By Jonathan Leirer
This is the first in an occasional series of perspectives on higher education issues written by students who are research assistants at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
Higher Education has worked its way into the main forum of public discourse. With its growing importance in American society, the national spotlight is shining on higher education and that spotlight is revealing quite a few dirty little secrets including: deplorable graduation rates, scandalous salaries paid to top administrators, skyrocketing tuition, and general extravagance, excess and misappropriation. However, leading the discussion are not those most affected, the students, but other parties involved in a more ancillary manner that often have vested interests in non-transparency and the maintenance of the status quo. Therefore, I am taking this opportunity without the pretense of speaking on the behalf of all students but with the hope of bringing the voice of at least one student into the dialogue.
As the youngest of four children, coming from a family with modest means, I came into college knowing I would have to finance it myself. Falsely, I assumed that with an EFC (Expected Family Contribution, as determined by the FAFSA) of 0, the amounted awarded to me through grants and loans would be enough to pay for my education at a modestly priced public university, namely Ohio University. It wasn't, and I soon came to realize that I would need to find a job if I wanted to make it through four (or more) years. So for the past three years I've held at least one and as many as three jobs at any give time, sometimes working more than 20 hours a week, all the while taking on a full course load with a double major. Needless to say it has been more than a little stressful and probably a detriment, at least to some degree, to my achievements, socially and academically.
I cannot help but begrudge others who receive gift-aid yet appear to me to be less qualified. I can cite plenty of instances where athletes with poor academic performance get accepted into and financed through college not based on need or scholastic achievement, but based on athletic ability. Externalities such as leadership and teamwork aside, sports are a form of entertainment. Enjoyable? Yes, but I cannot justify an institution that ostensibly has a primary mission to educate yet invests its resources in entertainment. I can also cite plenty of instances where merit based scholarships are awarded to students whose parents make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. While I understand it is desirable to bring in gifted and talented students, I feel that it is irresponsible to "purchase" those students and their accompanying statistics, at the expense of those truly in need of financial assistance. It may be the case that poor students are actually more talented and more qualified to receive those merit based scholarships, however, due to their situation did not have the luxury of time or the access to resources afforded to the more affluent. How many hours of studying were lost by students working after school to help their parents pay the bills? How much higher would their GPAs or SAT and ACT scores be if they were afforded those luxuries of time and resources?
I understand that my situation may be a little atypical, but I would venture to guess that similar situations are becoming increasingly common. I would also be emboldened enough to make a normative statement and suggest that this should not be the case. Tuition rates have long since broken away from anything I would consider reasonable, need-based aid is simply insufficient, and inexcusably large amounts of funding seems to be misappropriated to superfluous and extravagant means, funding some students unnecessarily at the expense of others.
I came to college to get a quality education, which I believe I am receiving, but it's not without a heavy burden of work now, and debt later. Were it not for some good luck in landing jobs whose pay was above average (relative to other campus jobs), I might not have made it this far and I imagine that there are many others like myself who have not been so fortunate, and have subsequently "fallen through the cracks."