When was the last time you were stressed about money? I’m going to guess it was within the past week—maybe even the past 24 hours. According to the International Business Times, 60 percent of students are stressed about not having enough money for school. Meanwhile, 30 percent are stressed about paying monthly expenses.
When our parents were in school, being a “broke college student” was expected, much like it is now. It wasn’t unusual, and it wasn’t considered to be a bad thing—in fact, it was said to build character. Older generations often say, “I remember being a broke college student,” or “I paid my own way through college!” They talk about how they lived in the dumpiest apartment and ate ramen noodles or popcorn for dinner every night. But our version of “broke college student” is much different than theirs. It used to be difficult but manageable to put yourself through college without help from parents, relatives or the bank. But because of the rise in tuition and the stagnation of the minimum wage, this is no longer the case. Since it’s no longer feasible for us to make enough money to pay for our own education, our “broke college student” experience follows us far into adulthood if we don't have external resources helping us out financially.
According to Forbes, the college inflation rate is at 500 percent, which is inconsistent with the rates at which inflation has affected other expenses. Forbes also quoted author and expert Gordon Wadsworth, who said, "...if the cost of [a private] college tuition was $10,000 in 1986, it would now cost the same student $21,500 if education had increased as much as the average inflation rate but instead [a private] education is $59,800 or over two and a half times the inflation rate."
Perhaps what is most appalling is that while the cost of education has climbed each year, wages have not. Minimum wage laws vary from job to job and state to state, but for a college-level summer job in Minnesota, the minimum wage has hovered at $7.75 per hour. In 1982, when inflation is factored in, minimum wage was the equivalent of around $8.34. This means we’re making less money on average than college students were in 1982—yet, we have to pay thousands more in tuition.
This doesn’t even consider the fact that the few thousand dollars that a college student makes in a summer is often barely enough to cover personal living expenses throughout the year. Another Forbes article from last year revealed that the average yearly cost to attend a four-year public university is $28,000, while the average yearly cost for a private college sits around $59,000. A student attending the public university, paying the full tuition through loans, will graduate about $112,000 in debt. Meanwhile, a student at the private college paying full tuition and relying on loans will end up with up to $236,000 worth of debt. That’s a crushing blow—especially if you’re planning to spend more money on graduate school. Even if you decide to get out into the workforce right away, your starting salary likely isn’t going to leave you with much room to pay off those debts. Scholarships are helpful, but not that helpful. As it is, many large universities offer very little scholarship money. Although private colleges tend to provide more money, students are still left with a great deal of debt. Even if the college offers to pay 50 percent of your tuition, you'll still graduate $118,000 in debt. And don't forget about the fact that, similar to wages, when tuition increases, scholarship awards do not.
This is pretty outrageous. In an age where everyone is encouraged and, in fact, expected, to get a degree at a higher education institution, we’re making it nearly impossible for certain populations to actually fulfill that expectation. And in some cases, an education comes with an even bigger price. It’s not unheard of for people with outstanding amounts of student loans to be denied credit cards. Author and credit expert Beverly Harzog told the Washington Post, “People with big student-loan bills may have a hard time being approved for cards because lenders may worry that their income is not high enough for them to cover their debt payments and other bills.” Granted, there are other ways to earn credit, such as making rent and loan payments on time, but we shouldn’t be putting students in this situation to begin with.
To the credit of many colleges and organizations, there has been an effort to raise costs as little as possible. There is an abundance of work-study opportunities on most college campuses to help curb the costs, and many websites provide opportunities for students to rent textbooks for lower prices. While this is certainly beneficial, there is no realistic way to earn or save enough money to even make a dent.
This problem isn’t going to disappear overnight. It comes down to the leaders of our government. It comes down to how they view education—how they answer the following question: Does everyone deserve the opportunity to receive a higher education, or should it be reserved for the upper and middle classes or those willing to bear the staggering weight of debt?
It would be very difficult to make college free while upholding the same quality of education. Substantial grants from the government would at least lower the cost of tuition as is predicted in Hillary Clinton’s plan, which suggests raising taxes on certain tax brackets in order to make college more accessible for everyone. While this plan is by no means kink-free, it’s a start. It’s an acknowledgement that we are paying too much as it is, and that certain groups are lacking the opportunities that privilege has granted many of us. While there are definitely pros and cons to raising the minimum wage, it would provide some relief to those trying to pay their own way through school. But change is what it comes down to—a change that allows tuition costs to be addressed as one of our biggest, most critical issues as a nation. After all, no one should be denied an education and, by default, the chance to make a decent living.