Improving Education: Some Things to Consider
Quintessence Townsend, Division 3, College sophomore #ws18e-s3d3

There are a multitude of problems that can be--and should be--identified within the American education system: slashing arts, music, and foreign languages programs from school curriculum; teachers and professors not receiving adequate payment; properly accommodating non-traditional students and those with disabilities; ensuring the safety of students in the midst of a gun control debate; addressing and fighting against increasing suicide rates among youth; and educating and preparing the underprivileged and under-served to achieve the seemingly unachievable. The road to becoming an educated, productive member of society more often than not feels like an uphill battle filled with academic, mental, emotional, financial, and social struggles. And there’s a lot that can be done to improve education at all levels, both individually and collectively. For undergraduate and graduate students the greatest concern is the looming student debt crisis that has ballooned to over $1.5 trillion recently and the rising cost of college.

Bearing the burden of $30K or more in high interest student loans, many students find themselves struggling to establish themselves professionally, take care of their living and food expenses, and earn their degrees. At worst, the cost of college becomes too overwhelming for some--they either do not graduate on time or do not graduate at all. Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, proposes that solutions to fixing the debt crisis could include modeling countries like Sweden, France, and England by extending the loan repayment period another ten or fifteen years or making the “Pay As You Earn” option the standard (Dynarski). Despite having longer loan repayment periods, the payments would be lower and more sustainable. Combined with lowered interest rates on student loans, then students would ultimately be less likely to fall behind or default on their loans. If I had the ability to do so, I would prolong the repayment period and adjust loan repayments to the yearly income of students once they begin working. Defaulting on student loans and living in financial ruin should be the last option that any student should resort to.

One of the major contributors to the student debt crisis is the rising cost of college. It’s common knowledge that attending college costs nowhere near what it does today, even when considering inflation rates. The National Center for Education Statistics reveals that the average cost of tuition among all institutions between 1976 and 1977 was $2,275. Between 2000 and 2001 it was $10,818 (“Average undergraduate tuition and fees and room and board rates charged for full-time students in degree-granting institutions, by type and control of institution: 1964-65 through 2006-07” [Table 320]). The cost of education for this school year for me is a little over $30,000 without aid. The average cost for a dormitory from 1976 to 1977 was only $603. This is the same amount of money that I paid for my textbooks during my spring quarter last school year. My room and board for that year was $17,000. Ideally, more focus would be placed on lowering the cost of attendance for students by finding other avenues to fund student organizations, not requiring access codes for courses, and allowing students to use at least the last two editions of any given textbook (and only requiring students to use the latest edition of a textbook if it has been heavily altered) are just some of the things that could be done to help students save money while at college. I would wager that students care more about saving money while they pursue their degrees than they do about nice architecture, on campus eateries, or having a gym on campus; so, if needed, then some of these things would have to be sacrificed in order to lower the cost of attendance. Both the student loan debt and cost of attendance are not just issues that my university faces, but most other institutions in the United States as well.

However, when considering how to improve education across the board, more attention should be given to supporting students. Generally, that means increasing spending and funneling more resources into courses and programs that allow middle and high school students to learn about things outside of standard curriculum (band, orchestra, foreign languages, finances, broadcasting club, and robotics club are some example). That way they have a better idea of what they want to pursue in college. It also means being able to promote a positive, enriching educational experience for all students and support students in both aspects as well, especially students from disadvantaged communities. I currently attend the University of California, Riverside (UCR) and am in the process of obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages (Russian and Chinese) and International Affairs. Thankfully, UCR does not pride itself not on low admission rates or college prestige. What UCR prides itself on is its commitment towards being cost effective and serving the underprivileged and underrepresented. Over half of UCR students are like me: first-generation, minority, pell grant recipients (reserved for low income students). In recent years UCR has not only gained a reputation for being a leader among African-American and Latino students and achieving high African-American student graduation rates, but it has also achieved almost complete parity among racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and gender boundaries in its graduation rates (“Ranks and Facts”). At UCR, every student has a fair chance at being able to graduate within six years.

And while I am powerless to do anything to alleviate the accumulating student debt and overwhelming cost of attendance, I can uphold my university’s commitment to the under-served and reinforce the ideals and missions of those that want to assist students from pre-school to graduate school.

One such program that does just that is the Mathematics Engineering Scientific Achievement (MESA) Program. MESA specializes in preparing middle and high school students from historically underrepresented groups for careers in the STEM field. The program has been so successful that it has been replicated in several other states outside of California. I have volunteered under the MESA program for a year. Even though I don’t plan on going into the STEM field, being able to help set-up, take-down, and facilitate competition events for students building anything from robots to cardboard boats to rocket launchers as they learn and gain the necessary knowledge and experience for a career in the STEM field is something that I have thoroughly enjoyed thus far. I have also volunteered at UCR’s International Education Program as a cultural conversation partner for international graduate students and faculty for three months. We discussed a variety of topics ranging from cultural customs to our plans for the day to help students and faculty members improve their spoken English. They also learned commonly used idioms and expressions and some linguistics (mainly phonetics and the different pronunciations of some vowels, words, and consonants in American English). Volunteering has given me the ability to take an active role in supporting the ambitions and endeavors of others rather than hoping that someone or something else will do it; additionally, volunteering has become an integral part in improving my own education.

Like many students I’ve suffered with personal issues that have impacted my academic performance over the years. In September 2017 I became one of 15 students (out of 31) that received an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. Unfortunately, receiving that didn’t come without enduring long periods of stress, sleep deprivation, and depression. Volunteering became my way of fighting off the demons that could get in the way of me succeeding at college. Volunteering and opening myself up to meeting new people and gaining new experiences has improved my life at college tenfold. I’m more productive and spend less time ruminating on things, which has mostly prevented the bouts of depression and unproductivity that I’m prone to having. I’ve learned how to communicate better through volunteering and improved my time management. The feelings of productivity and energy that I got from volunteering made completing homework assignments, essays, studying, and general daily life easier for me. I largely attribute my current 3.83 GPA and improved physical, emotional, and mental health and learning habits to my volunteer work over this past year.

Every student faces heavy pressure to receive a higher education. Although more people are pushing the idea of learning a trade or going to a technical school, many decent paying jobs require at least a Bachelor’s degree. Some require more. In our struggle to amass the wealth and job experience that we need to live the financially stable lives that previous generations did we are driving ourselves into a decade or more of debt--debt that could leave students stuck in dead-end jobs or in a financial mess before they can even begin their professional career. Prioritizing both the future and current success of students at all levels by making college more affordable and preparing students with the skills and knowledge to be successful in whatever job field they find themselves drawn to is something that needs to be considered.
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