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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.