The Cost of a Free Education
This weekend, I will pour myself a glass of wine, fire up my laptop, and take out the file I tucked away a year ago, the one affectionately labeled “The Frickin FAFSA.” I will try to breathe deeply and remain calm while I log on to the nation’s financial aid website and try again this year to not screw it up…
The FAFSA is the bane of my existence, and I am certain I am not alone. Anything involving numbers from my tax form fills me with anxiety and stress. And the worst part of it all is this- after all the time I spend filling this out, my daughters will not receive very much financial aid.
Because we’re rich? I’m afraid not. I am a public school teacher married to a dairy farmer. As such, we aren’t exactly laughing ourselves to the bank each week, but we do alright. In fact, that is the problem. We make just enough to be considered able to pay most of our child’s expenses, but not enough to do so without decimating our savings and incurring debt for both us and our child.
And so it was with no little degree of irritation that I read about Governor Cuomo’s statewide initiative to give prisoners in New York State the opportunity to earn a college degree by providing funding for college classes in the prisons of New York.
Of course, we’re not talking about giving prisoners an ivy league education, but a basic one. According to the Feb 16 press release, “studies have shown that investing in college education for prisoners dramatically decreased recidivism rates while saving tax dollars on incarceration costs.” We must find a way to break this cycle. Leaving prison with a college degree will give these people a “second lease on life.” (http//governor.ny.gov/press/02162014-college-ny-prisons)
There is no question that recidivism is a serious problem. According to the report, 40% of the prisoners will wind up back in prison. Furthermore, since minorities comprise most of the population in prisons, an attempt to provide them with an education would address issues of inequity in minority education that have plagued our country for too long.
I’m sure a college education would help the prisoners and it may very well address the problem with recidivism in New York State. But what message does that send to the average middle class teacher/struggling writer/generally good person like me?
It sends this message: Live your life responsibly and you will get little to no help putting your child through college. Break the law and the state will pay for you to improve your future. Seriously? My daughters are hard working, intelligent and responsible citizens; if a prisoner deserves a free education, then why shouldn’t they? The initiative sends a clear message that education is critical for success in today’s world.
If that is the case, then why doesn’t New York pay for all its young people, not just the ones who have broken the law? Although it would not be completely accurate to say that Canada provides free higher education to its young people, the government subsidizes much of the cost. This is not the case in America. According to CNN, the average debt for college related expenses an American student can expect is a crippling $35,200. (http://money.cnn.com/2013/05/17/pf/college/student-debt/)
According to Bernard Starr’s report in the Huffington Post, “30 percent of our college freshmen drop out in the first year and more than 40 percent don’t graduate–and not primarily because they can’t keep up academically. The runaway cost of higher education is pushing students out of the halls of learning.” In his article, he advocates for free higher education for all, calling attention to the fact that our nation’s youth will graduate with student loans that “will burden students and their families for decades.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bernard-starr/free-college_b_1222679.html)
I know there are no easy answers and the problem of recidivism is a complex one, but how can we justify providing a free college education for the law breaking portion of our population and denying it to those who abide by the law? If there was a way to give everyone the opportunity for a free college education, I would be wholeheartedly in support of this initiative, but we must not send the message that if you break the laws of our society, you will be rewarded by one of the greatest gifts of all…an education.
I tell you what….those prisoners better have to fill out the frickin FAFSA…
Featured Image: http://www.informationng.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/prison-bars.jpg