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Editorial: Middle-class students deserve more attention

The start of a new spring semester often marks the advent of the Corporation’s tuition hike. Last year the Corporation announced a 4 percent tuition hike in concurrence with a 5.6 percent increase in financial aid. While we support this recent commitment to better financial aid, focusing on the importance of financial aid in higher education distracts from a larger systemic issue in the United States: College should not cost this much.

With its relatively strong financial aid program, Brown can support students coming from lower-income families, while wealthy families are more likely to be able to bear the cost of a Brown degree. Left out of this equation, of course, are middle- and upper-middle-class students who do not qualify for much financial aid but still lack the financial resources to avoid high levels of debt and the associated pressure to obtain a high-paying job immediately after college.

The United States is plagued by not only tuition increases exceeding the rate of inflation, but also the lingering effects of the Great Recession — one of the most lasting of which is a high unemployment rate, particularly among young people. The media have taken to pointing out which majors are perhaps not worth the investment. These majors tend to be in the humanities and social sciences. While it is unfortunate that this information creates a culture of fear about committing to these fields in a world of financial insecurity and inevitably high debt, students wary of prolonged debt may be justified in their concerns.

A middle- to upper-middle-class student from a state lacking a strong public university system should not be denied a Brown education in a field that does not lend itself to an immediately high-paying career. But this is the outcome of the current model of higher education. In continuing to raise tuition costs, Brown and its peer institutions are implicitly endorsing this inefficient system by which universities select from a small pool of students who either can afford the high costs or are having them covered through financial aid.

At the moment, if Brown were to stop raising tuition costs altogether, it would likely be sacrificing its position as a highly ranked university in the long run. Furthermore, it would solve little for Brown to act alone in rejecting the pattern of increased college costs in the face of its peer institutions continuing to do so. The problem is endemic; it requires more change than a single school can enact on its own. We need to have a broader conversation about the cost of college that goes beyond financial aid and increased government loans and asks why college costs so much more in the United States than it does in nations with a comparable standard of living.

The effect of such high college costs is an extraordinary disincentive to study fields that do not guarantee high-paying jobs. High costs also put young people in a position where they have to pay off mountains of debt coming out of college, when they should perhaps be most free to determine the extent to which their salaries matter to themselves and to their society. To combat these issues, Australia adopted a model of optional income-contingent loans for students, by which students can opt to pay tuition prices that are dependent on their future incomes. This system eliminates the disincentive to study a subject out of passion even when it may not lead to a lucrative career. Meanwhile, in the United States, little action has been taken to change anything about tuition hikes. The focus is on making college affordable within a failing model instead of changing the model altogether. As Brown students, we bear a responsibility to continually consider and discuss a new model on behalf of those students who could not attend this university for financial reasons.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Matt Brundage and Rachel Occhiogrosso, and its members, Hannah Loewentheil and Thomas Nath. Send comments to


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