Bringhurst: Higher Education is a Necessity Many Can’t Afford


Storey McDonald

(Graphic by Storey McDonald | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Maggie Bringhurst, Opinion Writer


I’m once again infuriated by the cost of higher education as I review my Spring semester tuition payment plan. As a student who works full-time and borrows the maximum amount of student loans each semester, I still split my remaining tuition balance up into payments of a few hundred dollars every month. I typically receive need-based grants of about $500 a semester, but it isn’t enough.

The cost of attendance for the University of Utah has risen 17.14% since 2011. As tuition increases in the coming years, I and many others could be priced out of an education. Many low-income students already are. The rising cost of tuition leaves low-income students in the dust and prospective students wondering if college is even worth it. Without immediate solutions, lower-income families will be stuck in the cycle of poverty.

The Reality of Low-Income College Students 

The average cost of college tuition at public four-year institutions has risen 179.2% over the last 20 years. At the same time, wages remained practically stagnant. Tuition inflation combined with stagnant wages isn’t sustainable and alienates low-income households. Students from families with incomes under $75,000 were almost twice as likely to drop out of their fall 2020 semester than students from families with incomes over $100,000. In Utah, college participation rates for students from low-income families are 15% lower than students who are not considered low-income.

Financial aid such as Pell Grants and Federal Work-Study Programs don’t do enough, and don’t make any notable impact on the student debt crisis. In the 2018-19 school year, students receiving Pell Grants could only afford 23% of four-year public colleges. More than half of students nationally who work 15 hours or more had an average of C or lower. Students need money to attend school, which hurts their grades and prevents them from receiving merit-based scholarships.

“If students are working, they may [take time off] for a semester … and then re-enroll,” said Stan Inman, Career & Professional Development Center Director for the U to the Salt Lake Tribune. “That’s not a healthy pattern for consistency and completion.”

Because of this, the U should focus on making college affordable. More than 60% of students take an average of six years to graduate from college. As someone in this situation, I would have preferred to complete four years consecutively. But when I couldn’t afford tuition, I had no choice but to take a semester off. Current financial aid opportunities aren’t enough to keep low-income students in school. If it was, they would stay in school.

The Value of a Degree

Stagnant wages for bachelor’s degree holders, while tuition increases faster than inflation, largely contribute to the student debt crisis. Wages for those with college degrees have remained relatively stagnant for the last 20 years. Graduates rarely reap financial benefits immediately. It’s estimated that a 2021 high school graduate should expect to borrow around $38,000 for their bachelor’s degree. Graduates make student loan payments decades after they graduate, making some reconsider the value of their degree.

For now, college grads seem to find monetary value, eventually paying off their loans and earning more than they would have without their education. But we cannot continue on this unsustainable path of stagnant wages, rising inflation and excessive tuition. At some point, it will not be financially worth it to get a degree.

Alternatively, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs requiring a master’s degree will grow faster than other jobs and that educational standards for jobs will continue to rise. Although college is currently more expensive and less accessible than ever, it is also more important than ever.

Getting a post-secondary education shouldn’t be a question of affordability when it’s considered almost a necessity. An affordable bachelor’s degree would lift low-income families out of poverty and provide future generations with resources to do the same, effectively breaking the cycle of poverty. But when obtaining a college education is contingent on coming from a financially comfortable family, breaking this cycle of poverty is near impossible.

The Future

Congress’s efforts to solve the student debt crisis have seen little success. Although President Joe Biden supported offering two free years of community college, it didn’t receive enough support in Congress to become reality. Democrats’ proposed student loan debt forgiveness will allow college graduates to reap the monetary benefits of their degrees. But it doesn’t solve the root of the problem, the ridiculous price tag on a college education.

Congress is working on a bill that would invest in Pell Grants and increase funding for historically Black colleges and universities. But “It’s not going to substantially change the financial outlook of these students,” said Dr. Douglas Harris, chairman of the economics department at Tulane University, to the New York Times.

Helping people obtain a higher education will help reduce poverty and improve quality of life. Continuing to dismiss the student debt crisis in America only creates more long-lasting impacts, such as disincentivizing people to attend college and minimizing class mobility. Without making serious, radical changes, college students will not only see less monetary value from their degree, but it will also prevent low-income students from attending college entirely.


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