Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Opinion: Our higher education system is failing us 

OpinionOpinion: Our higher education system is failing us 

BY KELSEY WAGNER
Development Officer




This article will be published in The Review’s special magazine issue, set to be available on campus starting the week of April 24. 

On a rainy Friday night in March, a gaggle of about a hundred highschoolers in business attire and bright yellow ponchos poured into Clayton Hall for dinner, discussing their college options and impressions of the university.

It was Distinguished Scholars weekend, during which the top applicants admitted to the university compete for scholarships, and the university attempts to woo them with money and the prospect of opportunity. As a Distinguished Scholar myself, I was there to make conversation with the candidates. 

As the evening went on, I engaged in multiple discussions with the candidates,  one of which was in German. I asked them about their lives and interests. We talked about classical music, creative writing, COVID-19 and the healthcare system, and the ethicality of museums that house foreign artifacts. It was truly a fantastic night with plenty of engaging conversation, and many of the applicants I met were undoubtedly extraordinary.

As I made the trek home, however, my reflections on the dinner became somewhat tainted. Had it all just been a university marketing ploy? An attempt to gain a better institutional reputation by recruiting the best and brightest? And what exactly enabled students such as myself to attend this weekend and receive top scholarships? Of course, there are many factors, but the ones that I came up with were a high GPA, high SAT scores, lots of AP classes and extracurriculars, a stellar record of community service and pure ambition.  

In the rat race to tick all of those boxes and get into college, highschoolers put unnecessary pressure on themselves to overachieve. In the meantime, colleges and universities grow ever more selective and ever more expensive, heightening the competition each coming year. 

High school overachievers have missed out on life in pursuit of that admissions letter. 

I then thought of another factor that high-achieving students need to obtain college acceptance and funding: financial privilege. Money is key to understanding college admissions.  

A highschool student needs time more than anything else to be able to pursue the academic requirements and extracurriculars that many colleges are looking for. Between the kid with the 4.0 GPA, who plays two sports, participates in the school orchestra and volunteers at the hospital in her freetime (this was me, by the way), and a kid with a 3.2 GPA who spends all of their time outside of school working to help support their family, who is going to be accepted to a top university? Who is going to get a scholarship? 

This is only the beginning of the privilege that wealthier students possess in academia. 

Moving into the structures of universities themselves, tuition alone (nevermind living costs associated with being a full-time student) bars those who cannot afford it from receiving an undergraduate education. The cost of attendance for an in-state student at the university is $32,444 and for an out-of-state student is $54,964 per year. 

While the sticker price for an institution is larger than what most students pay, opportunities for need-based financial aid are limited and continue to reinforce classist institutional barriers. Federal student loans must be paid back. Work-study takes away time that would have otherwise been spent on academics or extracurricular pursuits. The maximum federal Pell Grant award is $7,395 for the upcoming academic year, which, for most institutions, does not even cover half of tuition. 

Most students are faced with two options: either take out a loan for tens of thousands of dollars, or don’t attend college at all. 

At the university, students’ financial privilege is abundantly clear. 

In 2019, the university reported that 39% of admitted students were Delaware residents. The rest were out-of-state, bringing with them their sweet, sweet out-of-state tuition. That year, only 9% of students (4% out-of-state) qualified as “low income,” and 15.6% received Pell Grants.

I commend the recent efforts of university President Dennis Assanis and the State of Delaware in getting the First State Promise project off the ground to provide full tuition coverage for in-state students who come from families earning $75,000 or less per year and room and board to those Assanis deems the “neediest students.” First State Promise also provides some assistance to families making more than $75,000.

Based on his presentation at the state’s Joint Finance Committee meeting on Feb. 2, Assanis appears to be concerned about the affordability of an education at the university. With that said, the university plans to decrease its funding to the program in the next fiscal year and expects the State to make up for it, providing half of the overall funding. 

Assanis said that funding the bulk of the program was “not sustainable” for the university. Should the State not come through with funding, the university would have to “abruptly cut off the assistance” for in-state families making more than $75,000. While funding for the neediest students would remain, more than half of Delawareans would be left without financial assistance should they choose to enroll. 

This begs the question, why is financially supporting students with an already over-priced education such a burden for the administration? The university has actively turned a profit for the past seven years, with only about 30% of its funds coming from undergraduate tuition. 

Rather than investing in a high-tech esports arena or yet another brand new STEM building (looking at you Building X), perhaps the university could prioritize its students rather than its image and profits.

If the university is over-admitting anyway, that extra money might as well go to students who actually need it. Or perhaps Assanis could kindly spare a few pennies of his $1,432,611 salary (from the fiscal year 2020). 

Tuition is not the only paywall in front of higher education. There are all sorts of financial barriers that plague students, from application fees to the cost of textbooks. 

I recently applied to graduate school and found that the same problem repeats itself. For example, it is nearly impossible for students to get into a fully-funded Ph.D. program without a master’s degree, and most masters programs receive little to no funding. In effect, students have to pay thousands of dollars to even be considered for the funded Ph.D. program that would propel them into an academic career in research and teaching. 

Further, a graduate school acceptance depends on undergraduate success. Financial privilege compounds, making graduate school an even more exclusive club. Of course, there are ways around the blockades that finances place in academia, but for most students, the reality is that you must pay your way into higher education. 

The bottom line is, colleges and universities, rather than sharing a central mission of education, operate like big businesses, prioritizing money above all else. 

To fix this, the higher education system needs a complete overhaul. For now though, small changes can begin with universities across the country. A first step could be for the university to stop raising tuition, to devote even more time to making sure prospective students know about programs like First State Promise and to pledge more money to help those within its community rather than relying on state support to make education financially accessible. 

To students: Demand better from your university because you have been cheated. To university administrators: Listen to your students and stop contributing to a cycle that is screwing over an entire generation. 


Kelsey Wagner is a senior history and three language double-major and the current development officer at The Review. Her opinions are her own and do not represent the majority opinion of The Review staff. She may be reached at kdwagner@udel.edu.

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