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Lower Costs for Higher Ed

Advancing higher education, a benefit itself, ought not be conflated with public service

By The Crimson Staff, THE CRIMSON STAFF

The Democratic primary has finally gotten academic. After proposing policies on national security, Medicare and the economy, many of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have now started to include financial incentives for post-secondary education in their platforms. Their proposals seem timely given the ever-rising costs of a higher education—some private school tuitions now exceed $40,000, just a few thousand dollars shy of the median salary for an American worker. If these costs don’t dissuade many students from attending post-secondary schools, they often burden students and their families with immeasurable debt. Study after study affirms the financial and occupational benefits of a bachelor’s degree—those with college degrees make considerably more money and are afforded job opportunities unavailable to those without a college education. It is heartening that the candidates have recognized that higher education—and its immense benefits—should be available to all students, financial background notwithstanding.

All the plans proposed by Democratic presidential hopefuls provide financial incentives such as tax rebates and grants to receive a bachelor’s degree. In that respect they remedy several problems associated with the current system, where financial aid programs provided by many institutions often do little to mitigate the exorbitant costs associated with higher education. As is, students from lower-income backgrounds are much less likely to enter college than those from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, and few see the most expensive private institutions as within their financial reach. That only six percent of Harvard undergraduates receive Pell Grants—federal grants for low-income students— exemplifies this trend. Additionally, even middle-class families often face severe financial burdens from higher-education tuition bills.

Some may criticize the high costs of many of the proposed plans—Rep. Richard A. Gephardt’s projects the cost of his plan at $5.5 billion over ten years, while Sen. John F. Kerry’s proposal would cost even more, some $4 billion annually. But financial incentives that encourage students to go to college, however costly, would provide a needed and direct investment in human capital—enhancing the American economy with more-productive workers.

Given the touted benefits of higher education, however, it is quite disconcerting that some Democratic candidates are conflating the need to encourage young Americans to pursue higher education with the desire for more youth participation in public service. Specifically, plans by candidates Kerry, Sen. John D. Edwards—and to some extent former Vermont Governor Howard Dean—all provide financial incentives for post-secondary education to those students who will devote considerable time to community service—either during college or after graduation, via service work or low-income public interest jobs. While encouraging public service is a praiseworthy goal, it detracts from main goal of giving students greater agency and options. Federal incentives, especially those that by nature will disproportionally benefit lower-income students, should not be tied to limited career avenues. Rather, they should simply encourage students to enter college a means to successfully pursue whatever career option they deem appropriate. With any luck, and further incentives down the line, more students may enter public service as well. But now, while the candidates vie for position before the New Hampshire primary, is the time for further discussion on the more pressing issue: how to most effectively get more young Americans into college classrooms.

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