The Cost of Higher Ed Affecting Professional Choices?

Esha Chhabra

May 26, 2012


A little over a year ago, I got up to work on a dreary, cold, snowy morning in London and ran into some students making a ruckus, blocking the streets and chanting heavily.

As I sat in the office, I kept hearing them, making more and more of a ruckus on the main streets of the city. Later, that afternoon, they clogged the “tele” as every channel covered the protests, which had engulfed the city.

They were complaining that education, which had been granted to them as a right, was now becoming a burden. U.K. institutions, known for offering education to its citizens, had now decided to charge them.

The university that I had attended earlier that year in London was notorious for accepting more international students than U.K. students. Something they prided themselves on as a way to build “diversity.” Or perhaps, it was to build their bank balance since the international fees were quite hefty.

But the students were frustrated. They’d been told that education was available to all. And now that reality was slowly dissipating.

Recently, I had the opportunity to serve on a scholarship committee granting funds to students in the local area for their higher education. This was for a mishmash of students — some barely out of high school, others seeking an adult education. But, they were all struggling financially in some way.

Most of us on the committee, when we started doing interviews, didn’t have exact figures in our heads as to how much does a UC education, a Cal Poly education or a private university cost these days. When we did our research, we were silenced. Just in the past decades, tuition fees had tripled to some of these institutions, making even community college too expensive for some families.

So, when I met the students aspiring to receive the scholarship, I was humbled by their efforts. They did multiple jobs, they put aside their educational careers to make money first, support their families, toiled away to receive grants, scholarships — all in hopes that they could afford a college education.

What was striking to note, though, was that it’s not just a problem for low-income families. There are those who come from modest middle-class families as well; they’ve been accepted to solid universities, whether private or public. And yet, even though they have two working parents or a viable family income, the weight of a college tuition is too much for their parents to bear. So, students resort to loans.

The domino effect of the loans is something that we’ve started to come to terms with as a society. The loans keep inflating, the debt keeps accumulating and the options after college start narrowing.

Chatting with a friend recently, he said to me, “Esh, I’m going to have to do that job. At least for a few years. I don’t really have any options.” He was referring to a consulting gig — one of the most common options for ambitious bachelor of arts graduates.

He came from a single-parent home. He took on loans and worked while in school to achieve his college education. “I can come back to it later. Or I can try to start doing some of it on the side. But I’ve got to do this. I don’t really have any other option. What do you think?”

He wants to work in the nonprofit sector, addressing social issues. But his loans are bearing him down. So, he’s going for the better paying job. The one that will liberate him of his debts. What I thought was intriguing was how he kept repeating, “I don’t really have any other option.”

Education is designed to give you options. In developing nations, when nonprofits provide education or professional skills, they often term it as “empowerment.” It paves the way for a better tomorrow. Ironically, here, I was hearing a smart, young graduate talk about how his education had limited his options — to careers that paid well, but ones that he didn’t necessarily care for or ones that didn’t work so closely with local communities, which he was hoping to do.

Had he not taken on the loans and the debt, he said, he’d be happy to live in a cubby apartment, live frugally, own just one work suit instead of three, but be able to explore jobs that paid less in dollars, more in stories and experiences.

There are effects to the rising cost of education that are being overlooked. Not only are we losing some people to higher education because it’s simply too costly, we’re also building a cycle of debt for 20-somethings that’s unseen. Their professional pursuits are being affected by their loan repayments, not by their passions.

It makes it harder to do the jobs with the smaller salaries, i.e., in the public sector, a small nonprofit or as a teacher in small communities, even if you have the zeal for it. And, yet, those are the sectors that need more support, more young, innovative minds.

When I saw the protests on UC campuses earlier this year as the Board of Regents hiked fees again and accepted large numbers of international students this past year, I remembered the British students blocking the streets of London.

How do we address this education challenge without simply resorting to the checks from international students? How do we alleviate the burdens for American students?

After all, American higher education, at the college/university level, is still considered to be among the best in the world. How can we make sure that students in our communities still have access to it?

Perhaps it’s time to use a little modern-day crowd sourcing to seek solutions.

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