July 25, 2006 4:51PM

Trust Me, It’s Just Not Fair

Apparently, if your subject is how you are being victimized by the nation’s higher education system, personal anecdotes and unsupported assertions are all it takes to get in the Washington Post. At least that’s what can be surmised from “Put Grad School Within My Grasp,” a one-woman pity party in which Sui Lang Panoke, an American University graduate student, grieves over having to pay too much of her own education bill, and declares that "a federal need-based grant program for graduate students must be created."

Ordinarily, when discussing such low-fact, high-emotion articles as Miss Panoke’s, I would put together one argument rather than tackling individual points. Unfortunately, there’s just too much worthy of comment in Miss Panoke’s piece to let any little bit slip by. I hope, therefore, you’ll pardon my dealing with her lament one piece at a time… 

1. The Introduction: “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.”

Not a good start. Miss Panoke offers nothing – not a single fact or figure – to back up her claim that graduate school has become an exclusive preserve of the upper class. And how could she: According to the most recent available data from the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 27 percent of graduate students receive means-tested, subsidized Stafford Loans. That means that at the absolute least more than a quarter of American graduate students cannot be upper-class, and no doubt the percentage of non-wealthy grad students is much higher than that.

2. I’m not rich: “I have no college fund, trust or inheritance.”

The assumption here seems to be that anyone who can afford graduate school on their own must be loaded. Of course, a “college fund” could just come from saving over the years, which brings us to…

3. I didn’t get a job after I got my bachelor’s: “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.”

Assuming Miss Panoke knew graduate school wasn’t cheap before enrolling, she probably should have worked after getting her bachelor’s degree and saved money for grad school, which would have enabled her to both establish that crucial employment history and make grad school a little more affordable. But wait…

4. I need a graduate degree just to get a job: “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.”

While Miss Panoke is right that bachelor’s degrees have become less meaningful over the years – largely as a result of government pushing everyone into college, and colleges giving out diplomas that signify less and less learning – does she really think everyone has to have an advanced degree to get a job? Unfortunately, she never tells the reader what her own bachelor’s degree is in, but if she majored in anything the least bit marketable, employment opportunities are out there. Indeed, as the National Association of Colleges and Employers recently reported, the employment picture for recent bachelor's degree recipients is actually very bright.

5. Dude, where are my scholarships? “While I have applied for a few scholarships, I have yet to be awarded one.”

How does Miss Panoke define “a few scholarships?” One? Two? Three? Who knows! And why hasn’t she been awarded any? Was she not qualified? Were winners randomly assigned? Without a lot more information, the reader can’t tell whether the problem is “the system” – as Miss Panoke asserts – or the student herself.

6. There just isn’t enough scholarship money: “Scholarships represent less than 4 percent of the total aid available each year for college students, and much less than that for graduate students.”

At least there’s a stat here, but Miss Panoke cites no source for it, and it is of questionable accuracy.

Using College Board data, in the 2004-05 school year private and employer grants – which might be what Miss Panoke used to calculate scholarship aid – constituted 5 percent of total aid, a little higher than Miss Panoke’s number. But that is really only the tip of the non-government-aid iceberg; Add institutional aid to private and employer grants, and the scholarship share of total aid goes all the way up to 22 percent.

As for graduate students, specific data is hard to find, but given Miss Panoke’s low-balling of undergraduate scholarships--that, and the fact that over 60 percent of graduate students get some kind of aid to attend school--I’ll assume she’s overstating the severity of the problem for grad students.

7. Our Marxism isn’t working: “We are failing to redistribute the wealth in America, and the divide between the upper and lower classes is widening.”

Um, I’ll let this one speak for itself.

8. There’s a less expensive school? “The writer is a first-year graduate student at American University working toward a master's degree in public administration.”

Wait. American University? This starving student couldn’t have pursued her master’s anywhere cheaper? 

Of course she could have, and right in the Washington, D.C., area. Indeed, with tuition at $1048 per credit hour, AU is roughly 2.5 times more expensive than in-state tuition at Virginia’s George Mason University, and 1.4 times more expensive than out-of-state tuition. Similarly, AU’s tuition is 2.2 times higher than in-state tuition at the University of Maryland, and 1.4 times higher than out-of-state tuition.

9. It Takes Tax Money to Make Tax Money: As frustrating as it is to read Miss Panoke’s fact-free argument for why taxpayers should be forced to shell out more for her schooling, the real kicker is that she wants to use that schooling to get a public sector career (assuming that’s what she’ll use her master’s in public administration for). So, in essence, what she really wants is for taxpayers to finance an education designed to help her get even more money out of them later!

Unfortunately this last point, unlike Miss Panoke’s piece, makes all too much intuitive sense. Read more of the complaints of self-proclaimed victims of American higher education like Miss Panoke, and it will be clear: Their ultimate dream is to be supported, in perpetuity, by the American taxpayer.