About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Sabotage of Higher Education

            A shorter version of this post appeared in the June 2, 2014 edition of Boston Review online as “The Broken Higher Ed Compact.”


            It is early in the morning on a hazy Southern California day, and students are walking or riding old bicycles into the community college campus, headed for 7:00 a.m. classes in English or math, nursing or automotive technology. The college is packed into twenty-five acres on the economically depressed periphery of the city’s thriving financial core, and it draws on one of the poorest populations in the area. Men sleep under newspapers and blankets in doorways right outside the campus. One block away a line is already forming along the wall of a social service agency. The short, bare walkway into the campus is for many a luminous road into another world.

            This campus could serve as ground zero for Suzanne Mettler’s important new book Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream.
A political scientist, Mettler analyzes the policies and politics that over the past thirty years have diminished postsecondary educational opportunity, particularly for students in the lower half of the income distribution. If they are not deterred from attending college, students face soaring tuition, inadequate financial aid, and increased loans and debt. To make matters worse, most states have been slashing higher education budgets, resulting in fewer classes and services. That trend is beginning to reverse this year, though spending is below what it was a decade ago, and is still inadequate to the demand. At the community college I just described, few students can get by on their financial aid allocation, which often comes well into the term, making it difficult to buy books and supplies. In addition, these students’ progress is often stalled because they can’t get the classes they need, delaying their time to an occupational certificate or degree. Their tutoring centers and other services have been trimmed back; their counselors have student loads that are way over 1000.

            One of Mettler’s contributions is to analyze what she calls the “policyscape” of the last several decades, demonstrating the ways that our extreme political partisanship and increasing influence of big money have contributed to this mess. In essence, Mettler explains, policies are not inert; they need maintenance. There can be flaws in a policy’s originating legislation, for example, inadequate mechanisms to deal with cost increases. Policies can also have unintended consequences, for example, financial aid can be inordinately consumed by for-profit colleges. And other, unrelated policies can negatively affect education policy, for example, the huge drain on state resources by health care and the prison system draws money away from schools. When partisanship is as intense as it is in our time, legislators rarely come together across party lines to address these issues and maintain healthy policy. One exception is when special interests with considerable money—for example, for-profit colleges—intercede to engineer or block movement on a particular policy, often to the detriment of overall education policy and those most in need.

            The elements of inequality that Mettler addresses—inadequate aid, diminished student services—interact with the broader dynamics of social and economic inequality in our time: income disparities, unstable housing, food insecurity, cutbacks in social services. There’s an awful synergy here as each sphere of inequality intensifies the other, making it increasingly difficult for low-income students to enter and succeed in college.

            I spent two years in the above-mentioned college interviewing students, observing classes, talking with teachers and administrators, and the overall picture I got was one of profound possibility and profound need. As would be expected in an open-access college, students exhibit a wide range of motivation and skills. Those who are drifting through with low skills and ill-defined goals don’t last long. But what is striking is that even those students who are doing well face a series of obstacles that limit the benefit of the college experience and delay their time to completion. I want to focus on them, for their stories illustrate just how hard it is for low-income students to succeed.

            Money is a constant worry. All the successful students I met receive financial aid, yet all but one have to work, in some cases work a lot, to make basic expenses. Those who live with parents or relatives contribute to the household, and those who live on their own or with others are frequently right on the edge, barely making it month to month. One of the students I followed ended up living out of his car for half of the school year. Transportation is also a big concern. Either students don’t own a car or have one that’s old and unreliable—and often they are short on money for gas. Many students don’t have a computer or, if they do, lack reliable Internet access. I know from trying to reach them how often their phone or Internet service is cut off.

            Along with worries about money, obligations also press on these students. The idyllic portrayal of college as a respite from the demands of the world, a time of exploration and growth, is as distant as a medieval fable. They have jobs, or childcare, or family responsibilities—younger siblings to be picked up from school or ailing parents to assist. These constraints reduce the opportunity to be involved in extracurricular activities that could broaden their education and help them establish potentially helpful connections with faculty, staff, and other students. The bigger problem is that these constraints make it harder to see faculty outside of class or to regularly work with tutors and other student services personnel. And they need the help. The majority of the students on this campus repeat a well-documented pattern: Those who attend two-year colleges that serve a poor population tend to come from under-resourced, struggling schools. Almost all the students I worked with had to take remedial math and English, and some were still stuck in the math sequence, their progress toward a degree stalled. They put in the time, agonize over their textbooks at home, and try to get help from friends. But they need the kind of ongoing, systematic assistance that a faculty member or tutor can provide.

            There are times when the demands get so intense that they have to reduce their course load or temporarily leave school to work one or more jobs to relieve debt. These students have no health care to speak of, so a medical emergency can be devastating. Their families have few resources, so a mother losing her job, a father injured, a sibling getting in trouble places big burdens on them. One young woman who was close to completing her Associate of Arts degree and transferring to a four-year college had to leave school for a year to pay a $10,000 hospital bill and help her mother keep their household afloat. Parents, particularly single parents, are sometimes faced with the terrible choice of continuing their own education or compromising the care of their children. “I want to succeed in life,” one woman writes, “but I will sacrifice anything for my child.”

            The leadership and many of the faculty are aware of the weight carried by their students and are committed to helping them. As one occupational instructor put it, “the fact that some of our students get here daily is a success.” But, as I noted earlier, the college is being slammed by the political and economic forces Mettler analyzes. The state’s allocations to its community colleges have been shrinking over the years (down more than 20% over the past two decades) while community college enrollment has been increasing—and shot further upward during the recession. The college has had to cut courses and greatly reduce summer offerings, a time when many students pick up general education courses needed for an Associate degree and for transfer. Tutoring and other services have been significantly reduced; the writing center staff has been cut in half over the past five years. Students wait in line two hours to see a financial aid counselor—and sometimes have to leave without a meeting because of work or childcare. This situation would be bad enough for anyone, but imagine the added burden placed on people with the obligations and limited resources of this population. I don’t know a single student who completes a certificate or degree in two years. Most take much longer, increasing debt and forestalling occupational mobility.


            The subtitle of Mettler’s book states that inequitable education policies sabotage the American Dream. One of the surprising things I found as I got to know the students at the college was the degree to which they are driven by some version of the American Dream. Many are cynical about politics and politicians. And some hold strong views about race or the power dynamics of American society in general and the workplace in particular. Yet, to a person, they believe in the value of working hard in school and that their hard work will pay off. These students have lots of reasons to be skeptical about what education can do for them, for many had an awful history in the classroom. They might complain about a certain teacher or about the problems with getting a class or with the financial aid office, but, overall, they believe in school as a way out and up.

            I’ve seen this same optimistic commitment in so many similar students. Let me take you to another part of the city and a very different kind of institution, a prestigious research university where you will find far fewer of the kinds of students enrolled at the community college. But there are some.

            Roberto came to the United States at 15 from a small rural town in Guatemala knowing only a few words of English. Through extraordinary effort he learned his second language, excelled in his working-class high school, and was admitted with full financial aid to the university. In line with Mettler’s analysis, however, his aid package included, along with grants, work-study allocations and loans. He was able to live on campus for his first two years, but the last two had to move back home, all the way across town to a two-bedroom apartment that, during this time, held between seven and eleven people. He worked in a restaurant during the morning, took classes in the afternoon, and stayed in the library until 10:30 at night. He graduated one year ago in political science with a 3.3 GPA and $27,000 debt, which is close to the national average.

            Roberto’s goal is to work in education or some type of social service, helping people who are in need. (Somehow, while at the university, he found the time to run a student program that provided tutoring to students in a low-income, predominantly Latino community.) He can’t afford to enroll in a teaching or social welfare graduate program right now, and has not been able to find full-time employment other than the restaurant work he’s done for years. The double shifts on the restaurant floor are getting to him, and he feels the bite of disappointment when a job prospect falls through. But a deep hope sustains him. He shares with the students at the community college a resilient optimism that his education will yield a better life.


            We have a longstanding belief in America that once access to opportunity is provided, the fuel of mobility is hard work and determination. This belief is central to the nineteenth century Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories, and it runs through the current interest in helping underprivileged students develop “grit,” the ability to persist in the face of difficulty. Roberto and those at the community college possess grit by the truckload, and they have made an educational compact with themselves and with society. What will we do to honor that compact?

            It’s worth remembering here that even in the Alger novels, the hero’s mobility isn’t triggered solely by his own effort, but by a wealthy benefactor who assists and guides him. In our country’s preeminent myth of self-determination and success, opportunity for the poor is made possible through intervention. During the mid-twentieth century, we created a cluster of policies that facilitated educational opportunity. Those policies have been compromised. Our already limited social safety net has been compromised as well, further diminishing the educational experience of low-income students. The students we’ve met persist in spite of it all. They are admirable. But is it fair or moral in the United States of America that young people should have to expend superhuman effort to complete a standard, even basic, education that will in the end benefit both them and society?

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  1. As usual you touch the things that make me both angry and tearful. I figure that over 40 years (darn near) I taught some 25000 students reading n writing. Hardly any of them had it easy. They had to contend with all the crimes of policy you recount, i n addition to the crimes of gang violence, drugs,nonexistent health care, and yet through it all they hung with it. I'll never forget the legend on the back of one girl's jacket-- from GED toPHD. She got her master's and counsels vets-- or did the last I heard.She started commuity college with a toddler. When she finished her child was in high school. Should it be that hard to realize a modest American dream? It's hard not to despair.


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