An Urgent Call: Fixing the Increase in College Costs


Education Secretary Arne Duncan

At a time when the cost of higher education is dramatically increasing and student debt to pay that cost is increasing as well, we continue to pay  witness to a flawed system–one that fails to promote equality for all economic classes. Accordingly, we are faced with the challenge of addressing the problem. In debating the solutions to this persistent problem, we can use our learnings from lecture, specifically John Rawls’ theory of justice, to better analyze our correct course of action. In doing so, we must take into account all sides of the argument, both those least-advantaged in the college system and those university officials who run the college system.

Earlier today, Education Secretary Erne Duncan  delivered a speech encouraging officials in higher education to “think more creatively — and with much greater urgency — about how to contain the spiraling costs of college and reduce the burden of student debt on our nation’s students.”

With the Occupy Wall Street movement dominating the news and Duncan’s recent call for urgent action, it seems as if the problem with college costs and student loans is being pushed to the forefront of national concern. Recently, there have been protests regarding the rise in college costs in both New York and California by students hailing from the City University of New York and UCLA. Secretary Duncan proclaims that, “Three in four Americans now say that college is too expensive for most people to afford” (Duncan). Accordingly, Mr. Duncan has alerted the general public to the need for change and has lauded the success that the Obama administration has had in increasing student aid and making student debt more manageable.

Obama has been proactive in his efforts to minimize student debt by instituting expanded income-based repayment plans and a new debt-consolidation program (Lewin).  This in  reaction to government assuming the burden of too much student debt–debt that has become too difficult to pay off. A recent article stated that government  accounted for about one third of undergraduate grant aid about a decade ago. Today, the government accounts for over half of undergraduate grant aid (Lewin). Thus, Mr. Duncan discussed the Education Department’s talks with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about creating a financial aid shopping sheet, or model disclosure form (Lewin). This form would essentially help students understand and compare the different types of available aid packages. In addition, Duncan cited the few schools such as Duquesne University, University of Oregon, and the University of Charleston, which have offered discounts on tuition and fees for incoming freshman and transfer students. Secretary Duncan has made decreasing college costs and student debt a well deserved priority.

Secretary Duncan’s recent speech is a significant step towards ameliorating the growing problem of increasing higher education costs nationwide. I am sensitive and sympathetic to the struggles of many of my contemporaries in affording college tuition, obtaining financial aid and paying down student loans. It is apparent to us all that the problem is real and needs to be addressed.  While the Obama administration is making advances in reducing student debt, more needs to be accomplished regarding the spiking costs of tuition and fees associated with higher education, perhaps through legislation.  The institutions of higher education must confront this issue and implement the necessary changes to make an education more affordable to all.  Failing that, government may need to step in and consider ways to reform the system.

The inordinate rise in college costs have undoubtedly disadvantaged those most in need,namely, the poor. Accordingly, the competitive nature of the college process has become unfair and those most in need have been denied equal access to education. As discussed in lecture, John Rawls  theory of justice asserts that actions should be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society and that the opportunity to hold office and position of authority be fairly available to all. So what would Rawls’ take be on Duncan’s speech?

It remains obvious to me that Rawls would agree with Secretary Duncan’s speech. Decreasing college costs across the board is an action that is of the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society. However, I think he would push even further in declaring that even if a dramatic decrease in college costs were to happen, there would still be a limit on who could attend college, and we would still be left with an unequal and unfair system.  His argument would entail the notion that the government had originally instituted a college system that was advantageous towards those better off in society. However, the counterargument elicits that while colleges and universities do their best in helping out the least-advantaged members of society through financial aid and scholarships, they must place a larger emphasis on their ability to improve their own institution as to benefit both themselves and the rest of society. Accordingly, in trying to fully meet the demands of the least-advantaged members of society, university officials compromise their own ability to maximize the wellbeing of their own institution, and thus is the reason for not always focusing on the least-advantaged members of society.

For these reasons, I evidence that Rawls would undoubtedly be unhappy with the college system. He might explain that those who do have the ability to attend college may be a result of their unearned privilege in being born to a family that is capable of paying for college. And, those who are not afforded that privilege might be a result of the underprivileged family that they were born into. Thus, the creation of the college system is inequitable because it creates an environment that is favorable to those who are brought up with unearned privileges. However, many environments like these seem to infiltrate our contemporary society. Maybe, an environment that promotes equality and disregards the need for unearned privileges is our utopian environment, one that is ostensibly too good to be true.

In any case, despite Rawls’ take on the situation, the circumstances of increasing college costs still lingers and our solution towards that problem remains to be seen. The questions still persist: what is the right balance between money and equality? Do you agree with Rawls? How can we be inclusive of the majority while still demanding money for higher education? Or should we allow those unable to pay for college to attend without any monetary requisites, or is that too radical? Where do we stand and how do we fix the problem?

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About rfieds

Student at the University of Michigan

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4 Comments on “An Urgent Call: Fixing the Increase in College Costs”

  1. #jasonschwartz Says:

    Great Piece, I really like the way that you bring in Rawls to this subject. As I have some experience in sport management I’d like to add onto this piece a little with some info about what has happened within the relm of college sports, and more specifically college football. As you may know, college football is a HUGE revenue producing sport. Through advertising, marketing products as well as TV contracts, it has become the highest revenue producing sport. However, where does the money go? Interestingly enough, the vast majority of the money made by unpaid college athletes doesn’t even go to their institiution, rather it goes towards the NCAA. As a result of NCAA rules and regulations, it has been able to pull a ton of money away from college’s that they have rightfully earned through their sports teams.
    This places the schoools in tough spots scrabling to even out their balance sheets. This debt could be one of the things unloaded onto new students. The fact of the matter is that it is now a basic requirement that a university must have a football team in order to attract more students to apply to their institutions.
    The best example of this can be seen when the Wisconsin Badgers went to the Rose bowl. The game which the NCAA undoubteldly signed a HUGE contract for was to be played in Los Angeles. The NCAA gave 2 million dollars to the University in order to reward the school, help them fund traveling, and prepare for the game. However, this amount was not nearly enough as the University spent over 7 million dollars to get all of their major administrators, the band, alumni, not to mention the football team down to California for the weekend.
    This is undoubtedly a serious issue that needs to be further investigated.

  2. Zachary Amateau Says:

    This is a very interesting post. I completely agree with the author that the increasing costs of college have spiraled out of control. It has become obvious that the opportunity to attend college has become more and more difficult over the years. The new college system has created an unequal and unfair environment for those who are incapable of affording the increasing tuitions and fees. I think that Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s speech and vow to change the persistent problem with increasing costs in college is an essential step towards creating change. Because colleges have not taken action in lowering costs and fees, the burden has now fallen on the government to take action in creating legislation that limits college costs and programs that help students reduce their debts after college. I agree with the author that Rawls would claim that the college system is flawed because it continues to promote inequality against those who are incapable of paying for college. Overall, I think this was an important post because it is another step towards ameliorating the increasing costs of college.

  3. pbaumhart Says:

    Your application of Rawl’s argument in respect to this issue is very interesting, even more so since this is such a touchy issue. As an out of state student at Michigan I am by no means a stranger to the issue of increasing college costs. The reason why this issue is so significant is that in the current economic situation and the fact that thousands of students will be walking out of the academic system and into a job market that has no place for them. Many people don’t know this but the consequences of defaulting on a student loan are very significant and can result in various punishments by lending agents (http://bankruptcy.findlaw.com/bankruptcy/more-bankruptcy-topics/default-on-student-loans.html).

    Ultimately what it boils down to is that the university system is once again becoming something that acts to serve people of a higher economic status. With costs going out of control there is really no other solution than to find a way to alleviate these costs to students. Economic factors should not hold this much weight in students going to college.

  4. Brian Hall Says:

    College is certainly a hugely important determiner of future socio-economic class, and application of Rawls’ theories is quite relevant in this area. I’m personally inclined to allow the system to serve the upper-middle class if need be as the incentive to work hard so your kids can go to college is a critical part of the success of the system overall. If I personally knew that I wouldn’t need to save money for my kids’ future educations (i.e. if college was fully funded by the government), I sure as hell would not work very hard in the future. The system would collapse if we allowed everyone the opportunity to go to college or provided complete coverage for economically disadvantaged individuals. It is especially frustrating that the policies many colleges have of providing substantial scholarships to the poor actually end up disadvantaging the middle class (who have to pay more to compensate for the full-ride scholarships). The rich never have problems sending their kids to school anyway, so nothing changes there, and what results is simply a shuffling of who constitutes the middle class (a benefit for those who care about affirmative action I suppose). I’m all for providing opportunities to those who are actually going to use their college education for something other than partying and differed adulthood (i.e. not lazy rich white kids), but not if it undercuts average people who are barely able to afford school to begin with.

    That said, I think that there needs to be something done quickly about the for-profit college sector. They are gulping down the financial aid money like no other. The University of Phoenix for instance is a degree mill that churns out graduates with no real credentials, but has found a way to profit off of the government handouts nonetheless. Leave the financial aid money for those attending reasonably reputable schools.

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