The price of an American education

US student Hana Bieliauskas reveals the terrible financial cost of getting a college education acros

College tuition costs in the United States are continuing to skyrocket, making many students question whether they want to pursue further education.

Although enrolment has increased in recent years, and students are emerging with impressive degrees, they also have empty wallets and are no longer able to enjoy simply easing into the workplace.

For many graduates, landing a job within months, or even weeks, of graduation becomes essential to afford a decent meal - much less move out of home.

Thirty years ago, students financed their education during four years of college by simply working a part-time job during school, or even with their summer job earnings. In 1977-78, the cost of attending a public four-year college was $1,936, including tuition, fees, room and board.

Today, the cost has risen over $10,000 to about $13,000 a year. The changes are even more disturbing in the case of private universities. Costs have increased from about $4,000 in 1977-78 to nearly $30,400 in 2006-07. Multiply those numbers by four, or often five, years, and you have the cost an American student usually pays for their undergraduate education. And if they want to obtain postgraduate degrees? Tack on a few more zeroes to those already large figures.

No wonder credit card debt is running rampant and almost every student has multiple loans, while many young Americans are opting out of higher education and into minimum wage jobs. Either way, it's a financial struggle.

Two-year, primarily commuter schools, have the lowest tuition costs overall across the country, and they are the only ones who haven't increased tuition by exorbitant amounts over the last decade. On average, since 1998, two-year colleges have increased their tuition by less than $1000, which is significantly less than their four-year counterparts.

These schools, often considered community colleges and trade schools, are often the only ones students not in the economic middle or upper class can attend. Especially when students are funding the entire education by themselves without family contribution, the government often doesn't provide enough aid to cover the many expenses of a four-year school.

The funding provided by federal government generally takes little out of the total tuition cost, and financial aid at the state level differs from state to state. Both at the federal and state levels, a student's socio-economic status, race and gender may be determining factors in what colleges they apply for and are correspondingly accepted into.

It is almost always significantly cheaper for students to attend schools within their home states because then they are only required to pay in-state tuition costs. About 81 percent of students attending college in the U.S. attend in-state schools. However, sometimes scholarships and grants can offset the nearly $10,000 on average that students wishing to attend out-of-state public institutions must pay. In the case of private colleges, scholarships, federal and state aid, grants and tax benefits usually reduce the price by about $9,000, which helps lessen the financial burden but certainly doesn't eliminate it.

The only place where high school graduates may not have to worry about whether they go in or out-of-state for college are those who reside in the nation's capitol. In 2002, the Senate approved the spending of $17 million on a tuition assistance program for Washington, D.C., residents,citing the city's lack of a traditional college system as a reason.

The federal government provides up to $10,000 to compensate for the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition costs for students who live in D.C. It also provides a $2,500 stipend for students who want to attend private, in-state institutions, and an additional $2,500 in assistance for a resident who chooses to attend any historically black college in the nation.

Race has always been a controversial issue in American education. According to the 2003 U.S. Census, of the 16.6 million enrolled college students, 68 percent were white, 13 percent black, seven percent Asian and 10 percent Hispanic. With the three latter groups experiencing the highest rates of poverty and earning the lowest salaries, there's no arguing that huge educational discrepancies certainly still exist.

One proposed way to solve the race problem has been through affirmative action, which involves giving minority students some type of special opportunity when it comes to admission. Often, colleges will reserve a certain number of spaces in admissions for minority students every year, or have scholarships that only they are eligible for.

However, affirmative action has been hotly debated, especially after a landmark 2003 case involving the University of Michigan. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that race can be a factor considered by colleges for a student's admission because it furthers "a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."

However, the Court also ruled that the university must modify its admissions' point system, which gave extra points to minority students. Although many people argue that all students should be treated the same in the eyes of college admissions, with no consideration of race, others believe affirmative action is necessary to achieve diversity in higher learning facilities and ensure everyone has an equal chance of getting a college education.

Many American students choose to attend college directly after their senior year of high school, and the college selection process is often very elaborate, involving travels across the nation to investigate schools. A college's location plays a huge part in how much it costs. Four-year New England schools traditionally are the most expensive and western ones usually cost the least. Attending a private, New England school is usually around $30,000 a year - and that's before adding on living expenses that most college students incur.

When choosing a college, the location, price and choice of majors are often top considerations, as well as characteristics of the student body and, if private, the school's religious affiliation. Many students' “dream” schools may be in their reach academically, but, if they are out-of-state, have a positive reputation and are located in one of the more expensive regions, it might be completely out of reach financially, even after government aid.

Only through taking out many hefty student loans, if eligible, are students without proper funding able to attend top colleges. And they better be happy there because they'll be paying for it later!

The enrolment numbers are up, as are the massive spanking-new sports facilities, at American colleges. Exactly where is the money going from college tuition, and just when is it going to stop escalating? When I was 17 and checking out colleges, I admit I was impressed by the attractive landscaping and sprawling recreational centres at my perspective schools.

Who wouldn't want an indoor track, climbing wall and too many basketball courts to count? But, if American universities keep planting and building, pretty soon no one is going to be able to afford a higher education. The four best years of a college student's life are going to be paid for heavily by being stuck in an office to pay back loans. If America wants to be educated, then everyone needs to have access to a quality education that doesn't suck away all their future savings.

Hana Bieliauskas is a junior at Ohio University majoring in magazine journalism. She is currently studying in London.
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Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The figures in our report show this to be statistically untrue. When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.