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Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Pursuing a College Education Shouldn't Mean Going Into Debt

The skyrocketing cost of tuition at American universities is exacerbating wealth disparities and causing the American middle class to shrink further and further. Despite the Biden Administration’s promises to cut the costs of attending four year universities, to make two year community colleges free of charge, and to address the student debt crisis through expanding loan forgiveness programs, there has been little movement in the effort to make a college education affordable for all Americans who want one. The death of the Build Back Better Bill killed any hope for free community college, and the divide in the Democratic Party over student loan forgiveness has kept many borrowers in limbo. However, although the future may appear bleak at the moment, state and local actions offer us a glimmer of hope that substantive change is still possible.

On March 4th, the Governor of New Mexico signed the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act into law. The bill will pay for tuition at in-state schools, accommodate a wide variety of students—whether they be adult learners, part-time students, or high school graduates—, and will cover over half of all of New Mexico’s undergraduate students in the upcoming fall. While this may appear to have an insignificant impact on the country’s problems as a whole, it is an important example of the work that can still be done to improve the lives of ordinary people in the absence of federal action. In fact, many times state programs serve as the model for major federal programs in the future. For example, many argue that the Affordable Care Act was inspired by the “Romneycare” program in Massachusetts.

At a time when the cost of tuition is too high for many Americans to afford, actions like the ones in New Mexico are vital to expanding educational opportunities to all Americans. For many of us at Boston College, we personally feel the anxiety of having to pay the debt that awaits us after graduation. And, as if we are not already paying enough to attend BC, the Board of Trustees recently announced a $2,420 increase in tuition for the 2022-2023 academic year. While the Board argues that its raising of financial aid funds along with tuition proves it is committed to “ensuring accessibility to students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds”, the reality is that the overall cost of attendance will be even more burdensome for many students. For myself personally, I come from a single-income, middle class family. Even with the amount of financial aid that I’ve received from BC, the debt I am already facing has narrowed my career options and made me question whether I can truly afford to be here. A rise in tuition just intensifies these feelings.

As the global economy has become more service-oriented, the working class in America has seen its jobs disappear and higher education marked as the path to prosperity in the 21st century. However, with the cost of tuition rising at several times the rate of inflation since the 1970s, attending college is simply unaffordable for these Americans. As a result, only 9% of the lowest quartile of students in America complete college degrees, compared to around 75% of those from the top quartile. This simply perpetuates the class divide and allows children born into wealthy families to easily pursue higher education, while those born into poverty feel that they have to choose between sacrificing their education or taking on massive debt to have a shot at success.

While the federal government is limited in its ability to affect the price of tuition at private institutions like BC, it does have the power to take actions to make the cost of public education more affordable and combat the widening wealth gap in our country. For one, it could use New Mexico’s program as a model to cut the cost of tuition at public universities across the nation, giving all students a chance to pursue a degree. Additionally, the federal government should take steps to increase the amount of aid awarded through Pell Grants so that low-income students can continue their college education, regardless of the school they go to. And for God’s sake, let’s expand loan forgiveness and deal with the student debt crisis once and for all. 

Making the cost of higher education more affordable benefits all of us. The success of this country is a product of our focus on a highly educated and skilled workforce. If we want to continue to compete in the 21st century, the federal government must do whatever it takes to invest in our students.