Free At College?

Can anything truly be free? That is often the question. Within the field of education, many push for low to no-cost options. A tenet of both Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns in the presidential election was “free college”, which would involved Pell Grants, and an increased focus on the community college system. But beyond an entire free college policy, I wanted to see what is currently free AT college. Often, what students can use outside of the classroom is as significant as education itself, so I was curious. What resources and amenities are available at no cost to students on university campuses? And are these truly free?

Sitting in my dorm with my roommate and a few friends, a discussion regarding schools finances ensued. All of us being frequent recreation facility users, we were discussing the merits of a free student gym membership. Currently, a year-long gym membership at Penn State costs $110. And while this may seem a steep price, a year-long membership at Planet Fitness costs $250/yr., albeit with some added amenities. On the other hand, many of us have friends at colleges where gym membership is free (with tuition). An argument could be made here to incentivize healthy living on campus for students by providing facilities at no added cost. On the other hand, what about those students who choose not to go to the gym, cannot due to physical limitations, or use off-campus facilities? Would enacting such a policy not cause their tuition to unjustly rise for non-academic purposes? This does seem to be the case in private institutions which already offer such opportunity, but with much larger price tags.

Photo from University of Missouri Recreation Center

Another simple, yet similarly controversial amenity, is laundry.. I recall an old classmate telling her mother that laundry services are “free” at the university she was planning on attending. To that, her mother responded, “It better be”, referring to Lafayette College’s roughly $49,000 tuition and fees, without accounting for room and board. While a full load, washed and dried, costs $2.00 at University Park, the tuition cost of an-instate student is significantly less compared to someone investing in a private education. Maybe this is where it shows that free really is not so free.

Apart from the nitty gritty of facilities and basic health and hygiene, universities use their resources to improve the quality of student life through presentations and subsidized events. Every week, I receive emails listing reduced price or free tickets for students to see politicians, comedians, or listen to renowned musicians. I was able to watch a famous a capella group perform at a discounted price, and even today, Patrick and Amy Kennedy are coming to speaking on campus at no added cost to students. Looking at other schools, George Washington University hosts notable government officials, authors, and celebrities and has seen such figures as Barack Obama, and Apple CEO Tim Cook. And to add one for theatre fanatics, NYU is able to provide students with Broadway tickets at up to 75% less than face value. The list goes on.

Overall, it appears that many of the free services available to college students need to be paid for in some way, and often out of their own, or their family’s, pockets. At a time of such economic difficulty, some spending may indeed be wasteful. The issue may be a matter of using money wisely. For instance, the student government of Penn State, UPUA, has a yearly budget of $139,628.55. While some of this money goes to annual programs and needs of the student body, each year they ask for student feedback via an initiative called “What to Fix”. Recently, they decided to put massage chairs in the HUB lounge, but this has been a point of contention among some. Some see it as an unwise choice of spending, and believe improving certain equipment and facilities should be prioritized. However, this initiative was voted upon by students for students. Creating change can only largely be achieved by making one’s voice heard.  On the other hand, some, such as Purdue University’s President Mitch Daniels, state that colleges need to adjust their spending of budgets, rather than forcing families to adjust their own budgets (USA Today). In his eyes, college is becoming too lavish in its amenities and losing focus of the essentials. How can we ever reduce college costs if we insist upon “free” services? And so, the debate continues.


If you want some continued food for thought, Onward State published an interesting article on the Gym Membership Fee debate in 2014:

Race to Educational Equality?

In my Educational Theory and Policy course here at Penn State (shoutout to Dr. Mimi Schaub), we have consistently discussed issues regarding Equality of Educational Opportunity, or EEO for short. By the definition we used in class, Equality of Educational Opportunity is the idea that “ascribed characteristics of individuals, such as race, social class, and religion should NOT affect chances of upward mobility and only inequalities from an individual’s talents and efforts can be regarded as fair and just”. Unfortunately, as many of us know, however, these characteristics DO challenge a student’s ability to thrive. While we would like to think that the students who achieve the highest scholastically do so solely because they study hard, or have great potential, this is not exactly the case. So, I wanted to consider just how much one characteristic, namely race, alters a student’s chances for success. Does race disadvantage students competing academically? Or is it just a confounding variable?

Here is the deal. George W. Bush attempted to eliminate the achievement gap over a 12 year process which began in 2002. He wanted No Child Left Behind. He specifically noted that he wanted all students to reach the same achievement quotas, and named race as one of the factors that would no longer be an inhibitor. This promise, in many respects, may not have been realized.

With regard to wealth and poverty, African American children are significantly more likely to grow up in poorer circumstances. According to the Pew Research Center, “Black children were almost four times as likely as white or Asian children to be living in poverty in 2013, and significantly more likely than Hispanic children” (Pew Research Center). The difficult task is then to separate race and poverty, and its implications on education. When you are referring to an impoverished neighborhood, you may also be referring to a large minority demographic present there. And the even larger challenge is that financial resources (or lack of them), are not the only baggage attributed to poverty. Less wealthy children often have parents who came from less wealthy backgrounds, and may not have been college educated. The idea of social reproduction, or passing characteristics and opportunity from one generation to the next, is at play here. But, as research has shown, it is not that these less educated parents set lower academic expectations for their children, but they may find challenges in aiding their achievement. The New York Times article “What It Takes to Make a Student” highlights some other common factors apparent between parent groups. Lower income children will likely not be able to participate in enrichment programs over the summer, or participate in organized educational activities. On the other hand, the children of “professional” parents are spoken to by mom and dad, on average, significantly more than children whose families are on welfare programs. Yes, vocabulary used is also more varied in the professional homes, but the mere number of words, and nature of things uttered vary greatly. The children in poorer homes hear more “discouragements” than “discouragements”, while the opposite is true for those in middle class homes. These discrepancies could be due to lacking flexibility of work schedules, and time spent with children. These issues stemming from home life, however, many hope can be ameliorated at school, though, right?

Well here is something else you may not know: school segregation still exists. Yes, in many respects it could be an issue of school districting. Those who live in a similar area are often of similar socioeconomic status, and yes, race. And in 1954, Brown v. the Board of Education called separate but equal inherently unequal, causing the legal end of school segregation.But there are still many who live with bigotry that can provide obstacles for minority students, specifically African Americans. This can be evidenced in the This American Life podcast, “The Problem We All Live With”. It tells the story of a young girl from a school district in Normandy, Missouri (which was the town where Michael Brown lived), who elects to go to a predominantly white neighboring school when given the chance. Although in many instances a very upsetting podcast to listen to, it shows just how separated many schools still are today, and the backwards attitudes of parents who attempted to prevent students from integrating into these schools. They assumed the worst of elementary school students who were merely looking for better opportunity at a properly accredited school (as opposed to their own), but held that their actions were not racist by using more ambiguous language related to the neighborhoods the children were coming from.

After all of this, I was a little discouraged by my findings. I was disappointed that segregation, an issue I had believed to be largely in the past, is still not ameliorated in our schools. I do, however, hold out some hope because minority students in desegregated environments have been shown to succeed, and without any negative effects on the majority students. Therefore, this is a process we should all work towards. I hope that by addressing issues of poverty, we may be able to address the racial divide connected to it, and truly reduce the achievement gap in schools.


Link to the Podcast:


Deliberation Reflection

I attended a deliberation on a topic similar to our topic of immigration, namely, “Immigration Nation: A Deliberation on Sanctuary Cities”. This subject proved poignant and timely, especially with regard to the Penn State community. Their approaches dealt with perspectives such as legality, fairness/equal opportunity, and security. This put a different spin on how to look at an issue, apart from a simple “yes” or “no”, which we always try to avoid via the deliberation process. In this way, they honed in on the value systems of our nation as displayed in the audience members present, as opposed to focusing on specific policy choices.

The atmosphere was very conducive to personal sharing and an open forum. This was due, in part, to the nature of the students leading the deliberation, who engaged the audience from the beginning through requests for introductory responses. Also, the casual, coffee shop feel of Webster’s Café lent itself to an open, yet calm audience vibe. It was ideal for a small deliberation, and I believe worked to lessen stress levels even there were points of tension. However, if the group present had been much larger, it would have been challenging to moderate such a deliberation, while keeping all feeling involved, in this setting. I think that is the risk run by holding a deliberation in this location, although it automatically is able to provide an environment more relaxed than the intimidating State College Municipal Building, for instance.

During the deliberation, I noted a few specific comments from audience members. One adult, who was involved in community development, made sure to point out the significance of referring to individuals as “undocumented citizens” rather than “illegal immigrants”. This struck a chord with us for our own deliberation, reminding us to watch the pathos behind certain choices of loaded diction. There was also valuable discussion of the economics behind sanctuary cities. It is expensive both to increase deportation laws or to increase border control. With this in mind, we considered the role of the federal government versus local government in creating sanctuary city policy. This was a point of debate because we largely saw immigration as a federal issue, and felt a type of disconnect because sanctuary cities are controlled by states, and even the cities themselves. For a period of time, there were many references to the link between sanctuary cities and crime rates in urban areas. I had not previously realized the argument for retaining undocumented citizens based on their ability to report crimes without fear of deportation. On the other hand, we also mentioned the potential risk of always associating immigrants in some way with crime, even in a positive nature.

Overall, the deliberation group was skilled at moderating and leading the conversation in a new direction when intervention was necessary. Likewise, they allocated the time evenly between the introduction, three approaches, and summary. They tied everything together by drawing upon the points which elicited similar audience reactions, while also reminding us of the struggle we had to reach a point of agreement on a few ideas. We did, however, note that due to a slight lacking of audience and deliberation group diversity, some more experience-based perspectives may not have been as well heard. In general, though, this deliberation provided a prime example of the possibility of successful discussion through the deliberation process.

Education ON(the)LINE

When you research online education, you are hit with a plethora of advertisements, university names, secondary school programs, and articles detailing the pros and cons of such an academic climate. Nevertheless, the classroom has always changed over the years, and now the location of the classroom is simply shifting. Competitive young dancers can complete schooling on their bedroom Macbook to provide more time for practice. Stay-at-home moms are capable of finishing their associate degrees while their toddler naps upstairs. It seems the possibilities are endless. Is something lost in the technological mix, though?

In this post, I am going to hone in on online classes at the collegiate level, a concept close to many University Park students’ hearts. For some, through Penn State’s World Campus, full degree requirements may be met online. Students can complete both undergraduate and graduate programs, such as a major in Health Policy Administration, or a Master’s Degree in Psychology of Leadership. Countless others only take select courses online during a traditional semester, such as a single Music Appreciation course, or a non-major requirement over the summer.

The demographic of online learners is reverse aging. According to a 2015 article from U.S. News & World Report, “Younger Students Increasingly Drawn to Online Learning, Study Finds”, enthusiasm for online programs is becoming younger. In three years, the percentage of online learners under the age of 25 has grown by almost ten percent. This change has likely only grown in the year and a half since the study. It was theorized that this is due to millennial familiarity with online courses in high school, and economic pressures of working while receiving an education. These courses vary greatly, with some requiring facetime via Skype, or visual lectures of professors themselves. Others are self guided through lessons and modules taken on the student’s own schedule through a given period of twelve or fifteen weeks. I think back to my own online driver’s education course and wonder if that is just how I would like to learn something as challenging as Biology.

My largest hesitation when considering the effectiveness of online courses has always been the educational outcomes that are difficult to measure. Beyond attaining knowledge through course material, I believe that education plays a crucial role in developing effective communication strategies and socialization between and among both academic peers and professors. If we only look at online powerpoints and complete worksheets digitally, are we achieving the same engagement with material (and each other) we would in a class setting?

During my senior year of high school, I completed a Capstone project for which I dabbled in the connection between technology, education, and psychology. I interviewed a local university professor who instructed both online and traditional classes. She related that the materials for her online courses were the same as those found in her other classes. She also noted that in her online courses, with weekly assignments due, the course was still somewhat structured and kept students on track. “How does it feel to never meet your students, though?” I pondered. She interestingly suggested that in some respects, she was able to better know her online students than those from the past, because they were more apt to vocalize their opinions in discussion posts behind a screen.

One scholarly article which I read, “Online Learning for the Left-Behind Generation”, in many ways challenged my thinking. It echoed my concerns in some respects, posing the questions of online educators like, “How can we show our [students] how to “walk the walk” if we may be limited to merely “talking the walk”?”. They admitted that for teaching at their college, the University of Central Arkansas, they were at first distressed by the change in medium.

A theme of the article, and online education in general, is a reliance on the student. Students must be driven to complete work on their own, as no professor is imposingly threatening to call upon them to answer a question. With this in mind, online education might not be for those seeking structure. The outcomes of these classes also largely included teamwork, as through discussion forums and projects, students still had to collaborate with others (just through their computers). In this sense, as the workforce becomes digital, these skills may be just as vital as public speaking in a large lecture hall. The Wake/Bunn article found: “students feel that effective online courses are a form of social practice or social media and feel these courses create the same of an increased level of social connectedness as a face-to-face class”. Woah. The digital generation has spoken.


Online Learning for the Left-Behind Generation by Donna Wake and Gary Bunn:

What’s the Deal with STEM?

Over the past decade or so, the acronym S.T.E.M. Has been thrown around quite a bit in the world of education. The subjects of science, technology, engineering and math are key factors in determining the success (or possible lack thereof) of the United States’ system of education, especially in comparison to some of our peer nations. Many claim that for American innovation to continue, we need all the scientists, engineers, and mathematicians we can get.

This graph, from the U.S. Department of Education, displays the ever increasing need for skilled employees in STEM fields. With unemployment being the looming problem for many in the twenty-first century, a look to the future of technology is viewed as a feasible solution. By adapting to our ever-changing society through developing fields such as environmental and biomedical engineering, jobs could be provided for many. However, we cannot make this leap without starting with our education system.

Looking at the Obama archives on the White House Website (I know, crazy that his presidency can already be found in the archives), one frequently notes references to STEM in his education policy. He advocated for NextGen high schools, which would incorporate “active learning” and “access to real-world experiences” for students. The goal would then be to use this experience and knowledge gained at an early age to search for opportunities in these fields, and apply this to the workforce later in life.

When I was in middle school, a STEM Academy was created in my hometown of Downingtown, PA. It is a small, public high school that promotes group collaboration, projects, and a rigorous STEM-focused curriculum. The school has a selective application process of 8th graders within the district. They do not have AP class, but instead IB, or International Baccalaureate, designated courses. This international equivalency is a clear connection to our attempts at gauging where we stack up next to other nations, and demonstrate that America is not behind the times in the classroom. The curriculum allows students to take a course in engineering as early as their freshman year, along with upper level math courses, and classes in history and the arts. Students can choose a “Pathway” in their junior and senior year which designates a discipline, or “Academy” they will focus their courses on for future career readiness. At a young age, they can see opportunity in fields of interest, and practical applications of their studies.
Listed here are the four Academy Choices:
o Academy of Corporate and Mathematical Innovation
o Academy of Health, Medicine and Biology
o Academy of Applied Science and Engineering
o Academy of Technology, Media and Communications

And the school has been a great success from many perspectives, with it ranking as the top school in PA multiple times in the past 5 years.

What is the potential flip side of focusing too much on STEM subjects? Some fear a lacking role for the arts and humanities. I was recently told by an associate professor of English at Penn State that the new Administration is planning to take away funding from such organization as the National Endowment for the Humanities, NEH, which had supported much of her search for over a decade. And after doing some research, I found this to be true for not only NEH, but also the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). According to the Huffington Post, however, the cuts would be “largely symbolic”, as the “combined funding for the NEH, NEA, and CPB totaled 0.02 percent of the federal budget. (See–nea-funding-is_b_14346016.html ). I can see how a show of our nation’s strength could be seen in an increased focus on technical learning, such as that in STEM fields, but I do not believe the ideals of the humanities to be contrary to robust support of natural sciences, engineering, etc.

The arts and humanities are the cornerstone of an enriched life, and allow for the preservation and furthering of our American culture. At the end of the day, this dilemma of choosing oddly reminds me of ordering a burrito bowl at Chipotle (sorry, I am a college student). If one really feels that STEM subjects should be the brunt of the workload or meal, that is fine. So you get your rice, beans, meat, and cheese for a hearty meal. Then, you remember the guacamole (the humanities). Sure it costs a little more, and we can sometimes grow frustrated with this tiny bit of extra money, but it is most definitely worth your while.