Friday, July 14, 2006

Economic Status Should Not Hinder Higher Education
By Sui Lang Panoke

Is access to graduate education exclusive to the upper class?

As a first-year graduate student struggling to make ends meet, I believe the answer to this question is yes. In my experience, searching for funding to pay the extensive costs of my higher education has been an upward climb leading only to dead ends.

I am a single mother who qualifies for the maximum amount in federal aid for graduate students. However, this amount barely covers my tuition, and the costs of housing, books, and living expenses are left entirely to me.

I have no college fund, trust, or inheritance. I don’t independently qualify for private student loans because I lack the substantial credit or the employment history that is required, and I do not have the luxury of having a willing and eligible co-signer. Furthermore, I can only work part-time jobs while in school in order to qualify for childcare assistance.

While I have applied for a few scholarships, I have yet to be awarded one, and I have found that they are an extremely limited and unreliable resource to use to fund graduate school. Scholarships represent less than four percent of the total aid available each year for college students and a merely a fraction of that for graduate students. Contrary to popular belief, there are not millions of scholarships out there that aren’t being used every year.

The majority of students in my situation seeking graduate degrees don’t have the means to just pick up and move to another city without some kind of government assistance. Yet, Federal Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants are only available to undergraduate students. There are very few alternative options for funding my graduate degree based on my economic status. What’s even more frustrating is that if I were seeking an undergraduate degree, being a single mother would qualify me to have most of my college expenses paid for.

Why aren’t these grants available to graduate students? Federal financial aid is only available for your college education to a certain extent. Once you aspire beyond a bachelor’s degree the door for you is closed unless you, or your family, have the economic ability to finance whatever costs are not covered by your guaranteed federal student loans.

Today’s job-market is increasingly becoming more and more competitive. Bachelor degrees don’t carry the weight that they used to. It is almost necessary to have a graduate, doctorate or law degree to compete with the current highly qualified pool of candidates.

Higher degrees mean high salaries. However, the disparity between those who have access to receiving a higher degree due to their economic resources, and those who have the desire to attend graduate school, but are hindered by financial road blocks, is increasing. It seems that graduate level education is only open to the select few that can afford it, which usually come from wealthy upper class families in the first place.

We are failing to redistribute the wealth in America and the wedge between the upper and lower classes is widening. The system does not allow for equal access to higher education. Graduate students are held to a significantly higher economic burden than undergraduates that comes along with very limited and significantly less support from the federal government.

As a graduate student struggling to expand my education to secure a decent job in order to support my family it is clear that a federal need-based grant program for graduate students must be created. This will help even the playing field by creating access to graduate programs to students based on merit and ambition rather than economic ability. Money invested in graduate education will only benefit the government by improving the quality of life for its citizens, and students who come from low socio-economic backgrounds will have a better shot at achieving the American dream.
Panoke is a first-year graduate student at American University. She is working towards a Master’s degree in Public Administration with a certificate in Women, Policy, and Political Leadership through the Women & Politics Institute.