September 16, 2016

Obstacles to higher ed--and the middle class

This op-ed of mine appeared in yesterday's Charleston Gazette-Mail:

I first started attending Marshall University a while back, sometime between the extinction of the dinosaurs and the most recent ice age. It really was a different world.

At the time, I was working part-time as a janitor at a local public library (writing being a fairly recent innovation at the time). I found it to be a congenial calling I pursued with something less than perfect diligence, although it vastly contributed to my appreciation for the poetry of Langston Hughes and the like.

Imagine this: After a couple of part-time paychecks, I had enough money to pay for tuition.

Like I said, it was a different world.

Since then, inequality has exploded to levels not seen since the eve of the Great Depression, college costs have risen astronomically as the federal and state governments shifted priorities, student debt has exploded and hardships have mounted for students from low-income families.

Just how many hardships students face was documented in an interesting research project in Wisconsin. A team of researchers led by Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of the new book “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream,” studied 3,000 students who received Pell Grants while attending the state’s public colleges and universities.

They started out full of hope and enthusiasm but, six years later, fewer than half had graduated and 90 percent of those who did had debt.

In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Goldrick-Rab summarized the finding of her research:

 Federal student aid gets it wrong, by overestimating what families can pay and underestimating the cost of education.

 Contrary to stereotypes of families supporting children, “low-income children are supporting their parents, grandparents, and even siblings, all while being unable to buy their books.”

 Many are going without adequate food and, sometimes, shelter.

 While there’s nothing new about students working, many low-income students today are either looking for jobs they can’t find or holding down as many as three to get by.

 Debt, and its shadow, impact education, as well: “Feeling forced into borrowing is contributing to stress during college. To make money through work and minimize their loan exposure, students sacrifice participation in the sorts of academic and social activities that build networks and learning, the kinds of activities than increase the economic returns of their degrees.”

The real kicker is that the evidence suggests that academic success comes down to money: “Price, not intellect or effort, is the primary sorting mechanism in today’s colleges ... . Time after time, the failure to complete college does not reflect intellectual inability but rather an inability to pay.”

I’ve often had conversations with West Virginians who were stranded, unable to graduate and saddled with debt they had trouble paying on low wages and no benefits, which, in turn, made more education that could lead to a better job more inaccessible.

There’s something messed up about a situation where CEOs and corporations have an easier time dodging promised benefits to workers and retirees than ordinary people do dealing with debt for higher education.

If we’re going to move forward as a nation — let alone as a state that ranks at the bottom in educational attainment — we need to address issue of affordability. But we also need to work together to ensure that those who are trying to move forward can meet the basic needs for food, shelter and safety that make learning possible.


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