Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Student's Perspective

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."


superhiker said...

"Tuition rates have long since broken away from anything I would consider reasonable"

They are higher at Ohio University than they used to be in part because Ohio has made a decision to subsidize higher education less and demand that the direct beneficiaries i.e. the students pay more. Contrary to what many people including perhaps Vedder think, less subsidy does not mean lower tuition!

This may sound cruel, but if you really think the tuition at Ohio U. is not worth it, you should look for a lower cost college to attend, one that matches value and cost better in your own mind.

Community colleges come to mind.

J.W. Koebel said...

The problem lies not only in the fact that money is being distributed poorly by the schools themselves (for instance, my school with a terrible football team spending millions of dollars on a football stadium) but also that the Federal government does not pick up the other end of the stick with their Stafford loans the way they should.

Total cost of attendance at a state university in Florida, as estimated by the UCF financial aid department, is around $16,500...Federal student aid will get you $5,500 of that. You're still $11,000 short...I barely make ends meet with a 100% tuition scholarship (achievement-based) as well as maximum loans and a well-paying part time job.

So, on one hand, we have schools poorly allocating funds and thusly ensuring people who actually need the aid won't get it, and on the other, the Federal government actively enforcing either taking 6+ years to finish a 4-year degree while working full time, or heavy reliance on parents for funds. Neither of which is good.

superhiker said...

If your parents don't help out or haven't saved for college for you, it really is a tough road. College costs are more or less keeping up with the growth of the economy, but less of the tab is being picked up by the government. Plus, there are a lot of people who are loaded who want lots of fancy things e.g. the money-losing sports teams.

If you are on your own, there's no way you can work your way through college, like in the old days, with entry level jobs

Your best bet may be to go to a community college for a couple of years to save money.

I would not recommend going too deeply into debt, either. Better to work full time or more for a while to save up the dough.

CatoRenasci said...

I think the problems and inequities you cite are very real. I wonder if anyone has done serious research into the way in which those without out familiy means paid for college (when they went) back before the Federal government was so heavily involved in the financial aid process.

When I went to The Virigina Military Institute in the mid-1960s, the all in cost (transporation aside) was about $3,500 per year for out-of-state students. While a majority of students paid "full boat", there were a substantial number of scholarships and other forms of aid. The State of Virginia had up to 150 (if I recall correctly) "State Cadets" who paid only for their books and supplies - no tuition, or room and board or uniforms - in exchange for an agreement to teach for some years (2-4 I think) in Virginia schools (I think it could also be satisfied by military service in those days). There were also "Cadet Waiters" who received their room and board in exchange for acting as waiters in the mess hall. One of my roommates was a cadet waiter. And, then there were other sorts of scholarships, both local and through the school, that might total several hundred to over a thousand dollars.

And, in those days community colleges were essentially free (in California it was something like $5 per semester plus your books, and you'd live at home), and many state colleges and universities were almost free for state residents. Around 1970, there was no tuition at any state insititutions in California, though there were quarterly or semester fees ranging from $50 or so at state colleges to $108 per quarter for undergraduates at the University of California. (Graduate students like me paid some $220 a quarter in fees). Of course, you'd have living expenses, but there always seemed to be jobs available and the University had scholarships and loans available.

In those days, the portion of students who went to 4 year colleges right away was probably less than 25% of graduating seniors - though perhaps 50-60% of a class would start at the local junior or community college, and if they did reasonably well, they'd transfer to a state college or state university for the last two years. Much less expensive than 4 years private or even 4 years public university.

My sense from that period was that few ambitious, bright kids who wanted to go to college, but were poor, couldn't find a way to do it. Most middle class parents didn't need aid, and paid for their children's educations - often at public colleges and universities, but often at private colleges and universities as well.

I think it may be a little like the effect of government involvement in health insurance - the old system of paying for ordinary care out of pocket (and were hence cost aware and helped keep costs down), but insuring almost 100% against major medical costs and hospitalization at reasonable rates also seemed to work better than our current model.

blo ger said...

We have a bunch of whiners here. There are many many many people who will never be able to afford college.
The janitor you pass in the hall. The dining hall workers at whom you jeer.
I could go on but I think you get the point.

superhiker said...

Catorenasci: You say "My sense from that period was that few ambitious, bright kids who wanted to go to college, but were poor, couldn't find a way to do it."

I think this is still true, as true as it was then. College was a lot cheaper then, even adjusting for inflation. One reason is that, as you say, far fewer students went, so it was easier to subsidize those who did. Another reason is that the general prosperity has raised costs far faster than the pay of entry level jobs. So it is a LOT harder to work your way through college than it used to be.

On the other hand, there's a LOT more disposable income now than there was back then. And there's a lot more financial aid.

I remember quite well that it was a financial sacrifice to go to college back then. And college is about as accessible, maybe more, now, as evidenced by the large number of people who attend.

superhiker said...

to blo ger: Where did anyone "jeer" at dining hall workers?

You seem to be the one who could use an attitude adjustment.