interview with Mic, Kantrowitz articulates, “Student loan debt at graduation increases by $1,000 to $2,000 per year because of a failure of federal and state government grants to keep pace with increases in college costs.”

It comes as no surprise then that students are questioning the value of a college education. But as has been noted many times before, “universal education is a right, and higher education is a priority” and without those things, the future of the country’s well being is at stake.

Understanding this, a handful of universities have been proactive in changing the dynamic of their institutions in order to increase access to students.

Perhaps the most notable of these schools is Arizona State University, whose president, Michael Crow, has worked tirelessly over the course of his tenure to institute changes at ASU which make college more affordable, accessible, and better able to adapt to various learning needs.

ASU is one of the most visible early adopters of online education, and ASU online has increased their student population significantly. ASU is now recognized as the largest public university in the country, and since Crow’s appointment in 2002, the university’s enrolment has increased by over 65 percent.

In addition to drawing a more diverse and large population of students, ASU has also enriched the college education experience for both students and faculty. The university’s research expenditures have quadrupled, Freshman students have been able to explore the college experience through the school’s Global Freshman Academy, and students have been given more affordable ways to finance their education through the school’s recent partnership with Starbucks.  

ASU’s progress and adaptability in the midst of unstable economic conditions indicate that there is hope for America’s colleges and universities. But as with America’s most elite institutions, ASU is an individual example of excellence in higher education that isn’t accessible by a huge majority of the student population. Changes at individual schools won’t fix what is widely recognized as a broken educational system. In the meantime, Americans will be paying close attention to the upcoming presidential incumbents for comprehensive solutions.

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