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Dumped Dreams: Is Higher-Education becoming more and more a thing for the elite?

”Gonna’ keep on trying, till’ I reach my higher ground”.  – Stevie Wonder

When Steve Wonder sings of reaching a “higher ground,” he’s referring to faith and resistance to social inequalities, but his words could be used to describe the challenge many college students face today in aiming for higher education. With rising tuition costs and limited open slots, access to higher education for many is more of a dream than a reality. Some are finding themselves spending more time working to pay tuition than studying.

Rachel Long, a sophomore and first-generation college student who works two part-time jobs said, “It weighs on my mind when I’m at work, or studying,” she said. “I just see the numbers in my bank account decreasing and tuition prices increasing.”

Andy Kroll writes for, “This crisis has been a long time coming, but bad times have brought it into clearer focus. Over the past 30 years, the average annual cost of college tuition, fees, and room and board has increased nearly 100 percent, from $7,857 in 1977-78 to $15,665 in 2007-08 (in constant 2006-07 dollars). Median household income, on the other hand, has risen a mere 18 percent over that same period, from about $42,500 to just over $50,000. College costs, in other words, have gone up at more than five times the rate of income.”

While students and parents struggle more and more to pay for four-year colleges, many are turning to community colleges—a traditionally more affordable and accessible option. But the economic downturn, coupled with the steady rise of four-year college tuition, has many community colleges feeling the crunch.

Lisa Foderaro writes in The New York Times, “Education experts say that the Obama administration also put the nation’s 1,200 community colleges on the radars of more students this summer. Praising the colleges’ role in developing the work force, President Obama called for $12 billion in new federal financing for community colleges and set a goal of five million more graduates by 2020. While such money would go a long way toward meeting that goal, for now community colleges, like all publicly financed colleges, are struggling with budget cuts just as they face the greatest demands.”

With more and more students applying to community college, they are facing the brunt of a “college under stress.”  Foderaro continues, “Classes (at La Guardia Community College) now begin as early as 6:45 a.m. The line for the 170 computer work stations in the library can snake around the stacks at lunch time, and the wait sometimes stretches to 45 minutes.”

And with already burdened students falling farther and farther behind, this inequality gap has many up in arms over what they deem unfair practices that privilege the already elite few. A report, “Engines of Inequality,” released in 2006 by the Education Trust, found that “state flagship universities and a group of major research universities spent $257 million in 2003 on financial aid for students from families earning more than $100,000 a year. Those same universities spent only $171 million on aid to students from families who made less than $20,000 a year. Similarly, between 1995 and 2003, according to the report, grant aid from the same public universities to students from families making $80,000 or more increased 533 percent, while grant aid to families making less than $40,000 increased only 120 percent.”

The report continues: “Indeed, the highest achieving students from high-income families — those who earned top grades, completed the full battery of college prep courses, and took AP courses as well — are nearly four times more likely than low-income students with exactly the same level of academic accomplishment to end up in a highly selective university.” With the State of California and University of California Regents having approved a 32% tuition hike set to begin next fall, many are questioning the truth behind the tenant, “equal opportunity for all.”

Do you think college is becoming accessible mainly for the elite? Why or why not? Do you think there should be tuition caps put into place, so college is more affordable for everyone? What measures do you think should be put into place so every student, with a desire to attend college, can? Is college the only route to achieving your goals? What other avenues for economic success are there? In a democracy, are high tuition costs inconsistent with goals of equal opportunity?

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