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In preparation for applications to graduate programs in the health professions, my wife is taking two classes at a local community college. Our gross tuition bill for this semester was $1,100 (if she were full-time, the bill would be slightly more than double). Note that this low tuition is a result of massive federal and local subsidies to the community college sector, by design.

We just finished our taxes and have learned that we have received over $400 in tuition tax credits through various state and federal education programs. Note that due to our middle-income status, we are not eligible for the much larger credits that lower income families will receive. After these breaks, our net out-of-pocket expenses for college are somewhere in the $650 range. The texts for her two courses run about $200 each, but we found paperback copies for less than $100 total – bringing us up to $750 for taking two classes this semester. We are also eligible for $7,500 of student loans (which we did not take, but were tempted to use and then put a new roof on our house … but that is for another post). Students in lower income brackets, in addition to being eligible for these same loans, would be eligible for a variety of federal and state grants to attend school, most notably the Pell Grant.

The classes are held in the evening and county buses service the campus from all over the county for a small cost (presuming someone does not have a car).

The simple point is that going to college to improve your employment opportunities is eminently doable for anybody in America today. Even if you work a full-time job at only the $7.25 minimum wage, you can afford to pay your net tuition and school expenses out of pocket (you would be earning about $1,015 per month if you work 35 hour weeks) without even needing to take out a loan. But loans are available, so you would be able to delay these payments until after you have completed your school work. Beyond that, virtually no one with income below our family level will incur any significant educational expenses at all. The maximum Pell grant award from the federal government in 2010 is $5,350. Other grant programs are available through other agencies and foundations.

Taking two courses per semester in the evenings and including summers, while difficult, is not a burden people cannot endure. You can still work, you can even still enjoy a little leisure time. Financial issues are not the thing that is preventing more people from attending college. And I do not want to hear anything about, “well, some people have children, or they are tired, or …” Figure it out. Ask for help from your spouse, your friends, and your family if you need someone to keep an eye on your kids while in school. It’s high time we stop making excuses for people.

You can’t even begin to tell me that we need to increase funding for education any faster than we already are – it is a ludicrous claim. And if you want to make other arguments about why it is hard for someone to go to college – such as their poor preparation, that does not mean colleges are the right place to remedy these deficiencies. But they (colleges) seem to be trying anyway. For example, in my wife’s Developmental Psych course, she gets to “retake” all of her exams if she is not happy with the grades she got on the first go around. On her first day of Chemistry class, the class spent nearly the entire 3 hours working on worksheets that consisted entirely of problems like:

“12 inches = ___ feet”

“if one inch = 2.54 centimeters, then how many centimeters are in a foot?”

… and so on. And while it is nice to brush up on your conversions, when we have a class that meets once a week for 3 hours, each week over a 14 week semester, it seems to be an incredible waste of faculty and student resources to devote an entire class to this – something that I recall mastering before high school. That students have trouble with these conversions nonetheless does not change the point I am making.

One Response to “The Myth of College Unaffordability”

  1. Don Gray says:

    I agree completely with you. Given all of the state and federal education subsidies to higher education and the wide availability of federal loans, a college education is affordable for anyone in America. This spring I enrolled part time in SUNY Empire State College’s M.B.A. program. I’m following the typical two courses a semester approach which is popular for students employed full-time. As a NYS resident the total cost of my two courses is $2734.10. Add a couple hundred dollars for books and my cost is approximately $3,000 this semester. This cost was easily covered by low interest rate federal loans, where even the interest can be deferred while I am pursing my degree. (I also fall into the middle income category.)
    My take is that undergraduate and graduate degrees are both affordable for people from all income levels. This is especially true for people attending public universities.

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