Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Does College Really Cost? A Response to CNBC's Report: Price of Admission

These days, the choice of going to college can be difficult. There are a lot of risks involved and a huge potential payout. Students may go to college, get a great education, get a degree, and go on to find a job that they love and pays well. On the other hand, students may face life challenges which force them out of schools and putting a halt to their hard work, time, and money invested; or they may get out of college and find that there are no jobs available and still have to figure out how to pay off their student loan debt. What does this mean?

For me, it spells out a huge problem. Thinking of all of the money that I will have to pay back when I graduate, I can hardly imagine what it would be like if I had made it this far and suddenly wasn't able to complete my education and being faced with tens of thousands of dollars in debt that I had no way to pay off.

I'm not terribly concerned about this possible scenario because I am already very far in my education, have learned a ton of useful skills, and ultimately have already built up a fairly impressive resume through my accomplishments during the course of my education. Even more important is that what I'm planning on doing with my life doesn't necessarily call for a college degree. My main focus IS education and understanding how we can provide education to a greater number of people for less money and with a greater benefit. If I can develop those ideas and sell them (not literally -- any great idea I have I will get out there whether it makes me money or not, as long as it is for the benefit of many) to the right people, I can see those ideas come to life whether or not I am recognized as an educated, well-qualified person. My biggest concern is that my education is part of that discovery of exactly what those ideas are.

For other college students, the idea of financial success is a key motivator, and it would be a crime against humanity if thousands of students weren't able to achieve that goal purely because of a broken system after making honest efforts to make them happen and investing a lot of time and money into seeing them become a reality. Even worse would be if education lost its influence in society purely based on the lack of benefits and the cost of attendance.

How then, can we address this on-going problem with education?

We are really faced with two options: either we can increase the benefits for education or we can reduce the amount of risk involved in pursuing one.

To this end, the Quality Education and Jobs Act that is being pushed forward by a ballot initiative is aiming to reduce the risk by increasing the amount of available funding for financial aid on a state level. This is done through a 1-cent sales tax that is going to guarantee $300 million for higher education. When we consider this figure on a per student basis, that amounts for approximately an average of $2000 per student or about 1/5 of the cost of attendance for one year at ASU -- in other words 20%. All things considered, this is a pretty impressive figure, especially considering it only imposes 1 cent per sale for consumers.

Another idea that I would like to explore is a targeted tax system, which specifically targets various areas of sales in order to generate money to help subsidize the ever-increasing cost of education. Some possible candidates for this would be cigarette and alcohol sales, sales on exorbitantly expensive purchases (which would take a certain threshold like say purchases over $500,000 dollars and impose an additional tax on it to contribute to education), as well as other commodity based items, especially those that would be considered problematic for society. Along these lines, states could make marijuana legal for recreational purposes and tax the hell out of it sending the majority of that money to universities. Or something along these lines. It doesn't necessarily have to be these ideas specifically.

The state could even impose additional charges on certain fees for criminal behavior such as drug trafficking, speeding, domestic violence, court fees, or other related criminal charges which could provide an excellent source of income to universities without costing most law-abiding citizens any money at all!

The state could also open up a fund where it collects voluntary contributions from tax payers and reminds them to donate to it on tax return forms, much in the way that tax return forms ask for donations for the clean elections fund. This sort of measure would cost absolutely nothing to anyone who didn't want to pay it but provide an excellent source of income from those who were willing to help education.

All of these ideas are of course associated with raising revenue to help lower the cost of education for students, but there are other ideas that could be put into place that could have a similar effect but be targeted toward helping the nation as well.

The state or federal government could open up grants and tuition discounts for students who promise to open up businesses in the future, which would be perfect for students under almost any degree track, as well as be beneficial to the economy. And then much like the TEACH Grant that is currently offered for future teachers, if that student graduates and decides not to open a business, they can pay back the money in the form of subsidized or unsubsidized loans, depending on which the legislature finds more feasible. This has amazing potential not only to help students get a good education without the enormous financial risk of doing so, but it also has a huge potential to boost our economy and encourage business growth which will ultimately lead to potentially millions of jobs in America.

Similar provisions could be taken for students who either during their education or after dedicate a predetermined number of hours to non-profit and volunteer work specifically targeted at helping those in need, such as working at hospitals, food banks and more. This has the potential to not only help the student by decreasing the cost of getting an education, but it also has the potential of helping those people in the country who have the greatest need and building up our society to help promote a stronger whole, not to mention the fact that the student would be directly putting in work to earn this money while learning valuable job skills and building their resume. This proposal has enormous benefit when you think about it because it is practically a winning solution for everyone.

Not to mention that, but the government can also put together a committee within existing government organizations which is designed specifically to evaluate the costs of education and find effective ways to cut down those costs which will have on effect on tax payers, government spending, or the quality of education. Such proposals as online syllabuses, which while being good for the planet is also good for schools who save money on printing costs. Or perhaps just addressing redundancies in how schools are managed in order to help schools be more efficient.

These are some excellent ideas that I would definitely support in helping make schools less risky for college students. The main ideas are to make schools more affordable. In order to increase the benefit of an education, we need to address the other end of the problem by making financial success more available to those who have graduated. While this is certainly more difficult than addressing the other problem, it is still something we can feasibly improve on.

One idea would be to have governments help streamline the process of getting a job out of college by encouraging businesses and schools to work together, both on what sort of skills an employer wants a student to have, as well as actively looking for students to hire out of college. To this end, governments can propose financial incentives to businesses, either in the form of funding or tax benefits, that reward businesses for hiring newly graduated students. We could even give it a catchy name like the "Get It While It's Hot Act" or something.

Other ideas may include giving students more opportunities for paid internships which could help the drastically by contributing to their education, giving them job skills, helping them to establish business networks and connections, and having an opportunity to provide their selves with some additional income through educational endeavors instead of working at a dead end job. This reciprocally helps businesses by providing cheap labor. And while it is not FREE labor, it certainly can help businesses make good decisions about who they hire in the future as well, thereby helping businesses as well.

The government can also help by creating a separate fund specifically for recent college graduates to give small business loans to students, both encouraging students to create more businesses which will expand economic growth and helping students secure an opportunity to be successful through their own business as well.

These are just some ideas. I hope that someone out there can see the potential of at least a few of these and knows or can help me figure out the potential steps to make these ideas come to life. I would be more than happy to front a campaign for something like this if I were to feel that A) I had a plan that was well-developed enough to be ready to put into law and B) That I felt that getting it to come to light was possible. Until now, I will just be developing these ideas in my head until I can one day make them happen.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Internship at Arizona Students' Association

This semester, I had the honor and the privilege of being a part of history for Arizona students, and I owe it all to the Arizona Students' Association for accepting me as an intern.

For those of you who don't know who the Arizona Students' Association is, it is a student-run, student-funded, student-directed organization that advocates on behalf of students for more affordability and accessibility to higher education. Their four main focuses are on tuition, books, financial aid and total cost of attendance.

This semester, we played a major role in a lot of excellent campaigns to meet this goal. One of the things that we accomplished this semester, which I am very proud of personally, was that we were able to kill HB 2675, the minimum tuition contribution bill. This bill, introduced by Representative Kavanagh in the Arizona house was going to require all public university students in Arizona to pay a minimum of $2000 out of pocket in order to qualify for financial aid.

Arizona Representative Kavanagh (R)
While his intentions were good, and he only wanted to make sure that students had "skin in the game" and were invested in their education, this bill had a lot of potential to hurt Arizona students, especially those who were truly in need of financial aid, came from a rough background, and were  hoping to get a good education in order to better their lives and secure a good life for their families and future children.

Arizona being one of the lowest ranking states for financial aid in the United States (51 out of 52 including Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.), it is already hard enough for students to be able to afford an education especially after the state withheld nearly 1.4 billion dollars that we promised to go to higher education, which forced universities to use up all the money they had saved to protect tuition rates and eventually have to raise tuition by around 90% in the past 5 years, and 40% in just the previous year alone! Considering that my full $7500 federal student loans I take out annually on top of the $3000 grant I received last year barely pays for tuition and books, while at the same time having to maintain a job to pay for housing and food, I don't blame students for getting riled up about the issue.
Arizona Representative Campbell (D)

Representative Campbell made some excellent points in the Appropriations Committee where the bill was being held (and where Kavanagh was chair) when he said: "There are over a thousand students who said they disagree with this bill, and not a single person said that they support it. Who are you trying to pass this legislation for?" And when he said, "Nobody is asking for this bill. I don't understand why you are so desperate to get it passed. This is just creating another unnecessary barrier for students who want to get a good education."

After witnessing the dialogue that took place in that committee from both defenders of the bill and by those who supported it, as well from a lot of people who attended the committee in order to get it shut down and hearing the responses from different representatives, I truly gained a new respect for Representative Campbell who truly fought very hard to help protect our education.

This bill did pass in committee, and for a moment, I was very concerned. But ultimately, this was a victory for students, thanks to the efforts of the Arizona Students' Association, which I was able to be a part of, and because of the amount of support and effort we were able to get from fellow students, truly showing that students do have a voice.

Through my internship, with the Arizona Students' Association, I was able to directly lobby my legislatures, organize students under one voice, and was able to learn more about the political process and ultimately how to effectively campaign for something you believe in.

We have made a lot of efforts to reach out to students which has given us leadership skills, such as phonebanking, finding volunteers, making announcements in front of classes and creating databases. We also had a lot of success with our vote campaign where we were able to register thousands of students to vote and effectively increase our political voice.

Now we are working on the Quality Education and Jobs Act to help increase state-based financial aid by over $150 million and increase educational spending for higher education by an additional $150 million, through a 1-cent sales tax. This will certainly become another historic victory for Arizona students which thanks to the Arizona Students' Association, I can say I was a part of.

And although this internship has taken a lot of time and effort throughout the semester, it is about to come to an end in the next few weeks. I have definitely learned a lot and have acquired a lot of new skills. I will benefit from this experience for the rest of my life and have had an opportunity to make some changes through my own efforts and contributed to my own education with some real-world experience. I absolutely recommend this internship for anyone who is interested in expanding their horizons and furthering their education while learning a ton of new skills. I met a lot of great friends. I had a lot of great experiences. And now I am looking forward to the future where I will probably pursue an advanced internship in the fall.