Put Grad School Within My Grasp

By Sui Lang Panoke
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Is access to graduate education in America exclusively for the upper class?

As a first-year graduate student struggling to make ends meet, I believe the answer is yes. In my experience, searching for funding to pay the extensive costs of my higher education has been an upward climb leading only to dead ends.

I am a single mother who qualifies for the maximum amount in federal aid for graduate students. But this amount barely covers my tuition; paying for housing, books and living expenses is up to me.

I have no college fund, trust or inheritance. I don't independently qualify for private student loans because I lack the substantial credit or employment history that is required, and I do not have the luxury of having a willing and eligible co-signer. Furthermore, I can work only part-time jobs while in school; otherwise I would not qualify for child-care assistance.

While I have applied for a few scholarships, I have yet to be awarded one, and I have found that they are an extremely limited and unreliable resource to use to fund graduate school. Scholarships represent less than 4 percent of the total aid available each year for college students, and much less than that for graduate students. Contrary to popular belief, there are not millions of scholarships out there going unused every year.

The majority of students in my situation seeking graduate degrees don't have the means to just pick up and move to another city without some kind of government assistance. Yet federal Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants are available only to undergraduate students. There are very few alternative options for funding my graduate degree. What's even more frustrating is that if I were seeking an undergraduate degree, being a single mother would qualify me to have most of my college expenses paid for.

Once you aspire beyond a bachelor's degree, the financial aid door is pretty much closed unless you, or your family, have the economic ability to finance whatever costs are not covered by your guaranteed federal student loans.

Today's job market is becoming more and more competitive. Bachelor's degrees don't carry the weight they used to. It's almost necessary to have a graduate, doctorate or law degree to compete with the current highly qualified pool of candidates.

Higher degrees mean higher salaries. But the disparity between those who have access to a higher degree due to their economic resources and those who have the desire to attend graduate school but not the money is increasing. Graduate students are forced to take on a significantly higher economic burden than undergraduates. It seems that graduate-level education is open only to the select few who can afford it -- people who usually come from wealthy, upper-class families.

We are failing to redistribute the wealth in America, and the divide between the upper and lower classes is widening. It's clear that a federal need-based grant program for graduate students must be created. This would help level the playing field by creating access to graduate programs for students -- access based on merit and ambition rather than economic resources.

Money invested in graduate education will benefit the government by improving the quality of life for citizens. And students from low socioeconomic levels of the society will have a better shot at achieving the American dream.

The writer is a first-year graduate student at American University working toward a master's degree in public administration.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company