A myth won’t educate a nation.
The myth is that the U.S. should be doing a better job of preparing underprivileged high school students so they can win scholarships to Yale, Harvard and other top schools. Then they can march across commencement stages into prosperous careers. This is worse than a myth. It’s a joke.
The Ivy League — Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania and Yale universities, plus Dartmouth College — has a total of 38,464 undergraduate slots. If you add in the 31-college cabal, the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, which includes the Ivy League members and is the private elite colleges’ own selection of the best of the best, you have 118,784 total undergraduate seats.
If you then add the University of California at Berkeley; the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, the total potential myth-actualizing undergraduate population rises to 242,905.
To demonstrate the folly of the myth, note that if students on Pell grants took every undergraduate seat at these selective colleges, that would still leave us with 9.157 million for whom we have no plan. A total of 9.4 million students in college receive Pell grants, the bedrock federal aid for low-income students. They are the ones who might work two — even three — jobs to support families, and who may have been lucky to complete the semester, never mind a degree.
The scary truth is that letting these 9.4 million founder is our — we, the people’s — active national higher-education plan. We know it leads to fewer jobs for the 9.4 million, many without health insurance or a living wage, and we know we will pay later in Medicaid and food stamps.
This plan isn’t in a single report to download. It is the sum of our inactions and stale policies. Solutions require accountability, and in America’s systems no one is responsible for educating the poor.
In the marketplace of democracy and capitalism, who would directly profit from educating, say, 1 million more able, but low-income, students? No one. A balanced budget with reserves in the bank is the reasonable goal of any college president. Higher-education leaders, whatever their goodwill, have no incentive to educate the poor.
Funding abounds for research papers, conferences and ideas. What’s missing is anyone willing to be responsible for seeing that more of these 9.4 million people complete their education, degree or certificate, or just obtain a skill. Is the world too messy for such big plans? President Lyndon Johnson would have disagreed. He enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Higher Education Act of 1965 — the backbone of today’s federal higher-education policies — all with the Vietnam War under way.
Taking responsibility for educating 9.4 million students bludgeoned by poverty is a daunting problem. I know this from the hundreds of them I have seen over six years in my College Writing I class at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.
I will celebrate any individual triumph for what that is — one success with millions of students to go. A year ago, I screamed with joy as an Iraq veteran, a Lakota Sioux in my very first College Writing I class, accepted his diploma from Dartmouth. That was a “makes life worth living” moment. The rest of that class? Only one other I know of completed college. Ambitions and motivation crumbled under jobs, health issues and family problems.
In early returns for this year, my colleagues and I have helped students who will be heading this year to Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Wellesley colleges, as well as Tufts University. (Williams College and Yale, Harvard and Princeton won’t visit to look for students.)
However gratifying the triumphs of these few students, we know we are failing because we know the others. That would include a student coming to my 7 a.m. class from an overnight shift. Or the one leaving a midnight class at 2:30 a.m. for a seasonal job at Logan Airport, de-icing planes.
We all struggle to retrain ourselves to meet the needs of such students. My major professional development this year has been learning to recertify students for food stamps.
I will yield to the cries that all these millions don’t need a full four-year degree. My alarm is that our national discussions on an educated citizenry have lost touch with the skills that even entry-level jobs in the U.S. require today.
Look at courses in community colleges. Running an MRI machine requires an anatomy and physiology course in the same detail that a premedical student would take. A basic Microsoft Excel course involves understanding finance for those functions and formal logic for the IF functions.
Using Excel pivot tables, my colleagues tell me, is a skill that all but guarantees a decent entry-level job for a community-college graduate. As I learned in the 629-page entry-level Excel textbook that I’m muddling through, pivot tables are for data mining. This, the book tells me, is the process of “analyzing large volumes of data using advanced statistical techniques.”
How many graduates with bachelor’s degrees know finance, logic and advanced statistical techniques? What is the plan for even half of the 9.4 million on Pell grants to learn these entry-level job skills? We don’t have one. The few who might win scholarships at selective colleges won’t transform the nation’s workforce.
Two recent studies show how blinkered our thinking is. In a Brookings Institution paper titled “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students,” Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University and Christopher Avery of Harvard affirmed that there are talented poor students with high SAT scores who, shockingly enough, have never heard of Harvard or Williams.
The take-away in discussions of this study is that we should do a better job of getting them into wealthier colleges that will pay their way. Why not say that they are worth the public investment, no matter what school they go to.
Finding more spots for low-income students at selective colleges may be impossible in any case. A New America Foundation study by Stephen Burd details what students from families that make $30,000 a year or less have to pay out of their own pockets, even after financial aid is taken into account. While Amherst sets the standard on generosity, with a net price of $448 a year for Pell grant recipients, Williams charges $5,402 and Princeton $7,545, according to the study.
My favorite graduations aren’t the ceremonies that perpetuate the myth. They are at community colleges, where the images are flipped. Parents and grandparents are receiving the degrees with their children and grandchildren in the audience cheering. I will share their joy, however incomplete the achievement for now. And one day, I hope I will see something to celebrate for millions more of them.
Wick Sloane teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, Mass., and writes a column for Inside Higher Ed.