Rethinking the American Education Agenda

20/06/2013 12:04 BST | Updated 18/08/2013 10:12 BST

President Obama came into office in 2008 promising to lower tuition costs, increase federal loan funding and enable low-income sons and daughters to attend college. In 2012, Obama ran with the same mantra. Unfortunately for him and America's youth, university tuition costs continue to rise upwards of fifty-seven thousand dollars per year. Absurd, right? The rest of the world agrees.

School fees above $8,000 in France and Canada, where I've also spent my academic upbringing, would be considered innately unjust, even crazy. I supervised English courses at an engineering university in a Parisian suburb where the students were in fact paid to attend classes! That's not financial aid. That's a present on a silver platter.

Although American tuition costs are steep, I don't think they are absurd.

Foreigner students idealize American universities for two reasons: first, America remains a hub of intellectual debate and academic prestige. America has bred Nobel Laureates, Silicon-Valley executives and modern-day philosophical revolutionaries. True, 50% of Silicon-Valley executives in 2007 were foreigners but many of them had spent time in American classrooms. Second, America has some of the world's most beautiful schools, hands down. One can find large campus quads, chemistry labs bedecked with state-of-the-art materials, cafeterias serving organic produce and world-class acts performing for the price of a mere $5 ticket. Of course, not all American universities are as "country-club" as this. In fact, they don't have to be. Why not focus on the education part, cut out the lavish supplements and lower tuition? Basically, are high tuition costs worth it? Yes and no.

Yes because firstly, this money can support professors as they conduct their research, leaving more time to assist struggling students one-on-one. Secondly, schools can offer a huge variety of funding for individual projects, un-paid internships and independent studies. Thirdly, if there are students interested in say fencing, Frisbee or even juggling, chances are you can probably receive funding. Fourthly, the school can offer generous and numerous financial aid packages (I'm proud that my university, Hamilton College, is one of the first to offer need-blind admissions). Aren't these opportunities partly the point of university--to expose young students to a multitude of experiences?

No, these costs are not worth it because it does not guarantee employment after graduation. This poses the question: what value should we place on education? If fifty-seven thousand dollars/year guaranteed employment or a really sweet internship, paying more now for income security later on sounds like a pretty good bet. But, it doesn't. What's more, is it better to graduate more students or fewer students who have a more "broad-based" education? According to Civitas Learning -- a start-up that uses statistics to gauge global academic outcomes in higher education -- the U.S. ranks 16th out of 26 developed nations in the number of 25-34 year olds with college degrees. The high tuition costs are barriers to starting and finishing a four-year degree.

Public universities are wonderful options don't get me wrong. Some of America's best schools are public. But, public is not the only path besides public. The majority of American students are close-minded about receiving a global education. They can probably afford it as well considering their taxes are much lower than those in Europe and Canada, where cheap universities are balanced with higher taxes. 42% of the world's top universities are non-American according to Times Higher Education. My sister was an undergrad at McGill University in Montreal and became a first-aid responder, a teaching assistant and was exposed to professors who were former ambassadors or prize-winning scientists. You know how much she paid? $10,000 a year. That's what I call a bargain. With all that being said, I'll give American students a break. It's hard to seriously consider international universities when international students are leaving their countries to come to the United States. Chinese students are flocking to America as the Chinese middle class rises and the number of British students applying to American universities has risen by one third in the past year.

Maybe I'm just ticked off or worried that when my college president hands me a degree next June, I won't be able to appreciate it with my college debt staring me menacingly in the face. The labor market and American mentality will still be cutthroat, limited and crowded with other students fresh from their expensive four-year colleges. Even if my European student counterparts are stuck in the same position, they'll have much less debt to clear.

I encourage anyone with an opinion on this subject to pitch in with his or her thoughts. American education must be reformed. The question is how.