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As college costs rise, low-income students hurt the most

Jack Lessenberry

I was struck by something buried in an article in the Sunday New York Times that began by noting that students who go to Princeton often marry each other.

Elites, in other words, tend to marry elites.

This was not exactly a world-shaking revelation. People have always tended to marry people they grow up with, work with and live among, and despite the movies, of pretty much the same socio-economic and,
increasingly, educational status.

But buried far down in the story was this blockbuster paragraph: “In reality, access to higher education remains highly unequal. Elite colleges that recruit students with large amounts of social and financial capital get much more public funding than … schools that enroll a greater number of academically and economically diverse students.”

Bingo. Life is seldom fair. Though the story is centered on the East Coast, the author, Kevin Carey, could have been talking about the difference between the University of Michigan, where I went to graduate school, and Wayne State University, where I now teach.

It continued: “Rising tuition prices make it difficult for low-income students to enroll and graduate, and leave many with large debts. Inequality then becomes intergenerational.” Well, bingo. Americans also have, until recently, largely assumed they would do better than their parents, and that their children would do better than they had.

Yet that’s become harder as college has become less affordable. There are success stories; I know a 25-year-old woman with dysfunctional parents who worked hard in college, accumulated a minimum of debt and is now a rising social media marketing manager for a small publishing company. She’ll be fine.

I can’t say the same for many others. I often have breakfast in a hole-in-the wall restaurant in a blue-collar suburb where the eggs are phenomenal and the servers all know your name. One, 27-year-old Sarah, was at Wayne State, and started out well.

But then there were boyfriend problems and life problems and her grades nosedived. She’s now older and wants to get serious about school, and a profession. But she has a poor GPA, mountains of debt, and doesn’t know how to get out from under it.

I’ve hooked her up with an academic advisor, but there’s only so much they can do. We are becoming a state filled with Sarahs. Most baby boomers I knew had a semester when they went off the rails. But it was
easier to recover. Tuition in the early 1970s was, even adjusted for inflation, about one-fourth what it is today -- and good paying summer jobs easier to come by.

We’re in a different world. The president of the United States said in Ohio last week that he didn’t know what community colleges were. He suggested they should go back to calling themselves vocational schools and teach “mechanical, bricklaying and carpentry.” Well, they do that. But community colleges also help make it possible for my students, and even some U of M students, to take some of the early courses they need at an affordable price.

What I do know is this: We aren’t going to have any future if we don’t find a way for millennials whose parents aren’t rich to get an education. They certainly aren’t going to get good paying jobs on the assembly line at Pontiac or Oldsmobile.

If this isn’t our top priority, it should be.

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