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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Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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