The Role of College in Economic Inequality

By Brendan Attey and Soha Ahmed

The Catlin Speak (Portland, Oregon)

A college education is a part of the future that for some students is certain, while for others it is not. Economic inequality determines who has the opportunity to attend college, and is exacerbated by the cost of college. In this article we will share people’s experiences of paying for college and whether they think it is still worth it.

Our interviewees were a mix of both current college students and adults with a career. The people we interviewed were Meredith Goddard (a recent college graduate), Patrick Walsh (a parent with young kids), John Attey (a parent with college very near in the future for his kids), Shahab Ahmed (a parent with college very near in the future for his child), Sana Ashraf (a current pre-med college student), Shellie Adams, and Emily Krohn (both current college students interning at Catlin Gabel).

All of our interviewees touched on their experiences of paying for college. The varying amount of strains that families endure were clear in the stories we heard.

Goddard shared that with a twin brother, her divorced parents could only assure paying for half the tuition of a state school. This immediately narrowed down her options. However, Goddard was lucky enough to be accepted to Carlton, a private school, with the help of financial aid. Goddard also worked all four years while Carlton. For graduate school, she had to take out loans in order to attend Duke. For a one-year-long grad school program she had to take out $25,000 in loans. This, plus her husband’s loans from grad school, will take them 20 years to pay off.

Goddard’s story shows how the playing field is not level for all students because of economic inequality. Though students may have the same skills, the same opportunities do not present themselves, causing a hurdle that for some can be difficult to overcome. Krohn was lucky to have her family help her pay for college as well.

“My grandma started a college fund for me, way before I was here, and then my parents have paid for my college education. Then, scholarships have helped, but primarily my parents have helped me go to college, so, I guess, it hasn’t been a huge stress for me,” Krohn told us. This has allowed her to not take out any college loans. Krohn admitted this “does give more comfort” to her because she knows she has the finances to get her through college. Having this economic stability in her life allows her to know that she will be able to pay for a full college education, providing her with a certain amount of comfort.

Just from these first two interviewees, it is apparent that finance plays a key role in how a student chooses and experiences a higher learning institution. Though for both Krohn and Goddard college was a sure part of their future when they were younger, the repercussions of attending college were very different.

Walsh gave us yet another way that he plans to pay for the college education of his kids. He said that he will have the help of family members, and money that he has inherited, in order to send his kids to college. Walsh also touched on a subject that we heard Attey echo, which was that he would rather his kids take out college loans when the time comes so that he can save for retirement. Attey, who has saved up enough for his kids to go to college for four years, had this same concern about how to support the future of both his kids and himself. This shared worry allowed us to see that though paying for college may be easier for some, there are a few obstacles that transcend economic well being.

We then asked the interviewees whether college is worth its cost. For many people the returns of college outweigh any challenges that have faced because of the wonderful jobs that they are able to have. However, there are also times where, depending on the path a person is considering, college may not be worth the return and the financial burden. Attey acknowledged the ambiguity of the value of college at this point in time. However, he did say that he felt that having a degree is better than not having it. Ashraf supported this stance, though she could not have attended college without taking out loans. She believes that, “Having an education not only opens up opportunities when looking for a career, but the knowledge that is gained, through experience and friendships made in college, is vital to the growing and learning process.” Attey later added that if college is not a viable option, people should not go to extreme lengths to get a college degree.

Goddard expanded on this perspective as she admitted that she believes college is increasingly losing its value. She feels that if she had kids, she would not be able to pay for their college education, and that she would rather they learned life skills that they could then use to have a career. She feels that not only is college increasingly not worth the return, but that it is has a detrimental effect on the health of students with stress. Of course she attributes her ability to do what she loves to her college education, but she is acknowledging that there are other less financially strenuous ways to get a job.

Though there seem to be alternatives for those that cannot afford college, culturally there is an expectation that students will eventually attain a college degree and that those with degrees have higher-paying jobs. This pushes students towards taking a path to college whether it is reasonable for their circumstances or not. Ahmed pointed out that even if a college degree is attained in this situation, college loans can hold back economic prosperity. He set up the following scenario. “There are two people who went to the same college, got the same degree, and then the same job. Person A took out student loans while person B’s education was paid for by parents etc. If we assume that person B came from a well off family, then they will always be better off than person A because they will have more disposable income. This person will have a greater disposable income because person B could save more as a result of not having to pay for student loan, which have interest rates of around seven or eight percent.”

Despite the many different paths our interviewees took to get a college education, and opinions they hold now, a consensus was reached on at least one thing. Everyone agreed that the college experience is valuable for personal growth. Adams, like all of our other interviewees, emphasized that, “Even just the experience (of college), like living on campus for a year, and making those relationships, and what it teaches you about yourself has been a worthwhile experience, degree aside.”

We hope that these personal accounts of what people had to do to go to college makes you think about what the implications of such an expensive secondary education system has on the U.S. population. As seen through the interviews we conducted, opportunities can be limited for those not as well off. This causes people already at a disadvantage to take out loans and to fall behind in saving, as Ahmed explained. College loans are a scary thing, and one will have to make financially responsible decisions to pay them off in a reasonable amount of time. However, like Ashraf told us, “Taking out loans has been a great alternative for me because it has allowed me to continue my education without placing a financial burden on my family.” Higher education isn’t a fair game, and some get head starts, and others don’t even receive a chance, let alone a fair one. The rising cost of college only adds to the problem previously existing income inequality creates. But, with the options college loans, financial aid, and scholarships provide, at least there are some ways to give students starting behind the pack a chance at the college-level education everybody deserves.

Photo credit: Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.


About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (

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