In the United States today, there is over $1.2 trillion dollars worth of student debt--an amount that has tripled in just the past ten years alone. Education in the United States has a reputation of being the "great equalizer." Americans live by the notion that working hard and getting an education flings open the doors to greater economic mobility. While this has historically proven true, in recent decades, this ideology has been abused, and post-secondary education has become progressively less accessible to the lower and middle classes due to the rapidly increasing cost of tuition across all university models.
There are several types of American colleges, but the most frequently discussed are:
Private, non-profit universities: Funded by tuition payments, endowments from the federal government, and donations from individuals, organizations, or corporations. The main goal of these universities is to serve their students' interests; they aim to gain prestige by creating notable alumnae who will donate to or generate/further a positive reputation the school. There are no "owners" of these universities, though there is often times a Board of Trustees that makes decisions regarding the school's finances, academics, and so on.
Public universities: In the U.S., the majority of public universities are state universities, which means they receive a majority of their funding from their respective state. Some states, depending on their size and population density, may have up to 30 state universities. Many states have a discounted tuition rate for individuals who already live in the state. While tuition and donations do account for a portion of public university funding, in theory, they rely more on external sources of revenue than private universities. In recent years, however, tuition has played a larger and larger role in the funding of public universities due to budget cuts; in some states, tuition provides a greater percentage of funding to public universities than the state itself.
Private, for-profit universities: The equivalent of education were it run entirely like a business. For-profit universities prioritize owners and stakeholders as opposed to the education of their students. They oftentimes target non-traditional students (students well over the "typical college age" of late teens to early 20s) by having low or no admissions requirements and offering extremely flexible course loads, with classes offered at night or online; individuals enrolled at for-profit colleges are likely working full-time jobs in addition to taking classes. A majority of funding for for-profit colleges comes from tuition payments, which students often make using money from federal loans or grants.
Community colleges: A 2-year college that allows individuals to receive an Associate's degree. They can then choose to finish the next two years at any of the above colleges to receive their Bachelor's degree. Community colleges tend to be the most affordable.
Vocational schools: Provides technical, career-focused training, as opposed to the less tangible academic training of the above colleges.
Tuition in the U.S., as mentioned previously, has increased in varying amounts over the past few decades. The average cost of tuition at a private university has nearly tripled since 1995, from approximately $14,000 to just under $40,000 for the year. Sarah Lawrence is America's most expensive university, and costs students over $65,000 for tuition and room/board. The real issue, however, is the increasing price of public universities, which have increased five times in price since 1995, from just over $2,000 to $10,000 each year. Public schools have faced vicious budget cuts from their respective state, leading to the reduction in student financial aid and tuition-free scholarships. For the best example of this issue, one should look to New York City's CUNY schools.
City University of New York (CUNY) is a collection of 24 undergraduate colleges located in New York City. Established in 1847 by Townsend Harris as the "Free Academy of New York," now the City College of New York (CCNY), CUNY schools were meant to provide an opportunity for cost-free higher education to the entirety of the city. This policy was continued until 1976, in the midst of New York City's dire financial crises, brought on by the national issue of stagflation and the lack of adequate legislative support for the city. The situation worsened in 1995, when New York Governor Pataki drastic reduced state funding for public education, resulting in a loss of $102 million from CUNY's annual budget. CUNY has seen a steady decline in funding for nearly fifty years, leading to an ever-increasing dependence on student tuition payments. The annual tuition payments of $6,330 for New York City's residents, combined with the cost of textbooks, additional fees, and either room/board or rent, is, as one New York Times article puts it, "a daunting burden to students, more than half of whom report family incomes below $30,000."
Though CUNY is a specific example, this issue is commonplace across all public universities; the stagflation of the 1970s led to an increase in neoliberal policies, which advocate for reducing government spending as much as possible. This has led to a decrease in funding for public education which, in turn, led to students needing to take on an ever-increasing burden of student debt. Student loans have interest rates of anywhere from 3 to 8 percent, depending on the type of loan a student receives. There are several loan-forgiveness options individuals may opt to take: serving in the military, for example, means that the U.S. Army will cover tuition at an approved school; even certain public service/federal jobs allow your debt to be absolved after 10 years of work, though one must continue paying off their loans in the interim. Debt-forgiveness programs are not always feasible for individuals, many of whom end up having to pay off their entirety of their debt on their own. There are also a dearth of jobs accommodating all the individuals with a college-level education, leading individuals to seek even higher degrees, such as a master's or PhD, taking on more debt in the hopes of finding a stable, long-term job.
All is not lost, however. As crippling student debt becomes a larger and larger issue, it has garnered the attention of those with legislative power: not only has affordable education become a crucial part of political platforms this primary election season, most notably by Bernie Sanders who pushed for tuition-free public universities, but it has been in the works under the Obama administration for the past few years. President Obama has been pushing for free community college education, and while it would not be quite as impactful as CUNY's old four-year, tuition-free model, it is certainly a start in solving one of America's biggest issues today.