College Inequality

By Anna Hanuska and Astrid Popovici

The cost of college often prevents lower income students from attending. Sure, they could get loans, but sitting under a mountain of debt for decades is not exactly the American Dream. The cost of college has risen dramatically over the past few decades. Student loan debt has increased steadily as well, from an average of slightly over $15,000 per person for the class of 2000 to over $35,000 per person in the class of 2016.

The average college graduate with a bachelors’ degree takes about 20 years to pay off their student loans. And unlike other types of debt, student loans typically aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy, which means some graduates can get stuck in a hole of debt that’s seemingly impossible to get out of. Making student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy (as long as colleges and not taxpayers eat the cost) would be a good first step to alleviating student debt, but ultimately deeper systemic reform is needed.

Even as it gets more expensive, college is more necessary than ever. More jobs expect college degrees than before, even jobs that a college degree really isn’t necessary for (hint: that’s a lot of them). People are going through years of studying and paying tens of thousands of dollars a year just to show jobs that they have a basic level of competency. In a phenomenon known as degree inflation, employers often list a bachelor’s degree as “preferred” on job postings, even in the manufacturing sector. Though more skilled workers are needed to operate the machinery as automation improves, apprenticeships and hands-on experience ought to be available, rather than simply requiring a degree. Using a degree to filter applicants when a high school diploma used to be adequate forces more people to go to college, making it more difficult and expensive to move out of poverty into the middle class.

With a few exceptions, most jobs simply don’t need four years of book learning to prepare applicants. What they do need is hands-on experience. In fact, many employers say that today’s college graduates don’t have the soft skills necessary for the job. In order to make education more accessible, alternative schooling should be available for more careers. For example, expanding institutions like SVCTE to include more careers and potentially prepare students to enter the workforce directly or soon after high school, would greatly increase career opportunities for students who must work to support their families (and thus don’t have time for college) or simply don’t want to incur devastating college debt. 

Overall, college limits social mobility due to the increasing cost, and should not even be necessary to support a middle-class family in the first place.