Historically, marginalized and impoverished communities in the U.S. have been disproportionately excluded from obtaining higher education notable universities. In the 19th and 20th centuries, attending a university was not necessarily a matter of high GPA or the number of extracurriculars a student took part in — it was a matter of wealth and social class.
Even now, in 2022, most universities across America are still perpetuating these educational disparities — giving students from low-income families fewer opportunities than their affluent counterparts.
To combat this unfair status quo, the University of Wisconsin System announced that starting next fall, its colleges will be distributing free tuition to students whose families make under $62,000 a year. The UW System plans on spending $13.8 million in the 2023-2024 school year to fund this ambition. UW-Madison already has a similar program called Bucky’s Tuition promise, but now the entire UW System — as well as some private schools — are making similar efforts to help those whose economic situations would otherwise prevent them from receiving a college education.
Programs like this open the doors for low-income families. In today’s workforce, a college education can make all the difference in who is given a job offer. In 2021, the average annual salary for young adults with a bachelor’s degree was $52,000 while their peers with just a high school diploma were making significantly less at $30,000 a year.
A degree from a university puts fresh graduates at a tremendous advantage when searching for a high-paying career, making education an important prerequisite for financial success.
The Biden Administration recently promised to forgive $10,000 in student loans to individuals making less than $125,000. This will work congruently with Wisconsin’s Tuition Promise by providing economic relief to many Wisconsinites suffering from snowballing college debt, when programs such as this were not available. This will help level the playing field between the low-income students who plan on attending a UW school and the low-income graduates who have obtained their degree with a mountain of debt.
The burden of debt diminishes a person’s opportunity when choosing a job or career path. Those with debt do not always have the luxury of seeking or waiting for their dream job or a high paying position after graduating. Instead, most low-income students who graduate must take on immediate employment to service their debt.
Now, without the weight of accumulating loans on the Wisconsin populace, residents can devote their money towards stimulating the state economy as opposed to handing it back to the government and established institutions. It is estimated that 715,800 Wisconsinites owe $21.3 billion in student loans.
Between the Wisconsin Tuition Promise and Biden’s student debt relief plan, billions of dollars will go toward Wisconsin businesses. This would ultimately help all social classes because all residents in Wisconsin benefit from a thriving economy. Disposable income serves a greater economic benefit than debt does.
It would be extremely favorable for a program like this to be implemented on a national level because an educated society is directly correlated with a successful one. Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect all states would use their taxes to fund need-based tuition considering how politically polarized the topic of education has become.
This means some states will refuse to allocate money towards funding educational opportunities for their impoverished students, resulting in the cyclical nature of educational disparities. In states where funding education is not on the policy agenda, affluent students will receive a higher education while disadvantaged communities suffer.
It is a universally accepted notion that the educational achievement of a state, nation or culture corresponds to its financial and social productivity. A prime example of this would be some parts of the South. America’s southern states are notoriously known for their conservative ideology, which has historically made it more likely for these states to not support funding higher education. Mississippi, West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama are all states that are represented by deeply conservative governments — while also consistently ranking among the least educated states in the nation.
Conservative ideology regarding university funding is hindering access to education in various states that are inevitably preserving wealth-based educational disparities. Multiple states in the south like Alabama and Mississippi have cut higher education funding by 30% between the years 2008 and 2018, causing the tuition bill of public universities to increase. This is actively working against providing equitable opportunities across socioeconomic classes, while also putting a mass amount of low-income students at an even higher disadvantage.
States claim to be saving taxpayers’ dollars through tax cuts at the cost of educational funding. But, these states are actually creating a social and economic environment that is lagging behind the more educationally progressive states. Southern leaders have demonstrated an unwillingness to invest in the well-being of their citizens.
The U.S. would be better off if our federal government allocated funding toward helping low-income students afford school. But once again, this ideal is simply too unrealistic due to the fact the U.S. is facing the greatest degree of political polarization in decades. The congressional representatives of Republican-majority states have shown they will not support a bill that entails the government covering tuition for those who cannot afford higher education.
As of right now, the UW free tuition program will only be assisting students who live in the state of Wisconsin. Some will argue this is how it should be — that Wisconsin’s Tuition Promise should only be directed to the families and individuals who help fund the program in the first place — the tax-paying residents of Wisconsin.
But, there are students who live in states where their financial needs are not being met. There are also students who live in states who pay taxes for the public school systems and then do not attend or get admitted to those schools. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer between all socioeconomic groups, and this is why states should work toward providing equitable opportunities for in-state and out-of-state students. Promoting educational equality should not have state borders.
Wisconsin’s Tuition Promise would help low-income students overcome educational barriers while giving them a chance to thrive in the workforce. It would help middle and upper-class residents because without the excessive weight of student debt, the state economy would flourish. We are living in a time where socioeconomic barriers should not stand in the way of receiving a degree. Overall, when a society is able to educate all those who have earned the right, everyone benefits.
Abbey Handel ([email protected]) is a freshman studying journalism and political science.