Setting Students Up for Failure

A lot has been written over the last several years about the out of control tuitions at America’s universities.  (Sadly, tuition costs are becoming an issue in English universities at this point, too.  But even the tuition at Oxford is a fraction of what the costs of ivy-league schools in the U.S. are.)

We all know by now that the “debt sentence” of attending American universities has become so onerous that many people are questioning the value of universities.  How can you ever catch up financially?  How, in this jobless economy, can a college graduate expect to find anything but a low-wage job and spend a life-time paying back their student loan debt?  We already know that our young adults are not marrying, not purchasing cars or homes, not starting families — largely because of their crippling student debt.  They are trapped in a life that offers little escape. The banks love that undischargeable debt.  But we shouldn’t be so accepting of it as we are.  It is not simply a fact of life.  It was manufactured, and we’ve fallen victim to thinking that exorbitant price tags and crushing loans are part of the process.

This is true at all but the highest level — the upper 10% may still be able to pay for their children to go to college.  But the number of people who can help their children in that way is growing ever-smaller.  And, what about the poorest students?  They are too often the ones whose “failures” happen even earlier in this college to debt pipeline. What about the many students who simply cannot finish their college degree?  Many leave school because they can no longer afford to attend; either they’ve maxed out their loans, or they see the numbers climbing higher and higher and can’t justify indenturing themselves.  Others leave because they have been woefully unprepared for the work demanded of them; often these are the children who have suffered most at the hands of our poorest public schools.  Frequently, these schools are in areas where poverty is more rampant, and where children struggle not only with the school experience, but with a life far more difficult than any child should have to face.

Diane Ravitch has spoken and written extensively on the relationship between poverty and educational failure.  She has pushed back, sometimes almost single-handedly, against the corporatization that has been happening with our public schools.  Politicians express concern and dismay over the poor performance of such students, but suggest not a refunding of our public schools and a rededication to our teachers as professionals, but of privatizing the schools instead.  In other words, turning the schools into for-profit endeavors.  We all know how well that has worked out for American medicine.

A few articles have been written recently about this situation, discussing why it is even harder for students from poor backgrounds to succeed in college.  Vicki Madden’s The New York Times Article that addresses this speaks of the on-going narrative that claims a student from any socio-economic background, but especially those from poorer backgrounds, need and benefit from the college degree.

Our government, including our President, keep repeating the platitudes that poor students must be given a change to attend college; it is their way to the top.  It is simply not true.

All students struggle to find their footing in college.  But there is a gap, even in the student’s ability to ask for help when you are comparing students from different socio-economic levels. This gap is rooted in a student’s insecurities about their very right to be attending college in the first place.   Madden says, “But once those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds arrive on campus, it’s often the subtler things, the signifiers of who they are and where they come from, that cause the most trouble, challenging their very identity, comfort and right to be on that campus. The more elite the school, the wider that gap.”

The difficulty of even making it into a college is so much more pronounced with students who have lived in poverty.  Jason DeParle speaks of this in his NYT article.  His piece follows several young women from poor families whose dream out of poverty was a college degree.  With everything stacked against them, he tells us, “Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts.”  These students end up leaving school and taking the very jobs they promised themselves they would never work – in fast food, in retail.

The promise of a college degree now is more of a shell game than a real promise.  Our students are told from the time they are children that they have to go to college to have the best possible life.  Their parents believe it.  Their high school counselors believe it.  But so much is written now about the way the system is rigged that a hard, serious look at alternatives is crucial.   This journey through college, debt and low-wage futures cannot be entered blindly, with hope that borders on madness.

The reality is that, even if you don’t start OUT poor, the system as it is will almost assuredly guarantee that you are poor in the end.  Fewer and fewer students get out of college without debt.  Even the few who manage to get good-paying jobs have years of debt payback to factor into their life plans.

The quality of what our students’ education is yet another illusion. Colleges are more eager to enroll than educate.   Just look at the way in which the faculty across the country has been reduced to low-wage, contract workers.  The exploding tuitions are not going into instructional costs if the majority of our college faculty in America are earning less than $27,000 a year with no healthcare, no benefits, no retirement funds. Our college professors, who are on the front line, whose responsibility is not only to educate, but to mentor, to guide, are being driven into poverty by the casualization of their profession.  They no longer have offices in which to meet their students.  They are often not available outside of class for the students who need help and advice – not because they don’t want to be, but because they are rushing off to a second or third job. The money colleges take in is going to ever-increasing numbers of administrators, outrageous CEO-like salaries of college presidents, to lazy rivers, climbing walls, state-of-the-art gyms — all things to entice students and parents who should, perhaps, see through this college-as-Disneyland facade to ask “Where are the teachers?”  The answer, should the universities be forced to be honest is often, “Working three jobs, waiting tables, standing in line for their monthly food stamps.”  And, if they were being even MORE honest, they would admit this is exactly where their students will be quite soon.

Don’t go blindly into this trap.  Guerilla U exists to begin the conversation, to invite parents, students, high school counselors, community stakeholders to ask, “How can we best prepare our children and young adults for their best possible future?”  We have to think beyond the automatic high school to college pipeline,  the over-valued and over-expensive degree — especially since that degree is so often either impossible to gain, or worthless once received.  We have to begin thinking about the whole human being, and ask “How do we raise our children so that they become fully developed, intelligent, thinking, engaged and authentic human beings?”  We need to ask: Just who and what are America’s colleges serving?  With just a tiny scratch to the surface of the illusion you can see that it is not the students, it is not the faculty, it is not the community.  Follow the money trail, and you’ll see very cozy relationships between the administration, the banks, the corporate donors.  The traditional university mission has been subverted.

These schools have a captive audience.  They’ve managed to convince everyone that they are the only game in town.  They are the one and only route through adolescence to successful adulthood.  They spend a lot of money and energy keeping up the facade.  They have absolutely no reason to restore authentic academic culture unless we all come together and create alternatives that provide real, high-quality higher learning and credentialing.

We need to begin looking beyond what our universities have become – PR-driven high-priced edu-factories, and searching for other options.  If you stay with us, we’ll be exploring some of those alternatives on these pages, and discussing ways that we can come together to free our youth from a future of indentured servitude, poverty and broken dreams.

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