Campus News

Op-Ed: What Does “Free” Public College Mean for SU?

By Michelle Adams

According to the Associated Press, “national student debt is near $1.3 trillion dollars, and the average price for in-state students at public four-year universities is 42 percent higher than it was a decade ago.” In what some believe to be an effort to win over younger voters, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, two prominent candidates for the Democratic presidential race nomination, and even current President Barack Obama, are planning to fix that statistic, having published plans in mid-August to make two and four-year public college programs more affordable. While the ideas sound great on the surface, what does free public college mean for a private school, like Shenandoah University (SU)?

The Facts:

Clinton and Sanders’ plans are quite similar. They have a common goal: eliminating tuition costs all together. The plans are focused on state-funded public colleges, and fail to appeal to students at private universities. While the plans, “intentionally…avoid broad promises,” as Scott Jaschik from Inside Higher-Ed writes, according to FOX News, the $350 billion plan would make community college tuition-free, cut interest rates on current student loans, and work to ensure that students attending public universities do not take out loans on tuition. Lower-income students would continue to receive Federal Pell Grants, and those currently paying student loans from public schools could, “refinance at a lower interest rate.” According to The Washington Post, the small differences between the plans include Clinton’s mandate of a 10-hour work-study week for students, as well as a, “reasonable,” family contribution, and Sanders’ inclusion of graduate students in his program. It is important to note that, in Clinton’s plan, dubbed the, “New College Compact,” only low-income students would be permitted to use federal funds toward various living expenses and housing, while in Sanders’, all students could use their monies this way. According to Inside Higher-Ed, Clinton herself notes that some families may still have to borrow money for, “non-tuition expenses.” Bernie Sanders’ campaign website urges that Clinton’s plan includes, “wealthy,” families paying for these expenses, such as housing, based on their income; but, to criticize, as we all know from Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applications, the government’s idea of, “reasonable percentage,” can be quite skewed from what is realistic, failing to take into account specific circumstances that affect families nationwide. In addition, those whose families are perceived to be wealthier would compensate for lower-income families by paying more. Laura Meckler and Josh Mitchell of The Wall Street Journal write that students currently attending private institutions, like SU, are not considered in these plans, although future students may have lower interest rates on federal loans.

The Flaws:

There are some clear issues with both of these plans. First and foremost, there is the issue of unfair acceptances. The Washington Post reports that state-run colleges and universities that enroll more low-income students will get more federal funding. This is already true about minority enrollment; during the admissions processes, it is quite apparent at some universities that women and those of minority races are given better deals than others, such as more scholarships and incentives to attend, in an effort to enroll more minority students, and thus, receive more federal funding. I find this to be quite unfair, and I am a huge supporter of blind applications; neither race and ethnicity nor gender should be a factor whatsoever in college admissions – it should be completely based on merit, in my opinion.

According to The Wall Street Journal, in an effort to continue to make college cheaper, Clinton asserted at a campaign rally in South Carolina that, “[colleges are] really going to have to think twice about a new rec center.” This statement not only shows that she cares little about student experience, but makes us aware of her lack of understanding of the true college experience. James Looney, a freshman trumpet performance major, argues that our Brandt Student Center (BSC) is worth a little extra money in tuition: “It’s a great source of work-study for our students…and it’s a lovely place for everyone to hang out and bond.” Clearly, the BSC is an important part of all students’ lives, and I expect students at other universities would argue for their recreation centers as well.

Moreover, Clinton states that she wants every child in America to get a degree. In addition to more affordable college, she is arguing for more amenities that help students finish school, such as childcare (but, apparently, not recreation centers). Schools would be punished for students that fail to graduate, forcing universities to make graduating easier for everyone, or pay a fine. This sounds fantastic on the surface, but consider what this means for the job-seeking college graduate. In a few short years (or months, or even weeks, for some SU students), we will be competing in markets for careers, and we hope that our degrees will give us a well-deserved step-up in this world. As freshman music production and recording technology major, Lenny Falwell, says, “having the degree that I [am working toward], sets me apart,” from others in the industry; if everyone had his degree, his work in the next four years would be significantly devalued. In a world where many argue that a college education is already losing its value, the ease of receiving a degree, and likewise an increase in the receipt of them, makes the hard-working individuals that graduated prior to the plan’s enactment appear less elite.

Another flawed view of Clinton’s is that an increase in the number of college-educated individuals would raise wages. In reality, the consequences of this are similar to those of a raise in minimum wage: the price of goods and services would rise, as everyone would be eligible for this salary increase. It is more likely that a college degree would be virtually meaningless, and entry-level positions would simply pay the same for more qualifications, since these qualifications are more common and less exclusive.

Finally, according to The Wall Street Journal, there is also the concern that, “if the government gives schools more student aid without reforms, the cost of education will simply rise.” In a study by a group in New York this year, the costs of college have actually been allowed to increase by the rising amount of student aid – like federal loans, grants, and scholarships – available. This could continue under both Clinton and Sanders’ plans.

What Does This Mean for Shenandoah?

For SU in particular, as a private university, there are some key drawbacks to the Democrats’ plans. My understanding is that some, or all (depending on the plan), of the taxpayer dollars that currently help students at private universities (via work study and federal grants, for example) will be collected and sent to help students at public universities receive free tuition. Former Florida governor and potential Republican presidential nominee, Jeb Bush, said in a recent interview, “We don’t need more top-down Washington solutions that will raise the cost of college even further,” especially for taxpayers; including those studying at private institutions and even individuals who chose not to go to college – is it fair for them to pay for others’ educations? While it makes sense that the federal government wants to promote federally and state-funded schools, it will be more difficult for students at private schools to attend their respective universities with less of their federal funding combined with a higher price for their education.

This should scare Hornet supporters; how many students would realistically choose to pay more to attend SU, if they could go to public college for significantly less or even free-of-charge? Michael Recchia, a freshman music theater major, said, “Shenandoah is one of the only programs in the country for musical theater that I am fond of; I don’t see a point in wasting four years of my life in a program I don’t like, no matter the cost.” Cameron Farnsworth, a freshman music education major, agrees, saying, “This is the only music school that I know of this quality.” Still, there will certainly be many students who simply could not afford to attend SU, with a likely rise in tuition rates, and without the federal grants they currently receive. Declining enrollment could lead to a detrimental fate that none of us want: the closing of SU.

Better Solutions to Rising College Costs:

        In potential solutions that refer to private students as well, two potential GOP presidential nominees suggest other ways to lower the cost of college education for dedicated students. According to The Wall Street Journal, Senator Marco Rubio supports allowing students to use federal student aid for trade schools, and similar programs, which helps more students experience higher learning without devaluing any degrees. Senator Rand Paul has proposed allowing students to “deduct the cost of education from their taxes over the course of their careers,” which, while similar to Clinton’s concept, is more individualized, and does not force citizens to pay for the educations of other people. While neither proposal has been written into a formal plan, these provide the insight that there are more, better options for making college more affordable for all students, not just those at public universities.

Conclusion:

        Any modern college student will agree that the task of paying for their education is borderline impossible, and a prominent stressor for them. With the cost of college increasing each year, it is clear that students need solutions. Unfortunately, Clinton and Sanders’ plans are not the way to help students at Shenandoah University; in fact, the plans will likely hurt SU students in the long run. Many students, according to USA Today College, agree that the concept of making college more affordable is both beneficial and necessary, but the borderline-socialist plans of the two leading Democratic nominees for the presidency are clearly not the way to do this.

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