Is college a bad investment or the American Dream for low-income students?

I was itching to pick apart a Boston Globe piece by Neil Swidey that was excerpted in Edushyster (aka Jennifer Berkshire) because it seemed to suggest that college wasn’t a good investment for low-income students.

College isn’t that great equalizer that we make it out to be, but is a kind of an engine, widening the divide. It ends up helping the students who are already coming from affluent families widen their lead over students who aren’t.

In the universal campaign to propel more disadvantaged students into college, few education officials seem willing to broach this sad, painful reality: If you come from a family of very limited resources and you’re not going to be able to finish college, you’d be better off never going at all.

While there might be a germ of truth in that statement, the excerpt reads like the worst kind of elitist claptrap: “College is fine for our kids, because we come from professional families, and even if our kids bomb out of college (and many of them do, after getting stuck in remedial courses), we can help them pay off their college debt and use our connections to get them a decent job. But those other families, well they are much better off pursuing, hmmm, a trade. Or the military. Or taking some classes at a community college.”

But I realized that my real beef with the piece was in how it was positioned by Edushyster, self-appointed chronicler of “the unintended consequences of education reform.” Her aim was to take a nuanced, well-researched piece of journalism and turn it into a broad-brush swipe at “college for all.” Says Berkshire:

You opened my eyes to something I hadn’t considered before: how the push for “college for all” is intersecting with the disinvestment from public higher education, which then pushes low-income students to attend colleges that lack the resources to support them financially.

So I guess ed reformers are now to blame for the college debt crisis paralyzing many American families, eh Jennifer? Add it to the list.

But just to clarify, this is what college-for-all really means to reformers: That all students who want to attend college—regardless of race and family income—should get the preparation and encouragement they need to succeed in college. They don’t have to go, they just need an equal shot at it. And that doesn’t happen when educators and other adults make facile judgments about which kids are “college material” —because we know which kids end up getting the short shrift on that judgment, either out of bias or misplaced paternalism.

College-for-all isn’t about pushing low-income students into private four-year colleges with low admission standards, limited resources and terrible financial aid packages–which are the exact colleges Swidey profiles in his piece called, “The college debt crisis is even worse than you think.” A close read of Swidey’s piece isn’t really saying that the post-secondary path is a bad investment for low-income families—only that certain kinds of colleges make it very easy for students to get into and very difficult to afford.

If you’re a low-income student, college selection, from a purely financial perspective, is a no-brainer. If you can get into Harvard or Amherst College or another elite school that uses some of its ample resources to meet all of its students’ demonstrated need (sadly, not all well-heeled colleges do), then you go there. But the reality is this elite pathway will be available only to the outliers. If you’re not one, the financially sensible decision is to do your first two years at your local community college. For a low-income zero-EFC student, the combination of federal and state grants will just about cover the entire cost of education at a community college…After that, you can transfer to a state college, preferably one close enough to commute to.

I don’t entirely disagree, although I do quibble with the suggestion that low-income students should settle for being commuters. I made that exact kind of pragmatic decision way back when I was picking a college. I had a strong academic record that could have qualified me for a selective college, but I was on my own for college expenses and I couldn’t afford a private school tuition. So I didn’t even apply. I went to a big state school, worked 20+ hours a week, borrowed money and made it work–and that’s when tuition was a LOT less expensive.

Swidey also offers this:

What nobody tells low-income students is that…a little bit of college but no degree gets you nothing but debt. I think we need to have a much more honest discussion about that, and the people doing the counseling and giving advice to students, both at the high school and the collegiate level, need to be more in command of what the data actually show. We also need to make sure that our public policy debate is informed by what’s really happening on the ground now and not clouded by our aspirational notions around college.

If we’re going to start having this “honest discussion,” then we need to have it with all families who borrow money for college, not just the low-income ones. Given that fewer than half of students who start four-year colleges manage to graduate in six years, we need to stop pretending that it’s only the low-income kids who are falling through the college cracks.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?
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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

  1 comment for “Is college a bad investment or the American Dream for low-income students?

  1. Jennifer A. Thompson
    June 20, 2016 at 7:34 pm

    I appreciate your perspective, and I totally agree. Thanks for this insight.

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