Free college education and the financial aid system

Joe Jacquez
Mesa Legend

Since I arrived at Mesa Community College, I have noticed one major difference between the average high school student and the average college student: college students actually take their education seriously. Education must be top priority at the state and national level if we want to compete in the global economy. Priorities in this country are messed up both in Washington D.C. and at the state level. But the good news is, we can change that. It’s a problem when we are the wealthiest nation on earth, and we lag so far behind other countries in education. According to a Pew Research Center Study from February 2015, the U.S. still lags behind many Asian and European countries in the critical areas of math and science. That is unacceptable for the world’s biggest superpower.

At the heart of this problem is massive income inequality in the U.S. Rich students can easily afford higher education. In contrast, college is too expensive for middle and low income students and their families because median wages fail to keep with tuition and fees. According to IRS and College Board data from 2008, the median income has remained stagnant since 1988. Tuition and fees has more than doubled, and it’s worsened since then.
At the same time, recent research has shown that low income students are often the highest achievers. A landmark study in 2012 by economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery found that high income students account for just a third of the high-achieving students graduating high school, yet 74 percent of students of students at the top 146 colleges came from the richest households.

At the same time, 39 percent of America’s highest achievers come from the country’s poorest 50 percent of students. These students graduate high school, finish with an A average, and have some of the highest ACT and SAT scores, yet they say no to higher education due to the cost.  In 2013, only 1 in 5 college students from the lowest income bracket completed a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared with 99 percent of students in high income earning families.
Making college tuition free would help, but fixing the system should be the first priority because ultimately college still has costs.  Income inequality would be a thing of the past because more middle and low income students would be earning bachelor’s degrees.

The New America Foundation found that in 2013 the government spent 69 billion on higher education student aid. Of that, 32.6 billion was spent on tax credits, deductions, and exemptions that mainly benefit the rich.  According to the Tax Policy Center, more than half of those deductions went to households that earn more than $100,000 dollars a year.  Instead, we ought to make tuition free college a reality, double Pell grant funding, lower the eligibility for the American Opportunity Tax Credit and work study programs.  America is missing out on its brightest students because of our rigged financial aid system, hurting our ability to compete in the global economy. That must change.

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These are archived stories from Mesa Legend editions before Fall 2018. See article for corresponding author.

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