Education Is a Right, Not an Obstacle

At first, I was intrigued by the headline “An Alternative to Free Tuition.” In our fairly progressive college community, what answer did the Wheel editorial board have to the problem of the class gap in education?

The skewed system we already have.

I can certainly see where Bernie Sanders’ plan for free tuition is too pie-in-the-sky for the nation at this moment. It would take years, perhaps even decades, to achieve something this ambitious.

In addition, I certainly agree that upper-class families who can afford college costs should foot their own bill so that there is enough money in the coffers to cover those who need financial aid. However, the Editorial Board’s opinion of how financial aid operates at colleges is a bit too rosy. In their opinion, “There is a reason for selective pricing at American universities and for the ‘expected family contribution’ component of financial aid applications. Wealthier students cover the costs of the lower income students.” If the system was perfect, this would be true. However, lower- and middle-income students have an expected family contribution to cover too, and it’s not always affordable for them. In fact, a student’s actual college cost may be higher than their expected family contribution (which could already be difficult for them to afford). According to Justin Draeger, President and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), “the EFC that tells you nothing. It doesn’t tell you how much you’re going to have to pay … The whole thing is broken.

The Editorial Board’s speculation on how free public college tuition would affect private colleges is questionable as well. In their words, “Like private high schools or college preparatory schools, they would likely become enclaves for those who can afford to attend.” I venture to say that the state of class diversity in private colleges would remain more or less the same, if private colleges give lower-to-middle class individuals a reason to attend. The competition created by free or lowered public college tuition would put the onus on private colleges to perform at a higher level, or perhaps even lower their tuition, in order to appeal to students across the socioeconomic spectrum. Students of lower-to-middle income already attend private colleges like Emory, despite public colleges being much more affordable. Free tuition at public colleges probably would not change this unless private colleges cannot justify their cost with resources that public colleges do not have. As long as fair financial aid is provided to those who need it, there is no reason for private colleges to be worried about becoming irrelevant to a diverse pool of students.

The Editorial Board proposes that “federal and state governments use measures of academic performance, such as GPA, to ensure that students take full advantage of need-based aid.” The implication of this is that students who need financial aid need to work harder than those who don’t. While I’m all for making sure that the funds go to those who work hard and deserve it, the achievement-based criteria that exist now actually tend to benefit upper class students who have more resources than lower-to-middle class students who may go to lower quality schools, can’t afford tutoring, have to have a job outside of school, etc. Ability to take full advantage of education is a bit more nuanced than GPA, and all factors should be taken into account when evaluating an applicant. Not to mention, need-based aid is just that — need-based. This kind of aid is given assuming that the student in question already meets the criteria to attend the institution. It is meant to be a tool to try and level the classism within colleges and universities, not a special award that should be earned through extraordinary measures.

And finally, there is the matter of the Editorial Board’s notion that “Education is not a right, but an obstacle in the pursuit of a higher quality of life.” Sorry, but the United Nations disagrees with you there. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to education.” While the price of said education (outside of elementary, which the document states should be free) is debatable within the context of this declaration, the very right to an education is not. As for education being an “obstacle,” I passionately disagree with you there. If education is an obstacle to you, please feel free to drop out and open up a spot for a student that will actually appreciate it. Perhaps if you saw your family work themselves to the bone to keep you in good schools, you might be a little more grateful for this burdensome education of yours.

Erin Penney is a College senior from Franklin, Tennessee.