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In the face of climate change, the idea of going green has permeated our lives from multiple perspectives. The use of technology to replace physical aspects of our life appears to be an obvious solution for sustainability. For example, developing education technology to reduce the physical resources required in a classroom. Yet each type of virtual resource, cloud storage, and energy usage comes with its own costs of production and implementation (Selwyn, 2021). To climb on board this sustainability train, the cost of a fully renewable energy grid is estimated to cost $4.5 trillion for the United States (Holden, 2019) and $73 trillion at the global scale (Jacobson et al., 2019). Following which all households would need to find a way to tap into the new energy supply. For those of us who cannot afford the heavy upfront cost of switching to a green lifestyle, Griffith (2021) suggested the idea of low interest “climate loans” or financing options for green technology. However, keep in mind that this climate debt will be in addition to the existing student loans required to pursue higher education, which ultimately impacts the lower portion of the socioeconomic spectrum. Will students from lower income families still be able to afford post-secondary education in 2030? Additionally, does transitioning to the more cost-effective and sustainable method of online learning truly increase access to learning for all students?

Choudaha and van Rest (2018) speculated that, in 2030, higher education will see an increase of 120 million students, but rising tuition rates will cause it to be less affordable and therefore less accessible. They painted a scenario of institutions becoming more exclusive by offering full-time and on-campus learning that is more expensive but with more resources for students. Meanwhile, other institutions will offer part-time and online learning options with less overhead costs, less resources, and lower tuition rates. This is in line with the 2020 and 2021 Educause Horizon reports which addressed the widening socioeconomic gap in higher education. Institutions in 2030 would focus on serving the privileged students who can afford the higher tuition rates and reduce the resources to support students from lower income families (Educause, 2020, 2021). However, this socioeconomic stratification of learners is not a new development. Although post-secondary institutions admit students from varying backgrounds, students from lower income families are not able to obtain the same fully immersive learning experience as their more privileged peers. This is mainly due to their financial constraints even with the help of current financial aid programs (Boliver, 2017). If students from lower income households are already struggling with financial challenges in order to pursue higher education, increasing tuition fees would only add to the difficulty for these students to access learning in 2030.

In response to the rates of tuition exceeding the rate of inflation, federal and provincial financial aid programs have been established to help students afford higher education (Frenette, 2017). For example, the Canada Student Grant offers up to $6000 per year depending on family size and household income (Government of Canada, 2021). Students can also apply for merit or needs-based awards or a student loan. However, the loan providers assume that the student will contribute to their tuition, as well as receive financial assistance from their family (Ontario, 2019).  As a result, many students work part-time in addition to being a full-time student. Of all of the Canadian part-time workers age 15 to 24, 73% were working in order to afford school (Patterson, 2018). To juggle full-time studies and part-time employment, little time can be spared for students to be fully immersed in their post-secondary experience. Moreover, while many institutions illustrate a vibrant and engaging campus life as a way to attract prospective students, students from lower income families are likely to commute to a local institution in order to save on the cost of residence (Frenette, 2007).

Considering that these students are most likely living and studying at home, the most convenient and effective solution would be to offer online learning. However, the socioeconomic divide comes hand-in-hand with the digital divide. According to Statistics Canada (2017b), approximately 98% of the families belonging to the highest household income quartile have access to internet at home. In comparison, existing access to home internet ranges from 45 to 67% of households in the lowest quartile. Similarly, home internet access decreases from 95% of households within the metropolitan areas, where the cost of homes is higher, to 48% of households outside of the areas (Statistics, 2021). Despite the push to adopt online learning, institutions should not expect all students to have access to their learning from home. Students attending higher education must consider the cost and values of several factors that would affect their lifestyle and financial situation: commuting, residence, internet access, and time allocated to studying or employment.

Returning to the idea of implementing new sustainable technology and the proposition of a low interest climate loan on top of a student loan in order to optimize both lifestyle and education, the socioeconomic gap in higher education will likely still exist, if not amplified, in 2030. With student loans and grants available, the rates of post-secondary enrollment increased in the lower household income quartiles, but remained consistently less than the participation rate of students from higher income families. (Frenette, 2017). Further insight into student loans show that students from lower socioeconomic class are not averse to accruing student debt in order to pursue their education. Since higher education level is generally associated with higher income (Statistics Canada, 2017a), students consider it a long-term investment and believe that their loan repayments will be balanced by the higher income opportunities available to them post-graduation (Callendar & Mason, 2017). Likewise, Marginson (2016) found that post-secondary enrollment rates are driven by the idea of social mobility rather than economic growth. On one hand, students are willing to pay for higher education for a better future, even if they can only afford a lower cost institution with less resources. On the other hand, student loans enable the lower economic class to pursue higher quality education in which they place more value than the potential debt and financial burden they would carry after graduation. In conclusion, the perceived value of higher education is greater than the financial challenges associated with increasing tuition rates (Hassani-Nezhad et al., 2021).

Based on this idea, it would not be farfetched to assume that, in 2030, lower income households would be open to a “climate loan” or green technology financing programs if they were provided an appealing value proposition to switch to a fully renewable lifestyle. If the conversion to a greener lifestyle includes more sustainable technology and internet access for lower income households, it may be possible to reduce the digital divide and improve the quality and opportunities for online learning.  The disadvantage to this scenario is that full-time, on-campus learning will become even less affordable and accessible to students. This may have implications on the types of learning and programs that a student can access from home. This restriction would continue to widen the socioeconomic divide as certain jobs that require in-person residency and practical training would gain prestige. Essentially, this would establish a prestigious boarding school system. As a result, only the students from higher income families would be able to afford the on-campus learning experience for that career. This may be ameliorated by the development of education technology that can wholly replace the face-to-face learning experience, or by offering large scholarships for students to attend these in-person programs at a lower cost. However, the socioeconomic gap will persist in 2030 if institutions continue to advertise the value of on-campus learning being greater than online learning, or by maintaining specific programs as solely on-campus offerings due to its need for hands-on experience.


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