Unaffordable Higher Education Leads to Low Graduation Rates

After two years of juggling full-time study with full-time work, Josefa, a student at Brooklyn College, decided to take a semester off. “I was exhausted,” she said, “and decided to move to Florida where I thought things would be cheaper.” This was in 2016.

Josefa quickly found a waitressing job and secured an apartment. But she also learned that as a non-resident of Florida, attending a public college would be even more expensive than continuing at Brooklyn College. Six months after heading to the Sunshine State, she returned to New York and once again registered for classes.

“Right after I got back to the city, I started working in housekeeping,” Josefa told Truthout. “This became troubling because I didn’t work a set schedule…. It meant I missed classes because I had to go in whenever I was needed. I felt my bills on top of me and could not focus on school in the way I wanted to, but I needed the $70 or $80 I got for each apartment I cleaned and felt that I had no choice.”

Josefa receives financial aid—enough to cover the full cost of tuition—but explains that her $700 rent, plus utilities, phone bill, transportation and food costs, to say nothing of books and other supplies, feels crushing. “My family can’t help me,” she said. “I’m completely on my own.”

Josefa kept the cleaning job for 18 months—she said she was too busy to look for other work—and admits that she was often nearly penniless after paying her rent. At one particularly low point, she said, “I had to tell my teachers that I was missing class because I could not afford a MetroCard. Most understood and told me that as long as I stayed caught up on work, it would be OK. One teacher, though, she reached into her pocket and gave me her MetroCard. I never expected anything like this. For me, it meant everything, because the $30 I saved on subway fare would pay for food for that week.”

Josefa’s voice broke as she recounted the interaction, and she took a deep breath before continuing. She is now in a much better place, she said: She recently got a job in a bank and works set hours, for a set salary with benefits. Her goal is to finish her bachelor’s degree in psychology and then pursue a master’s in counseling so that she can work in a public school with struggling, low-income students.

Josefa is far from alone. Nonetheless, her persistence makes her an anomaly since students facing similar challenges drop out at an astronomical rate.

Post-High School Training or Degree Is Imperative

The consequences of high drop-out rates are potentially dire because economic analysts predict that by 2020, 65 percent of US jobs will require post-high school training or a degree.

Right now, only one-third of US residents hold a bachelor’s degree, let alone a master’s. And it’s not for lack of trying. Although increasing numbers of students are enrolling in college, just 54.8 percent graduate within six years, with 47 percent of community college students and 31 percent of four-year college students dropping out before finishing their studies.

Not surprisingly, the number one reason for leaving is financial.

But the cost of remaining is also staggering: 70 percent of college students graduate with debt, with an average of $37,172 owed. This is up by $20,000 since 2005; monthly payments, an average of $227 in 2005, soared to $393 a month in 2016.

Economists worry that such financial burdens will have a demonstrable impact on everyday life. To wit, they predict that 2015 college grads will have to work until the age of 75. If life expectancy stays at 84, this means they will have just nine years of retirement. In addition, millennials are unlikely to be able to buy homes and some may delay, or completely sidestep, childbearing due to financial concerns.

How Did This Happen?

There are several reasons for this phenomenon. First and foremost is the cost of tuition. Between 1988 and 2018, tuition at public four-year colleges increased by an astounding 213 percent (from $3,190 in 1988 to $9,828 during the 2017-18 academic year). Meanwhile, tuition at private not-for-profit colleges went up 129 percent (from $15,160 in 1988 to $34,740 for 2017-18).

If you’re wondering how this occurred, you’re not alone, and several theories have been floated to explain the phenomenon. One hypothesis blames the decline in federal funding for higher education. Another blames the bloat in the number of college administrators, which went up by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009.

Stagnant wages, of course, also enter the mix. According to the College Board, average annual incomes vary by region, with families in the US South living on an average of $66,510 a year, while those in the Northeast average $81,500. Race is also at play, with the average yearly income of Asian households at $93,500 while Black families live on an average income of $49,370. For Latinx families, the average is $51,110; for white families, $82,070.

Needless to say, paying for college tests all but the most economically secure among us.

Christine Hutchins, an assistant professor of English at Hostos Community College in New York’s South Bronx, said students’ failure to complete coursework is often misread as disinterest or inability. “You hear people say, ‘Oh, they’re not cut out for college.’ This does not read the facts about how complicated our students’ lives are,” she told Truthout.

Hutchins said students rarely tell their instructors what’s happening in their lives; but if a teacher is attentive and asks, intervention can sometimes be arranged. “You get a student who got an A in first-level classes and then suddenly gets Fs…. Obviously, something happened. Students almost never come in and … tell you that they’re working two jobs because a family member was deported or that they were evicted and are now in a shelter. Their situations are typically really complex but for most, financial instability is a primary issue.”

Laura Kina, director of Critical Ethnic Studies and a professor of Art, Media and Design at DePaul University in Chicago, said her students face similar difficulties. Although she mostly works with graduate students, when she perceives a problem or potential problem, she meets with the student and attempts to intervene. “I always look for resources — a scholarship that might be available or other aid. If the student is in an emergency, or homeless, we help the best way we can. I don’t always know the ins and outs of what to do, but I know where to go for resources. In some situations, I explain the college’s leave policy as an option.”

Sympathetic Teachers Make a Huge Difference

According to Renee, a 37-year-old student at Utah Valley University (UVU), having an understanding teacher or adviser is key. Renee returned to school in 2010, following a divorce. A single parent of two children, now 11 and 14, she attended several colleges before enrolling at UVU: Brigham Young University-Idaho; Barstow College; and a proprietary college she declined to name. “I’d gotten married at 21, had two kids, and was a military wife who had grown up in a military family,” she began. “I did not know how to move in a world that was not in a military context. I started college eight years ago because it seemed like the next step.”

It did not take long for her to feel unmoored. “I couldn’t work at a job, do the parent thing and also do the school thing,” she said. “My children’s father had just left and I wanted to be there for them, tuck them in at night. To my kids, my being in school seemed like they’d lost both parents. I couldn’t do it.”

When she re-enrolled at UVU in 2013, the experience was similarly unsettling. She said that people told her she had to work to the bone in order to graduate. “I kept asking myself why they were telling me I had to suffer,” she said. “I felt a lot of despair.” Then, an on-campus sexual assault in 2014 led to another withdrawal.

Two years later, Renee returned to UVU. “I’d learned that UVU has resources for single moms,” she said. “The Women’s Success Center specializes in helping women like me navigate academic scholarships and campus life.” Renee is presently enrolled in two programs: a state vocational rehabilitation course in technical writing and a bachelor’s program in philosophy. Nonetheless, she still questions whether the degree and certification are worth the effort. “I’ll owe $60,000 by the time I’m done,” she said.

Staying on track has been equally difficult for accounting and finance student Dazia, a 25-year-old married mother of two, now in her senior year at William and Mary College in Virginia. “After my husband had to leave the military due to disability, my family income took a major hit,” Dazia said. “I started offering students rides to the airport and accepted a paid internship at a public accounting firm two hours away from my home.” But spending three days a week at the firm and two days in class for the 16-week semester took a toll on her. “I barely saw my family and friends,” she said. She also reports that she had to take several “incompletes,” which, on one hand, gave her additional time to complete the required coursework, but also meant that she had little-to-no time off between semesters.

“I have depression and ADHD so I use accommodations,” Dazia added. Nonetheless, staying on track so that she can graduate on time has been difficult. “I feel singled out as a person of color, as a parent, as an older student and as a student with invisible disabilities,” she said. “I’ve had professors change my life for the good. I’ve also had professors change my life for the worse.”

High Costs Compound Barriers for Students With Disabilities

Like Josefa, Dazia is anomalous, since just 16.4 percent of students with disabilities finish college. And while finances usually intersect with other issues impacting the disabled—not the least of them being discrimination—money is often at the crux of the abysmal graduation rate.

Wendy Harbour, director of the National Center for College Students with Disabilities, has had firsthand experience as an advocate. When pursuing her Ph.D., Harbour, who is deaf, requested that the large private university she attended provide an interpreter and allow her service dog to accompany her on campus. The school refused both requests.

“I had to fight really hard,” she said. “The college said it would not pay for the interpreter because I could speak and read lips. They felt that this meant that I did not need help.”

Harbour took the matter to the State Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Massachusetts and ultimately prevailed. Had she lost, she estimates that hiring an interpreter on her own would have cost between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. It would also have made graduate study impossible. “When you’re a deaf college student, you need an interpreter for your classes, for meetings with faculty and staff, for your work-study job and for events on campus. For most students, paying for this out-of-pocket would be impossible, but I want to stress that the accommodations for most disabilities rarely cost this much.”

The center is presently creating an online database which will provide information about every US college and its accessibility for students with all types of disabilities. Harbour expects the site to roll out in the fall of 2019.

Beyond Information: Creating Political Change

But while high-quality information is essential, most activists agree that free college for all is the best, and perhaps only, way to make college truly accessible. A survey conducted in June 2018 found 78 percent of US residents support the idea. A bill, the College for All Act, is currently pending in both Houses of Congress. It was introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) in April 2017.

Chris Gannon, vice president of the US Student Association (USSA) said that the USSA is working to “normalize the concept of free college and bring it into the national conversation.” Thanks to Bernie Sanders, he continued, the idea has begun to gain traction. Still, he admits that when people first hear about the plan, their first reaction is that it sounds preposterous. Still, he said that “when we talk about how it will impact the country’s future, reduce the burden on students and improve communities, people pay attention. The idea that young people won’t ever be able to buy homes, or won’t be able to buy them for very long time, changes people’s minds.”

Nonetheless, despite increased momentum, everyone agrees that free college for all is not going to be won anytime soon.

Deborah Vagins, senior vice president of Public Policy and Research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), said her organization is focused on several short-term goals, including: reauthorizing the Higher Education Act which has, for 53 years, provided grants and loans to help students go beyond high school; increasing state and federal funding of public colleges and universities; increasing consumer protections for those borrowing money to attend college; and passing the Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA), a bill that will address, and protect against, the gender pay gap for US workers.

While the Higher Education Act of 1965 is now up for reauthorization, Vagins reports that Republicans are pushing to eliminate it and replace it with the far weaker Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity Through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act. Education activists are enraged since the PROSPER Act will replace Stafford and PLUS Loans — the subsidized low-interest loans that most middle-income families rely on — with one wholly unsubsidized loan; phase out all federal higher education grants except Pell; and eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program which allows a small number of people to reduce their debt. “We want more service loan forgiveness and expanded Pell and other grant programs,” Vagins explains.

In addition, she points out the disproportionate impact borrowing has on women. Today, she continues, “Sixty-two percent of the 7.1 million Pell recipients are women. Two-thirds of the national debt — $890 billion of the $1.4 trillion owed — is held by women and $29 million of the $44 million in student debt is owed by women. The wage gap persists, which is why the AAUW supports the Paycheck Fairness Act.”

If passed, the PFA will amend the 1963 Equal Pay Act and require the federal government to collect data on pay differentials by gender and make prior salary history irrelevant in setting wages. “Furthermore,” Vagins adds, “it will give women more tools to attack the wage gap in negotiations and in court.”

By working on multiple fronts, activists are not only pushing for free college education for all, they’re also analyzing how programs like New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, which was passed in 2017 and billed as providing a free education to anyone with a family income below $125,000, have failed to meet student need. The upshot, they’ve discovered, is that requiring students to be enrolled full-time with no breaks in attendance severely hampers eligibility. In addition to this, however, education activists throughout the US are working to improve student access to financial resources so that more people will be able to complete their degrees. Few of these changes will benefit folks like Dazia, Josefa and Renee, but they may help Generation Y and younger students as they come of age.