For the privilege of helping others, I will be paying off student loans for 20 years

By Anna Shoopman, Special to CALmatters

On the single day that I wrote this commentary, the net cost of my post-graduate studies increased from $22,960 to $23,258.

I am a first-semester masters of social work student at the University of Southern California, taking classes online, at a time when college tuition rates are higher than ever.

As my student loans rise, I ask myself, who is able to afford tuition?

One look into recent national news will make this clear. The college admissions scam, much of which involves parents of USC students, serves as a blaring signal that college is not about education. It is about status.

The majority of us do not have anyone to help buy our admission, let alone our education. I am one of the millions of Americans who will graduate with massive debt. By the time I earn my master’s degree in a year and a half, my student loans will amount to about $80,000.

I fully expect to be working for 10 or 20 years to pay this off. This is the cost for me to become a social worker and help others.

There are innumerable others in this country who couldn’t afford to even think about higher education.

In 2016 a single mom with one child was considered to be in poverty if she earned less than $16,543 annually. Compare that to the average yearly tuition for a four-year public college, $20,967. Clearly, higher education is not geared toward anyone living in poverty. So I ask, again, who can afford higher education?

In 2015-2016, 72.3 percent of undergraduate students received some form of financial assistance. The remaining 28 percent are able to afford the full cost of tuition without assistance, and won’t be burdened with student loans that they will be paying off for years. These people become the elite.

As evidenced by the enormous cost of tuition today, education is not available to everyone, but rather specifically to the elite. The most expensive schools, the private schools, specifically serve this group.

They claim notoriety by charging astronomical tuition. Of course, they educate their students. But they also teach students how to gain and maintain social and economic status.

Too often, tuition serves to exclude less affluent students, and confine them to the middle class or less as they tirelessly work to escape student debt. This market drives the cost of education up, and simultaneously devalues the education of other students.

In an age in which money can and does buy the “best” education, we must take back the value of higher education by drastically reducing the cost, and making it affordable to people who aren’t the children of the rich and famous.

In order to reinstate the value of higher education, we must drop the ruse that college must be expensive to be worthwhile. We must create and support policies that provide incentives to lower the cost of tuition and increase institutional aid for students.

A start would be to increase admission rates by even slim margins to generate more revenue and drop the cost for each student.

Better yet would be to evaluate spending habits of unaffordable schools to better understand where costs can be reduced and tuition lowered. We have an obligation to understand how and where tuition is spent, so we can improve the system for the coming generation of students, no matter their parents income.

As a student who wants to enter a field where I have the privilege of helping others, I am on a specific path to a lifetime of hard but fulfilling work. I am taking on the cost of tuition in order to help those who bear the cost of a life without it. Although the cost of education is at an all time high, the cost of not addressing this issue is even higher.

Anna Shoopman is graduate student at the University of Southern California, [email protected], living in Tucson. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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