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Jonathan Topaz '12: Increasing the education gap

The majority of Brown students can breathe a sigh of relief that the Rhode Island Senate seems to be turning against the implementation of a student tax. The Oct. 29 Senate meeting did not feature discussion of a potential bill that would tax out-of-state students up to $300 per year, and if the proposal is not reestablished in January, the legislation will become inactive.

As Brown students celebrate this small victory in the face of next year's tuition increase, a disturbing trend is developing at public universities across the country. American public universities are greatly increasing tuition, by an average of 6.5 percent. At the same time, schools are cutting costs on facilities, faculty and resources and technology. It is apparent that students are, as Jane V. Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability, puts it, "paying more and getting less."

The national trend certainly has devastating consequences here in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education voted again to vastly increase tuition for the state's public universities. In-state students attending the University of Rhode Island will not merely see a five-percent hike in their room and board fees, but an astonishing 9.9 percent jump in their tuition. Since 2004, tuition and other fees for Rhode Island public universities have skyrocketed. This year, three public universities increased costs by ten percent and, since 2004, fees have increased by 64 percent for University of Rhode Island, 72 percent for the Community College of Rhode Island, and 75 percent for Rhode Island College.

While it is expedient for politicians to point out that the Department of Education received an unprecedented $3 billion of stimulus funding, the numbers are misleading. Education stimulus funding largely functioned as a form of life support for states and districts that are barely hanging on. In addition to the large portion of that money that went to districts desperately attempting to stay afloat, much went to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's ambitious plan to "turn around" America's worst schools. These turnarounds, which Duncan implemented as Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools, are designed to completely change the faculty, staff, culture and educational philosophy of suffering primary schools by shutting them down and reopening them with everything new except the students. Such drastic action costs about $5 million per school, and it has dominated much of the funding.

While it is still somewhat unclear how the state budget crises will affect financial aid packages, tuition increases will surely have devastating consequences for middle class families. It is inevitable that, without the expansion of financial aid, students will be forced to drop out of college or will be unable to apply.

Additionally, as argued by Paul Fain, senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, public universities run the risk of looking just like their private university counterparts. By accepting wealthier, out-of-state students who pay higher tuition, public universities are turning their backs on lower and middle class in-state applicants.

The consequences that will follow are incredibly dire. First, public universities are creating a problematic situation for their states. If state schools are educating fewer of their own citizens, they run the risk of extending their state's budget problems into the future. Second, by increasing tuition, public universities are precluding many of their students — particularly those with insufficient financial aid — from staying enrolled. Third, and perhaps most disturbing, is that public universities are on the brink of becoming much more elitist. By accepting, as Fain puts it, "more wealthy and better-prepared students," universities are increasingly educating a narrower segment of the population.

Public universities exist on the premise that every segment of the population deserves an education, and by excluding any segment based on financial situation, they betray their mission. To educate a more economically homogeneous part of the population, to turn their backs on poorer students who desperately need a college education, to give preference to wealthier students, to attempt to increase revenue at the expense of young Americans who rely so heavily on public universities for their future would be catastrophic for the nation as a whole.

There is no easy answer to this problem. Public universities are just attempting to stay afloat, and state legislators are forced to make extremely difficult decisions in a dreadful economic climate. However, with senior citizens getting a disproportionate amount of attention and funding from the upcoming health care bill (which will total hundreds of billions of dollars), young Americans are getting the short end of the stick. And with the higher educational system struggling, with public universities primed to select against the nation's middle and lower classes, we are at risk of creating a much starker imbalance — economically, culturally, and socially — of our generation.

Jonathan Topaz '12 is a political science concentrator from New York City. He can be reached at Jonathan.Topaz (at)




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