Why We Can’t Ignore the Fight for Affordable College

library-1400312_960_720At the end of the 19th century, America shifted its focus from preparing its citizens for skilled labor to equipping them with knowledge for continued education and a more flexible future. High School was normalized as a natural progression in the system of education, and was made publicly available to all children, required by law until a certain age in many states. As a result, America became a world leader in education and set a precedent for other countries.


Much has changed since then. Growth in high school enrollment has declined and America ranked as low as 36 in education among other developed countries, per a global assessment in 2014. Improving the quality of secondary education is something educators and legislators alike are constantly working toward, even before this most recent statistic. A positive result of such is that high school dropout rates have been steadily declining within the last few years. Still, another education problem is at America’s front door, and it requires immediate attention: college affordability.


In the last twenty years (from 1995 to 2015), the price of college has increased by over 170 percent. Subsequently, the amount of student debt from college loans has tripled in the last decade, to $1.23 billion dollars in 2016. At this point, college is becoming out of reach for many low and middle income families, pushing them further behind not only nationally, but globally in our ever-expanding international economy.


leo pollard's image of a college building The problem is bigger than money. Like obtaining a high school diploma in the 20th century, a 4-year degree is now required for most jobs and careers available to people in the modern era. Without it, individuals make nearly $20,000 less than those with a degree. Thus, college affordability becomes an issue of inequity: a process which stifles people unable to pay for a higher education, forcing them to remain in a cycle of poverty and a growing wealth gap, right here in the world’s richest country. It is simply unfair.


Famously, former Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, made this issue a staple in his progressive platform, in a race for the White House. Since losing the nomination and conceding in June, his case has been taken up by his opponent, Secretary Hillary Clinton, who has pledged to eliminate in-state college tuition at public universities, for families earning less than $125,000 a year. This plan covers about 80 percent of Americans, and provides hope for so many who fear they lack any future beyond what they see.


leo pollard libraryWhile it’s too soon to celebrate this becoming a reality, it is great to see that politicians on the national stage are taking up the struggle for many Americans, and making efforts to reform a system that desperately needs a change. If we are to truly encourage our kids to believe in the American dream, we must remove the things which keep them from ever realizing it; that starts with ensuring equal opportunities for education.