At home in Paris three years ago, I went with my best friend to pay her tuition bill for law school. After stating her name to the woman seated at a folding table near the university library, she took out her checkbook and paid the sum in full: just over $300 for the semester. I don’t believe I need to say more.
In the past, I have questioned both the causes the Undergraduate Organizing Committee embraces and the tactics it uses. But for the past few months, the UOC has been solidly focused on financial aid, an issue that affects us all, whether directly or not. The group’s goals are noble: most importantly, to decrease expected student contributions so that all students can have more standard college experiences both during the school year and in the summer and to increase transparency in the financial aid office so that all students understand the process by which their financial situations are judged.
I understand that for an organization like the UOC — which, while ideologically based, focuses primarily on policy change — the goal cannot be too far-reaching. But lost in this financial aid discussion is the truth that the options at hand are far from a real solution to the skyrocketing cost of higher education. That the focus of a debate on financial aid at one of the country’s best (fine, the best) institutions of higher learning must be on such matters as whether a student should be forced to contribute a huge sum or a slightly-less-huge sum to his or her education betrays a number of repulsive truths about the United States itself.
Limits to higher education are not absent in other industrialized countries. But there, the barriers are crossed by academic achievement and not by ability to pay. The differences between the systems are dramatic. The cost of a year of education at one of the top universities in France is less than the expected contribution to tuition of Yale financial aid recipients. True, the growing number of community colleges and other institutions in the United States provides access to university degrees for many people who would otherwise not receive them. But the college degree is considerably cheapened both by the proliferation of such institutions and by the fact that the real hurdle for potential students is garnering enough student loans and not succeeding academically in a meaningful way.
We talk about the need for everyone to have the chance to go to college. But there are two problems with the American interpretation of this statement. First, by this we mean everyone should have access to an education that will afford them a better job and not an education that will afford them a better education. And second, we are creating a country where college degrees themselves are becoming more meaningless because getting them depends mainly on ability to pay — not on academic achievement. All of these problems with the American educational system prove what is wrong with a country that is too focused on individualism to the detriment of the common good.
This total lack of concern both for others’ success and for the definition of the United States as a place of intellectual achievement is expected if you look at the paltry nature of our government aid programs. Given that we’re indifferent to, for example, universal access to affordable health care, it’s not surprising that average public college fees total well over $10,000 a year. The same lack of respect for others that makes the U.S. educational system a disgrace is, I dare say, what led nearly 60 million people to vote for the most revolting and selfish president in the history of the United States. And the Bush record on higher education is clear: Tuition has risen 35 percent since he took office, and the 2005 budget threatens to freeze or cut several key government financial aid programs.
It is totally acceptable for Americans — particularly those on the red side of the aisle — to criticize European countries for being unabashed socialists. But we are deluding ourselves about the ability of our educational system to educate children to the same standards as other industrialized nations and to provide equal opportunities to people of all economic situations. Dare I say that “socialism” might not be so bad after all?
I will continue to support the goals of the UOC. But this organization has the unfortunate fate of working within a national system that is totally irreconcilable with any goal of fair economic access to higher education. On Wednesday night, at Yale President Richard Levin’s open forum, a student asked Levin why Yale was not mimicking Harvard and Princeton’s recent tuition reforms. Levin contended that Yale’s financial aid system was close to as good as it gets, and that Princeton’s reform in particular was a PR move. To be honest, all reforms in financial aid in the United States are PR moves. A nominal increase in Pell grants or a nominal decrease in financial aid contributions by families with low incomes will never achieve the kind of economic diversity we truly need at colleges and universities. As we continue to lower the standards by which American educational institutions are judged and increase the cost of such education, we are effectively dealing in a good that is worth less each year. It would take not only a giant step in education reform, but a giant change in national consciousness, to assure that all the best and brightest have a chance at attending Yale.
Jessamyn Blau is a senior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.