Letter to the Editor: The cost of higher education

Dear Editor:

I don’t know about you, but my parents constantly remind me of how much easier I have it than they did at my age. I have more opportunities, more choices, and more crazy technology at my fingertips than they could have ever dreamed of. However, the one thing they say has definitely not gotten easier: education and employment. 

According to my parents, a decent job could be found with just a high school education. If they sought higher education, a college degree was certainly a privilege, but still affordable. Not only that, but a college degree actually carried some weight when it came time to job search. It was an added bonus, like, “Wow! You have your bachelor’s degree? That’s great! You’re so qualified! And hired!”

But now having a college degree is simply expected. Now it’s more like this: “Wow. You have your bachelor’s degree. That’s great. You’re just like 98% of our other job applicants. We’ll call you.” Ouch. 

Having a bachelor’s degree is no longer a qualification, it’s an eligibility requirement that merely puts you in the “maybe” pile. I’m not quite sure when this happened, but at some point during my lifetime, a master’s degree became the new bachelor’s, and I have a sinking feeling that soon a PhD will be the new master’s. How are we expected to keep up with this trend, let alone afford it? 

For someone like me who comes from a working class family, my solution has been to borrow loans for my undergraduate degree and now my graduate degree. I work two jobs just to get by and receive constant emails reminding me that the loans I have borrowed have an interest rate that compounds daily, adding nearly $8 to my loan each day on top of what I’ve already borrowed. It gets to be a scarily large red number, but it’ll all be worth it because at the end of this never-ending schooling journey, I’ll have a great job that will allow me to quickly pay all my loans back...right?

The crippling debt and uncertainty about the future haunts me everyday, and I know that I am not alone in feeling this weight.

Student loan programs started off as a bridge to grant Americans access to education, which is a great sentiment in my book. However, these programs have grown into a money-making industry leaving American students in massive debt. According to ABC15’s recent article on student debt, over 42 million people currently struggle with their student loans, constituting over $1.3 trillion in total student debt. Those involved in student loan programs -- banks, private investors, the government, and Wall Street -- are getting richer off American students who are seeking out loans to cover the vast range of educational expenses. The student loan industry has a bright future with $140 billion earned annually, unlike their customers who are struggling to pay the minimum monthly amount. 

How is this fair? The banks and my own government are profiting off my hard work and my drive to achieve higher? You should be helping me! Applauding me! Or at the very least, not actively bankrupting me! And it makes me wonder, who of these profiteers even has a master’s degree and a PhD? I truly believe that by the time I graduate, I will have paid more for my education and be more, or at least equally, qualified than the person I owe so much money to. Not only that, but it is the government’s responsibility to address this issue and to find some kind of solution for the alarming amount of debt the average American student is accruing. 

Good thing there’s an upcoming presidential election. Surely these candidates understand the current job market’s demand for a highly educated individual and will show some empathy for the tireless energy and money I’m investing in my future. Right? Right?!

On the Democratic front, Hillary Clinton has outlined a large-scale program for student debt relief, while the Republican Party has shown little initiative, not to mention empathy, for this growing issue. Although Republican candidate Donald Trump has acknowledged the rising costs of college tuition as problematic, voters hear mostly crickets when it comes to a solution. 

So far he has taken no clear stance on the matter and has remained uncharacteristically quiet. 

Trump’s fellow Republicans haven’t exactly followed suit. Ben Carson, having dropped out of the presidential race and declaring his endorsement for Trump, has taken a firm stance on students adhering to a strong work ethic, and of course, financial common sense. Carson was quoted reminding America that if we just used our God-given brain, we would remember to refrain from buying a home significantly more expensive than our annual income, thus ending our financial woes.

As for my big red number, the Grand Old Party would more than likely advise me that some more hard work on my part would make everything better. I should quit the laziness and stop my bon-bon eating habits and just get a job! Oh wait, I already have two. To which they may then suggest I budget my money more wisely. Thanks, GOP, what a grand idea. 

Because during the months that I break just a little above even, I’ve been living it up lavishly in Hawaii. Not. Rather, the reality of working multiple jobs and borrowing thousands of dollars in student loans has me too stressed and exhausted to think of anything but just getting a good night’s sleep. Hearing the GOP say that I just need to work a little harder is nothing more than a slap in the face. And I really get the sense that the Republican Party just doesn’t want education for the poor! If they put half as much energy into finding a feasible solution as they do in blaming the common student, we would’ve had a breakthrough in this student debt crisis years ago! GOP, work a 16-hour shift in my shoes for just one day and then try to come back and tell me that I need to work harder!

To make matters worse, the Republican Party continues to emphasize private loans as a method of tuition payment, making the loan process even more unbearable. Private loans are known to have interest rates as high as 18% (sometimes even higher), and strict requirements including an established credit record, cosigner, and monthly bills that won’t even wait until my first semester. Since when is my loan application more thorough and demanding than my actual college application? Getting into school was the easy part, but going to the bank and begging for a loan? Not so much. I’m surprised they don’t request a personal statement too. 

According to InsideHigherEd, Donald Trump’s campaign co-chair Sam Clovis has proposed a significant funding cut for the California’s Department of Education. Cuts to this entity would affect funds for college grants, including Pell Grants, subsidized student loans, and work study programs. Hmm, all of those programs sound like the ones I’m currently living off of. 

Please, Mr. Trump, please please, spare some change for the poor college student. I’m already living off borrowed money! Don’t deplete the only organization that puts coins in my piggybank! This would hit students hard, leaving our primary loan options at the mercy of private banks. Definitely not the best outlook for the starving student. 

Simultaneously as budgets are being cut, tuition cost are on the rise. How are we to continue investing in our education, and ultimately our futures, with the price of a bachelor’s degree increasing and student aid decreasing? 

So is this an issue of poor financial planning and a lack of drive and hard work? No way. It’s about the average person not being able to afford the skyrocketing tuition prices, regardless of how hard they work. It’s about the average person, like myself, trying to shop for a degree and finding that higher education is indeed on the tallest shelves. And I can’t afford a ladder. 

Stephany Albarran, Vanessa Gutierrez, Jordan Le Blanc, Alejandra Sigala and Rachel Yamada
The authors of this letter are Masters of Social Work students at Cal State Long Beach.