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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.