College should be more affordable

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by Patrick Fogarty

When I went to college, you could pay your way by getting a summer job and working a few hours part-time during the school year. I worked summer jobs, my family helped a lot, and I graduated with no debt. After college, I worked for a year and saved money instead of making debt payments, which helped me then pursue a PhD in molecular genetics. In grad school, I worked long hours to pay for my degree, but it was doing research and teaching that contributed to my education—not doing unrelated work for money. I again graduated with no debt, and not having this burden made a difference in being able to start a biotech company because I was able to forgo a salary for a couple of years. But it’s not like this today. 

CNBC recently reported that 71% of graduates from four-year colleges carried debt, “with students at public schools owing an average of $25,550 and those with degrees from private colleges owing an average of $32,300.” 

My wife was a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and she often told me about her students who were working full-time in addition to attending classes and were so exhausted that although she knew they were smart, they weren’t doing their best work. Or her students who shared worries about their mounting debt. Full-time students should be just that, able to focus on learning full time.

I don’t believe college should be free because it shouldn’t be an extension of high school—just the thing you do next because it is there and easy. And people tend not to appreciate things they get free. (I’m thinking of all those free e-books I’ve downloaded but haven’t read.) But the financial barriers to college shouldn’t be prohibitive, and we should be working to make it more affordable, not less. 

An educated workforce is good for everyone, and the freedom to start a company or pursue a career based on its merits to you and society, instead of just how you can make the most money to pay off debt, leads to a better future for all. High debt is a proven inhibitor of entrepreneurship. And how many students give up dreams of service such as teaching or social work in favor of higher paying jobs so they can pay off their loans?

Internships are often an essential stepping stone to building a career, but prestigious internships are often unpaid and therefore only available to students from high-income families. The American Dream is predicated on advancing through merit, not birth. Although taking opportunity should include struggle that helps us further grow and learn as a person, the government should also set up policies that encourage equal access to such opportunities. For example, stipends, or some basic level of support should be available to make accepting these internships possible for students from low-income families. (I applaud the work UNR is doing to provide grants for students who do internships, such as the Pack Internship Grant Program.) 

Recently, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration was seeking to slash nearly $4 billion in annual funding for student aid programs. They hoped to eliminate loan forgiveness programs for people who go into public service, slash work-study programs, freeze Pell grants, and more.

This is upside down thinking. I will fight each of these cuts, reverse them if possible, and work to increase programs that make sure all students who want to get a college degree can do so without incurring life-changing debt.

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on