Who will bear the burden?
The cost of college is a huge portion of the budget of most University of Massachusetts students, whether this cost is borne by parents or students themselves. Several student advocacy groups working at UMass have been making the case for a change in the way we fund higher education, and some have their sights international in scope. In the United States, the cost of higher education is roughly split between taxpayers and individual students.
Massachusetts taxpayers currently contribute a portion of the UMass budget, and in almost all colleges, there are extensive provisions of federal financial aid. The vast majority of students receive some form of financial aid. But, how should this division be apportioned? How much of the cost of higher education should be borne by taxpayers and how much by individual students?
Campus student groups have been advocating for a higher proportion of the cost to be borne by taxpayers. There are strong arguments in their favor. College students have been taking on larger and larger proportions of debt. This makes it more difficult for students to repay these loans once they enter the job market. If college students have to take on a large percentage of their college debt, this will result in decreased access to lower income students.
Does the additional portion of college costs borne by individual students result in decreased access to higher education by lower income individuals and families? Student advocacy organizations say that this is indeed the case. According to the Project on Student Debt (Projectonstudentdebt.org), over 900,000 students are blocked from federal loans due to the fact that their education institutions are not even participating in the federal loan program.
Without access to loans or grants, lower income students lose access to higher education. A free market-based system may indicate that this is all right, but student groups have been advocating that this results in a loss of productive labor. Society loses overall because we have less educated people in our workforce. We can even be putting our whole nation at a disadvantage by not bearing the cost of education as a whole society. We already do this for the early stages of education; why not complete this through the college level?
This is what was indeed done through the 1970s in many state schools. Massachusetts Students United (MSU) has been advocating for a return to such a model in Massachusetts. This would open educational opportunities to all students.
Still, other student groups are eager to expand this model to work in developing countries.
Jean Arnaud, a chemistry and math major, wants to expand higher education opportunities in Haiti by opening a university that is combined with cooperative farming. In developing nations, such a model may be necessary. The availability of higher education in developing nations is even more severely restricted than in the United States. Since the governments have little funds, they rely almost exclusively on tuition to raise funds for their universities. This results in a further stratification of access to higher education beyond the already deep division of wealth that already exists.
The PEACH Project, the initiative started by Arnaud here at UMass, seeks to redress this situation by tackling the costs of higher education from all angles simultaneously. Arnaud mentions that there are additional concerns in developing nations beyond the monetary cost. These include problems related to transportation, culture and brain drain.
Transportation can be a serious factor in developing nations in that students are unable to even get to the location of the university, due to poor road and public transit networks. Cultural factors also play a role. Parents tend to be afraid that if their children become educated, they will become disconnected from the family. At first glance, this would appear to be an ironic situation, but this is a genuine concern that needs to be addressed.
The reason for parental concerns is related to the brain drain factor. Those in developing nations that manage to attain higher education find themselves needing to leave their native land simply to practice their new skill set and profession. The result is that, while richer nations like the United States gain from this fresh talent, the poorest nations will continue to remain poor.
The other way to look at funding higher education is to assert that it is an individual initiative. It is brought down that those who seek education will find it. Many times, even taking the initiative to go to the local library is enough to begin the process of attain the skills necessary to have a good job, and the internet readily democratizes access to information. Those who want a higher education should be expected to take loans and fund the cost of their own learning. However, many people will assert that this is a hateful and mean-spirited point of view.
Therefore, addressing the costs of higher education needs to be an issue for politicians and student leaders to examine. To what degree do we assert that education, and in particular college education, is a societal need that ought to be funded by taxpayers and international organizations, and to what degree is this responsibility placed on the individual students and families?
Eric Magazu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.