Maffeo: Universal education is a vital step to closing the gap of academic opportunity

Micah Maffeo

This piece is going to look like a socialist pride, but I must tell you that universal education is the only socialist idea in this capitalism-loving libertarian’s mind. I also confess that by “universal education” I don’t mean college degrees for everyone, but money—or lack thereof—should not be the deciding factor in one’s ability to pursue higher education.

If you do not believe that money plays the critical role of attending a university, then contemplate not knowing if you are going to be able to finish another semester according to the amount in your bank account instead of the level of your GPA. What about financial aid, scholarships/grants, loans, or paychecks? Doesn’t that solve the problem? No, it doesn’t; they are far better than nothing but they are never as good as having big-wallet parents—and here’s why.


Financial aid is just that, a little helping hand pushing you just over the wall of tuition; it is a helpful program with two issues. The first is some people take it from aid to dependency because they grow their lifestyle to the amount FAFSA provides them, allowing for the wiggle room that the financial aid provides to be filled to the brim with new toys, new clothes, and new bills. How can we fix this? We cannot. People are going to be themselves, and without money management, they are going to spend money as they wish.

This will make the second problem of staying in the good graces of the government more devastating. By that I mean keeping “degree-seeking status,” which is not a problem for most of us who go for a bachelor’s in one shot. For the student going for a bachelor’s after receiving an associate’s degree at a community college to save money, or the student who finished his/her undergrad planning to go to grad school but has a pre-requirement class in the way, this could be a show stopper. Losing aid and absorbing the full cost of education can be crippling even for the most money savvy, but it is easy to see how exponentially worse a change in status can be for those who have stretched their budgets as far as they can go.

You may wonder how I can say anything negative towards scholarships and grants. They represent the goodwill of organizations by giving others the opportunity achieve their dreams. One must keep in mind that they are conditional—unlike the love of well-off parents—and most of these conditions are not correlated to academia. Scholarships and grants can be awarded for race, religion, height, and gender as precursor conditions. Whereas, military service, athletics, and mandatory membership to an organization are indentured conditions. The problem with what I labeled as “precursor condition scholarships/grants” is that it places priorities on dividers such as gender and race. We are supposed to be coming closer to equality each day and awarding monetary value for being Catholic, or black, or a woman, or being 6’2” undermines true diversity.

Women make up 58 percent of the college population, and 3 out of 5 grad students are women, according to Univstats. Although 56 percent of college students are white, the 2014 U.S. Census shows that 77 percent of the U.S. population are white. Race- based or gender-based funding is unnecessary and not ideal for education. Precursors that should matter are intelligence, talent or skills, and socio-economic status. A scholarship for juggling has a sounder basis for being awarded than one awarded for being a Catholic of Italian descent, which I qualified for but refused on that reasoning. This genital-less, pigment-less criteria is a step in the right direction, but universal education will be preferred for most deserving—which I’ll explain shortly.

In regards to indentured scholarships, these test the value of education for the individuals that earned them. Athletes have to spend many hours constantly training, practicing, and competing, which increase stress on top of dealing with the normal rigors that the average student faces. The Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets that earn a full ride from the Army have to weigh whether the eight-year service commitment is worth it. (Quick disclaimer, ROTC does not pay for every cadet’s schooling like many students believe. Most cadets receive nothing, some earn stipends, and others receive two- to four-year scholarships.) If a student wants to serve in the Army for a 20-or-more year career, then Army scholarships are the best thing on the planet. But for the student that feels it is a good way to fund college and is not interested in eight years of soldiering, it could be a nightmare. It is similar for students who have to be a part of something they don’t really believe in, because their scholarship states mandatory membership to a particular group or organization; that part of college could feel like a jail sentence.

Working through school is the most common means of paying for tuition. It also has the ability to be the most corrosive to academic success. Simply, this is because it can develop into a Catch-22 very rapidly. Spend too much time working and fail school, or spend too much time studying and then can’t pay for another semester. It is a fool’s errand, being a full-time student trying to pay off tuition, rent, utilities, parking permits, books, and groceries working 10-20-30 hours a week at minimum wage while maintaining an academic good standing. The premise of the next Mission Impossible movie should be a working college student. Tom Cruise outrunning Parking Services to his car will be his toughest stunt preformed to date.

Therefore, universal education is the final solution to the biggest divider between the haves and have nots in higher education—money. Taxes would obviously carry the weight of universal education, but consider it as an investment in American society. I would point out that the U.S. already pays for K-12 public schools; universal higher education then is not that much of a leap into a brave new world. Universities would need to find new criteria to prevent filling over capacity. The next easiest way to thin the herd would be to increase the academic standard, allowing intelligence and effort to reign supreme instead of the almighty silver dollar. Those who come from low social-economic homes and that are brilliant and value education will have precedence over students who are here to appease their well-endowed parents. Athletes should earn financial compensation for representing their school in sports. People should not be funded by their genitals or pigments but by the sizes of their brains and hearts. Finally, no-one should have the right to learn kept from them because of a price tag.

Collegian Columnist Micah Maffeo can be reached at, or on Twitter @micahmaffeo.