Should a homeless man go to college

The American dream costs

These days, millions of young Americans are choosing what to do after high school. Attending college is considered the golden gateway to a world of privileges. But less and less can afford the costs. Every second drops out without a degree.

Washington - Sloane pulls the large envelope out of the mailbox. The sender is the renowned University of Virginia (UVA), the crown jewel of the public colleges in the USA founded by Thomas Jefferson. Sloane tears open the letter and lets out a cry of joy: Admitted! The enclosed fold-out brochure promises a bright future. “You not only dream big, you achieve great things,” the college flatters the 17-year-old, who has to decide these days whether to accept the offer.

Choosing the right university for the young American was a nerve-wracking adventure that began a year ago with an admission test and college visits. Then six months ago she sent her applications to more than half a dozen universities. Now come the answers.

The UVA emphasizes its advantages in the letter of approval. In addition to reputation and selectivity, she mentions the high graduation rate, the expected starting income for graduates and the alumni network of over 220,000 UVA alumni, "which spans industries and continents".

Renowned education researcher Steven Mitchell compares admission to an elite school with entry into a country club. It gives you access to the better networks. "Higher education is always based on the paradox that college is the answer for as many as possible," observes Mitchell. "But we also know the dirty secret that my college is better than yours".

93 percent of all new students in the United States go into debt

The price for the privilege of “endlessly striving for the better” can be found in the small print. For Sloane, who lives in neighboring Maryland, the university would cost $ 59,498 a year. If she were at home in Virginia, she would pay almost 50 percent less. Such a discount is the now common practice at the public universities of the USA, which only offer students from their own state "reduced" study costs averaging 23,410 dollars (around 20,000 euros).

In view of the UVA's price tag, the first-class student did not even go to the trial days on campus. “We can't afford that,” she says in frustration. In addition to top scores in the admission test, Sloane was able to show a number of top performances from mathematics to Spanish to music and politics. On the side she worked in the student council, proved herself as a manager of the school stage and got involved with the homeless and in the youth group of her parish.

With incomes over $ 52,000, their parents earn too much to get government support. But by far not enough to bear the prescribed share of the study costs. The code number “36 032” determined for her family corresponds to the dollar amount that has to be raised on one's own. No matter how.

The difference to the annual cost of $ 59,498 could then be covered by a mixture of non-refundable college grants and low-interest student loans. 93 percent of all new students in the United States have to go into debt in order to attend one of the more than 4,000 public or private universities.

According to information from the College Board, the association of non-state universities, the students in Sloane's class by the time they graduate with a bachelor's degree have accumulated an average of $ 70,000 in college debt - and the trend is rising. The cost explosion will continue, also because the public universities will be faced with additional burdens: Most states are slashing their funds for education massively. There are hardly any scholarships at state colleges anymore, privately financed universities offer scholarships, but these are often just a marketing ploy. Sloane was offered by two colleges in Boston and Miami each with 25,000 US dollars (around 22,000 euros) as a discount on the regular price of over 65,000 dollars (just under 58,000 euros).

Top jobs without a higher education qualification - an illusion

Her friends had similar experiences in other private colleges. They, too, almost always ended up with costs around 42,000 dollars (around 37,000 euros). This is pretty much the average annual cost of private universities as determined by the College Board.

The universities justify their astronomical prices with the excellent career opportunities. In fact, the gap in income between high school graduates and college leavers has never been greater than it is today. Rising from dishwasher to millionaire in the USA was the exception in the past. Today, top jobs without a higher education degree are an illusion. Social mobility stands and falls with access to college.

The fact that this is affordable for fewer and fewer Americans fundamentally calls into question the American social contract. Regardless of their political location, members of the US elite have long since discovered the eye of the needle as the golden gateway to a world of guaranteed privileges.

The country that emerged from the rebellion against inherited privileges is well on the way to becoming a “new aristocracy”, according to the British “Economist”. The imbalance runs through the entire education system. Wealthy Americans compete for places in better schools. They move to areas where the tax revenue is higher and count on the schools to have better equipment. Paid tutors help prepare the youngsters for the admission tests. And they employ college planners for thousands of dollars who devise strategies to guide the offspring to the “right” university.

Many studies show that the children of rich Americans perform better on average than the others. Even college graduation rates correlate with parents' income. Ninety percent of children from wealthier families have graduated from college after six years at the latest. Every second student drops out of college without a degree - the majority for financial reasons.

Politicians like Republican Paul Ryan or left-wing Senator Elizabeth Warren speak of a college crisis. "Millions of young people can't buy houses or cars because they're groaning under the burden of student loans," Warren complains. The PEW Research Center found that starting a family is also being postponed further and further into the future for this reason. 45 percent of all graduates return to their parents as boomerang children due to financial hardship.

Sloane doesn't want to be part of it. Despite the promising pledges she fished out of the mailbox in the past few days from a handful of elite universities, she ended up choosing the state-subsidized University of Maryland.

The approximately 25,000 dollars (22,000 euros) in costs for teaching, accommodation and food a year are not exactly a special offer. "But it's the best alternative I have so that I don't end up stuck in a pile of debt."

Info: This is how much you pay for universities in Europe

Zeppelin University Friedrichshafen: Depending on the course of study, you pay 3700 to 4450 euros per semester at the private university for a Bachelor's degree. For the master’s, it is 3950 to 4950 euros - economics or management are the most expensive.

Jacobs University Bremen: A bachelor's semester at the private university in Bremen costs 12,455 euros, including a room and semester ticket. A year of master’s degree costs between 10,000 and 20,000 euros.

University of Witten / Herdecke: Studying human medicine at the only German private university for medicine costs around 41,000 euros. A bachelor's program in economics costs up to 33,600 euros here.

University of St. Gallen: For bachelor programs at the public elite university as a non-Swiss you pay around 3,022 euros per semester, for master’s programs the equivalent of 3215 euros.

London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE): British universities are only partially publicly funded and regulated. Studying here costs EUR 12,000 per year for EU citizens for a Bachelor's degree and between EUR 5400 and EUR 40,500 for a Master’s degree. Economics or finance studies are the most expensive.

École nationale d’administration (ENA) in Strasbourg: While normal universities in France cost nothing, a postgraduate course at elite universities like the ENA, the “grandes écoles”, costs between 7,000 and 12,000 euros a year. (hsp)

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