By Aidan Coyne
On Nov. 12, students from all across the country gathered on their respective campuses for the Million Student March, an event organized to demonstrate that young people today are not willing to be priced out of their education without a fight. In a world that is becoming increasingly complex, there are few issues as important to the prosperity of the United States and the world at large as education. College education in particular has transformed within the last century, from a mostly ornamental rite of passage for the wealthy and privileged to an essential component of the modern workplace.
The facts concerning college education are clear: tuition prices have soared, while the incomes of most American families have stagnated. Tuition doesn’t even tell the whole story: housing, food, and transportation costs make collegiate attendance an inordinately expensive experience for those who receive scholarships but come from families with low socioeconomic status. The result, typically, is a crushing amount of debt in the form of student loans. The average level of student debt in 2013 was found to be $27,670, and the collective amount of student debt nationwide a stunning $1.2 trillion. This not only serves as a millstone around the necks of the individuals who owe these debts, which can accumulate to more than $100,000 over the course of four years, but also threatens the stability of the national economy with such unhealthy levels of debt. Few have raised the alarm about the threat this mountain of debt could wreak on the economy if things get worse, but who was raising alarms about credit card debt and manipulation of home equities in 2006?
In an almost ironic twist, as the cost of attending college has increased, so have the benefits one reaps from graduating with a degree. The college wage premium, which estimates the gains in income received from a college education, has steadily risen. In 2011, research by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that women with a college degree make an average 57.3 percent more than women with only a high school diploma; the figure was a comparative 56.5 percent difference for men. Clearly, those who claim the importance of graduating college are not wrong; obtaining a bachelor’s degree is one of the most concrete steps a person can take to ensure a healthy financial future for themselves.
In accordance with this, it is critically important that cost of college is not allowed to continue rising, and is lowered in practical and meaningful ways as soon as possible. Social mobility in the United States is low compared to other developed nations, and has not shown any sign of increase in recent decades. For immigrant groups and people of color who have been trapped in cycles of poverty, it is crucial that access to higher education, and therefore the proven correlation of higher earnings, be made more attainable. It is beneficial to everyone that people of all races and backgrounds have an equal opportunity to succeed — not just a theoretical equality under the law, but a tangible reality of success to which all people can aspire.
There are, of course, critics of this push for lowered college tuition. Some object that college is not for everyone. This point may be true, but would only be a valid objection if activists were calling for mandatory university attendance, which they clearly are not. Others object by saying that they themselves worked to pay for their college degree, so why should they be forced to pay for someone else’s? This is a tired attack that relies primarily upon the lazy stereotype that “kids these days” are just so much more entitled than their predecessors. However, this objection is easily parried by the unavoidable fact that college tuition has been rising consistently over the decades; the tuition for the University of California was free in 1968, and only $150 in 1970. So, it is frankly a bit foolish that the “boomers” would complain about how the youth of today are supposedly overly entitled (and only briefly mentioning this is roughly the same group who passed Prop. 13, freezing property taxes for themselves at the UC’s expense).
The more realistic objection is practical: how can we afford to lower tuition? There are several different angles to explore here. In California, the State has been increasingly unwilling to pay for rising costs in the UC system. If the state government values the affordability of higher education, its options are twofold. The State can either reallocate the amount of revenue it currently takes in to higher education, or it can raise taxes to bring in more revenue. Given that massive companies like the Walt Disney Corporation still pay 1978 levels of property tax on financial bonanzas like Disneyland, it may be a good start to repeal at least the commercial aspect of Prop. 13.
There are potential changes to be made on the expense side as well. Studies have shown that professors do not profit much from raised tuition; rather, the average size of the university has ballooned into corporation-like size. While resources for college students are essential, it may be necessary to restructure our nation’s universities so that there are more varied levels of tuition rates. World-class facilities like UC Davis’ Activities and Recreation Center are fantastic, but many students across the country would prefer paying more reasonable tuition, even if it meant a less fancy gym.
The United States is known as a country that prizes liberty and freedom. These ideals have no greater embodiment than within the university. It is the university that allows students to learn about the past and shape the future. It is the university that opens the door to success, both economically and mentally. It is the university that has been the traditional bastion of free thought, free speech, and free expression. For both our present and future, our nation must fight for the university.