A college degree: worth the price we pay?

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By Gabriella Levine

When I told my uncle, a staunch conservative, that I’d be traveling to see the president speak on college affordability at Binghamton University last week, he laughed and told me to be careful, because hopes and dreams can be pretty expensive. This, of course, was meant to be a clever poke at the president’s 2008 campaign message, but after I thought about it for awhile, I realized that my uncle is indeed correct.

I was raised with the belief that one’s hopes and dreams must first gain footing on a solid foundation: education. My parents told me time and time again that the best thing I could do for myself would be to receive a solid college education. Many of us were brought up based upon similar concepts. We learned that the best way to move forward was through an education. When we were children in the middle school classrooms, we boasted of how we would one day become doctors, writers, lawyers, teachers, etc. Did we know then that our hopes and dreams would be attached to a hefty price tag—the expensive cost of college tuition?

Obama began his remarks at Binghamton with a personal touch. He spoke of how he did not come from a family of wealth; how an “Obama dynasty” did not exist when he was growing up (although it does today); and how he and Michelle only got where they are today because of their educations. His point harkens to the mantra that education is the key.

The president then spoke of the quintessential American dream. “I think the essence of the American dream is that anybody who’s willing to work hard is able to get that good education and achieve their dreams,” he said.

But oftentimes along the way to the “dream,” many students meet the ever-increasing financial burdens of higher education.

Today, certain careers that were once acquired with no more than a high school education now require, at a minimum, a 2-year college degree. One student at the town hall event went so far as to express his fear of being unemployed, even after graduating with a 4-year degree, to the president.

“A good undergraduate education means you are much more employable and you’re much more likely to get a job. Each additional chunk of education that you get— if done well, if you’re getting good value— is going to enhance your marketability,” Obama instructed. “And we see that in the statistics. That’s not just talk,” he assured.

The statistics do, indeed, indicate that the higher the degree, the lesser the unemployment rate. For example, a study released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics exemplifies the differences in unemployment rates measured across various levels of education. As of 2012, the unemployment rate for those with only high school diplomas was 8.3 percent. In comparison, the unemployment rate for those with bachelor’s degrees dropped to 4.5 percent, 3.5 percent with a master’s degree, and 2.1 percent with a professional degree.

Thus, the degree is no longer merely a foundation for success. In many cases, it has become a necessity and a one-way, forward-moving train that is only accessible to those willing or able to pay the price.

Take, for instance, the cost of a Union education. The total fees to attend Union are $58,248, inclusive of room, board and other fees. Tuition alone is $46,314. Over the course of four years, our brains, based upon tuition alone, will be worth $185,256.

With the financial challenges and increased costs of tuition comes the unavoidable question of whether or not a college degree (and the expensive brain that comes with it) is really worth the price we pay.

I have asked myself this question numerous times in my past three years at Union, and I was forced to answer it before graduating. In my early days at Union, I enrolled in the 3+3 accelerated law program. One of the incentives of the program was the financial savings of forfeiting my senior year at Union to attend my first year of law school.

By my junior year, it dawned on me that I was shortchanging myself of the full Union experience by foregoing my fourth year. After a painfully long deliberation, I came to the conclusion that the more valuable investment, for numerous reasons, would be to stay at Union for my fourth year. There were countless opportunities that I would have given up had I decided to graduate a year early, and I reasoned that law school would still be waiting for me by the time I graduated.

Some may say I didn’t make the financially sound decision. But do any of us make a financially sound decision when we choose to go to a four-year college, especially a private school like Union that costs $58,248 a year?

The answer may be debatable to some people. However, since I made my decision, I have not once debated that my time at Union, including my final year, is worth every last cent I’ll be paying for it. In the long run, I am confident that the investment I make today will benefit my future. There is a value to a full college experience that cannot be measured in dollars, and this is something that is too often overlooked, and understandably so, in the midst of towering tuition prices. As the price of higher education rises on a yearly basis, some people may not arrive at the conclusion that education, especially at four-year institutions, is worth the cost.

According to Obama, the heightening cost of college tuition has consequences—“either college has become out of reach for too many people, or young people are being loaded up with more and more debt.”

The President has some potential solutions to this problem, including a proposal to give colleges their own report card by rating them on factors such as tuition costs, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates and percentages of lower-income students in attendance. Under the president’s proposal, a college’s rating would be measured against other peer institutions and linked to the amount of federal financial aid its students receives.

Obama’s plans have already been met with much contention and resistance. Many claim that his proposals are flawed and that his formulas will not lower the high costs.

Regardless of whether we pursue the president’s proposals or create different ideas, something needs to be done to curb the rising costs of a college education. The numbers indicate that the 113th Congress is on track to be one of the most unproductive congresses in history. If our elected leaders remain inactive on this issue, as they so often do on serious matters, then America will encounter a greater problem and pay the higher price of discouraging students from pursuing the education our generation was raised to believe in.

Toward the end of Obama’s initial remarks, I gazed around the room at the audience, which was primarily composed of students and faculty from Binghamton. “It’s my basic belief and I suspect the belief of most people here, higher education shouldn’t be a luxury,” Obama said. His statement resonated in the room, and I watched as the audience furiously nodded their heads in unison to agree.

As a country, this is something we need to agree on. A college education cannot become unattainable.

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