Op-Ed: Kerwin and Trustees, We’re Drowning in Debt

We are told a college education is key to a successful future, yet earning a degree leaves us drowning in debt.

The Board of Trustees will vote on the University's budget, including the price the tuition, for the next two fiscal years in early March. Before then, President Neil Kerwin and the University Budget Committee are determining the level at which tuition should increase. Instead of discussing a tuition increase, Kerwin and the Board of Trustees should be working on tangible ways to keep tuition as low as possible and reduce student debt. According to Niche Rankings’ most expensive colleges list, AU is already ranked among the top 50.

If the board makes the wrong decision, an education at AU will become even more inaccessible. Students and their families will be pushed further into debt, and some of us will not even be able to return next year. 

The struggle of the AU student is very real. The astronomical price of tuition and other college costs are already leaving us up to our necks in student loans. The average AU student will graduate with $34,649 in debt. For reference, the national average is $28,400. Nationally, total student debt has skyrocketed to $1.2 trillion.

Emmett Patterson, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, described his financial struggle with paying for AU:

“There would be no feasible way for me to come back to AU for my final semester if the administration were to raise tuition. Since my freshman year, I have had to work three jobs more than 55+ hours a week in order to attend AU, even after having an AU scholarship. Because of an additional outside scholarship, I now only have to work one full-time job. Even with this outside assistance, it’s still difficult to make ends meet, let alone pay my tuition bills.  When I was considering applying to AU, I was assured that AU financially supports their students, particularly on the basis of merit, community involvement and commitment to learning.

If AU’s administration continues to raise its already exorbitant tuition rates, they are not only failing to deliver on this promise of financial support to students who desperately need it. They are also ensuring that only the most financially privileged students are able to access an education we all deserve.”

Suzanne Polzkill, a freshman in CAS, shared her story too:

“My mom is taking out more loans for my education than I am. AU costs more than our house, and it hurts me to know that she is sacrificing so much for me. I am working three jobs right now to help out. I can’t take advantage of all the opportunities for internships that D.C. provides students because of the cost of tuition. I ask myself every day if it’s worth it.”

Matt Wilson, a junior in the School of Public Affairs, would return if tuition increased “at the expense of a private student loan, which has a very large interest rate.”  A junior in CAS, Anthony Torres, added, “I would have to take on more loans. Those loans are going to have me in debt in the tens of thousands.”

Clare Verbeten, a sophomore in SPA, shared her story:

“If AU raises tuition, it will place a significant burden on my family and [me]. I am already $40,000 in debt after only two years at AU. I come from a middle class family. My father is a teacher and my mother is a cleaner. My parents just finished putting my sister through graduate school. Bottom line is we cannot afford a tuition increase. We don’t have enough money to pay for what AU is asking for right now. Everything I owe this school, I am taking out in student loans. I tried appealing my financial aid package and I was denied. It is always a hassle with AU. If they are unwilling to give my family, and others like it, adequate help, I hope that they can at least refrain from being even greedier and asking us to stretch out pockets even thinner.”

Stories like these can be heard all over campus.

We are told a college education is key to a successful future, yet earning a degree leaves us drowning in debt. This shouldn’t be inherent to the college experience. Universities should be institutions that enable upward mobility, but with constant tuition increases, they are becoming the opposite. Tuition inflation is 1.2 to 2.1 times the rate of normal inflation. The cost of college is rising faster than we have the money for it. Because income isn’t growing at the same rate as tuition, tuition is becoming a heavier financial burden.

AU has a moral and social responsibility to ensure tuition is affordable so that any person can get a higher education and eventually become an active citizen of society. After all, higher education should be fundamental right. It shouldn’t be a luxury afforded only by the very wealthy or students who mortgage their future, but rather a democratic and classless instrument for pursuing our own happiness in our adult lives.

AU can either be on the right side of history by leading the nation in college affordability or be a part of the unsustainable university culture of indebting students.

If we make our voices heard and push for clear steps towards a university that does not rely on the indebtedness of its students, we will succeed. Time and time again, the power of student voice has been clearly effective in making change on campus, like we did with the last budget cycle when the tuition increase was the lowest in 40 years. We can’t get apathetic or cynical, especially not with so much at stake. We all need to get engaged on this issue, recognize that the might of justice is behind us, and stand up for economic fairness.

Bryan Paz is a sophomore from the School of Public Affairs and School of Communication.

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