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You can put a price on education

Randall F. Clemens


I come from a working class family. I am the only one to enroll in a four-year university. To save money, my father asked me to attend community college first. I did. After two years, I transferred to the University of Maryland. A week before classes began, my family’s economic standing changed drastically. I accepted the fact that I could no longer afford college. A few days later, my mother and I sat in the financial aid office at College Park. The officer did not provide good news. As I sat with my head down, my mom leaned over and, with superhero-type strength, said, “I don’t care what we have to do. Come hell or high water, we’ll find a way.” That belief carried me through my B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. To pay tuition, my mom worked extra hours, and I commuted to school, worked a job, and received need- and merit-based aid. 

I have experienced the same sort of unyielding resolve in many of the parents of the first-generation immigrants with whom I have worked. Last year, I sat with Jose and his father in their living room, which also doubled as a bedroom. Jose’s father, who suffered from AIDS, was struggling to find a free health clinic for his toothache. Through sickness, he worked 12 hours a day for six days a week in order to earn less than minimum wage. I asked why he sacrificed so much. He pointed to Jose. “For him,” he responded, “He’s going to college. He will be successful.” This year, Jose is a freshman at UC Irvine.

Higher education provides pathways to opportunity. That is a core value of our country. It is the belief that has guided my mother and me and Jose and his father. But, higher education is becoming increasingly expensive. 

A new report states that one in five households in the United States—compared with one in ten nearly two decades ago—owe student loan debt. In households such as mine, where the heads of household are under 35 years old, the number rises to 40%, over twice the amount (17%) in 1989. Another report indicates that a staggering two-thirds (66%) of four-year college graduates in 2011 had student loan debt, averaging $26,600.


After ten years of higher education and a six-month grace period, the government now wants its money back. I will spend the next ten years paying for my education. On good days, I pretend I am paying for an imaginary Land Rover. On bad days, when I think about owning a house or having a baby, I consider my student loans—along with my wife’s law school debt—and wonder what we could have done differently. The answer is “not much.” We believed in the promise of higher education, and we borrowed what we needed, not what we wanted. 

My wife and I are now members of a growing cohort of individuals with unwieldy student loan debt. That cohort ranges from those who earned graduate degrees and are now underemployed and struggle to repay their loans to others who dropped out after two semesters of undergrad because they could not afford to pay for remedial classes and are now unemployed and in debt. 

How much should students mortgage today for the potential of tomorrow? We can no longer assume the promise outweighs the cost. 

The upcoming presidential election will determine a lot about the future of higher education and our country. For a summary of the differences between the candidates, see an article published during Education Nation. In short, President Obama wants to increase regulation. Governor Romney wants to provide choice. During the first debate, Romney declared, “The private market and individual responsibility always work best.”

To maintain the integrity of hope in higher education and stay another financial crisis in our country, I ask both candidates what they plan to do to create new pathways to college and away from debt.