Letter: Yes, college should be free

By Erika Civitarese

(Samantha Halm/ Daily Collegian)
(Samantha Halm/ Daily Collegian)

My student debt surrounds me like the construction on the University of Massachusetts campus; no matter how hard I try to avoid it, it shows up everywhere. It keeps me from getting to class on time, it ripped a hole in my backpack and it just puts me in a terrible mood. Like the construction, my student debt affects my every decision: what books I buy for classes versus which ones I can access for free, the amount of hours I work to pay my rent and if I can even continue my education at UMass. You can get rid of the Hasbrouck fence, but student loans are for life.

Lucas Coughlin, another Collegian writer, claimed in his op-ed on Jan. 26, 2016 that college should not be free. I disagree. Higher education is a right. Free higher education would take the burden off students (and non-students) while providing access to good paying jobs and economic advancement to people whose family wealth or personal financial circumstances do not allow them access to college without a life-long debt sentence. The total amount of student debt in the United States surpassed $1.3 trillion in 2015 and the UMass class of 2015 graduated with an average of $28,565 in debt. The burden of student debt makes going into the job market post-college extremely stressful.

The problem with higher education now is that it is becoming less and less accessible due to skyrocketing costs and wage stagnation at the time when more folks need it. Colleges need to be more accessible and turn into a viable option for students instead of something that’s immediately out of the question, or is an unattainable goal. Low income students and students of color are less likely to afford the rapid rise in the cost of higher education, and this limits opportunities for a huge number of potential college students.

To clarify, when I talk about free higher education, I mean completely free: four years of tuition-free public higher education as well as access to free food, housing, books and any other cost necessary. Right now, one-third of UMass students currently work on campus, which does not include the residential assistants and peer mentors in Residential Life or off-campus jobs. The total number of students who work at UMass is significantly higher, and many of these students rely on their jobs to stay in school. Even with those jobs, students are still accumulating debt.

If higher education were free, low-income and working class students wouldn’t have to chose between working long hours at low-wage jobs to help finance their education, which often distracts from and jeopardizes their education. Many opponents of free higher education argue that students need to “work hard” and “earn their way” for a mediocre paying job after graduation and that current college students think we’re entitled to everything. Last semester, I was working 40 hours a week – some labor unpaid – and ended up with the worst GPA I’ve ever had in my academic career. My student debt is around $45,000 right now, and I don’t know how I’ll be able to pay that off with an 11-percent interest rate. I am struggling, and many other students are struggling as well. How is that entitlement when we’re just trying to get by?

Coughlin thinks students can get their higher “education degree cheaply” in today’s society. He suggests students should “attend junior colleges for a year or two, or attend a commuter school.” But what happens when these students move to universities to complete the remainder of their four-year degrees? What I want to ask Coughlin is if he and his family always considered college as an option? How many hours does he work a week? Does he work for spending money or to pay bills? Has he ever had to decide between paying rent and textbooks? Does he struggle under the weight of loans he’ll carry for decades after graduation?

Now I ask you, Coughlin, do you understand why higher education should be free? Students across the United States are demanding it and taking direct action for this to become a reality. Higher education needs to be free so students can go to college instead of being funneled into low-wage jobs with little chance for economic mobility. Higher education needs to be free so undocumented folks, who can’t even access federal financial aid, can attend college without paying from pocket. Higher education needs to be free so students can finally become learners, and not consumers and products of a privatized system.

Erika Civitarese is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]