Friday, January 25, 2008

Access to "education"

Chancellor Birgeneau writes in USA Today, "Bravo for Yale and Harvard, but what about the rest?"

The short version: rich schools (e.g. Ivies) are giving more financial aid to richer students (families with annual incomes $120k-180k) and capping everyone's out-of-pocket costs at 10% of the family's income.

But since most people can't go to Harvard or Yale (this is not a question of ability but of space -- these are small schools), most students are still screwed. If you go to a cheaper state school (Birgeneau cites Cal's $25k/year versus Harvard's $45k), you still might wind up paying more for the state school, because State U has less money for financial aid.

Birgeneau's proposed solution is, naturally, to give state schools more money. The model he envisions is alumni donations matched by state funds. For instance, he muses, what if all of Cal's living alumni donated $1000 apiece, just once?

Birgeneau is living in a dream world if he thinks alumni really have $1000 lying around that they want to give to Cal, especially young alumni. On one hand, Birgeneau recognizes that paying for college punches students in the gut. But then, on the other, he supposes that once they graduate it's magically all better, and everybody's rolling in cash (the "B.A. = instant wealth" myth). I suspect that young alumni who find themselves with spare money will do things like try to pay off their $30,000 or more in student loans.

The problem that Birgeneau is fingering -- i.e. that Harvard et al.'s policies, however laudable, do nothing for most college students -- is real. But there's a certain bang-for-your-buck mentality that seems to underwrite his outrage -- if you got into an Ivy, you could get a better education for less money! But not everyone can get into an Ivy League school! They should totally get more checkers at this Trader Joe's; the lines are so long! Why can't I get my cheap, good sundried tomatoes education?

We tend to treat college as a gateway into the middle class, and college costs boatloads of money. Everybody knows that if you don't have the cultural capital of a B.A., you're doomed to poverty forever, so everybody goes for broke trying to get that B.A. in the faith that the gain in cultural capital will one day translate into actual capital.

Imagine if employment depended on skills rather than credentials. Imagine if you could learn things, really learn them, without getting an official bureaucratic stamp of approval, and have your learning valued over the stamp. Conversely, imagine if getting a degree were about really learning things instead of acquiring a credential.

We talk about access to education as if

a. it would solve everybody's problems, and
b. "education" necessarily meant accredited institutions of higher learning.

Unequal access to higher institutions is a problem, yes. But Birgeneau and everyone else is glossing over the cause of that unequal access, namely ridiculous gaps in wealth. "Education" is supposed to be the great equalizer, the thing that allows people from poor backgrounds to "make it"; education, in short, is supposed to rectify class inequality. In fact, it tends to reproduce class inequality. Perhaps we should work on that class inequality thing a little more directly. We could start by not considering expensive credentials the sine qua non of employment.

Also, what Michelle said.


Sharon K. Goetz said...
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Natalia said...

Yes, Sharon, it's always more complicated. I think I'm missing your more specific point, though. Students who get a job out of high school and work their way through college -- are not many of them also going for broke in the hopes that cultural capital will eventually translate into actual capital? If I'm overlooking these students, what does that mean?

I take your point about the distinction between being able to afford college and being able to expect to go, however.

Sharon K. Goetz said...

I did rant--sorry. I think "going for broke" isn't the right phrasing for those who are getting a degree more slowly, as a sideline to their jobs. Sure, many of them do it because they believe that having a degree is valuable, but it's far from the desperate metaphorical-lemming movement your post implies. I suppose that's my problem: the critique you apply pertains to a relatively narrow demographic, one that's at least partly self-selecting, yet your phrasing suggests a broader sweep.

I had to reread your post several times to get even the ranty shapeless reaction out and to figure out why the post discontented me, so clearly I am slow today.

(And, um, Birgeneau was concerned with UCB's selective peers, but at least Harvard and UCB aren't mere finishing schools. Wouldn't it be more relevant to criticize schools with high tuitions and minimal or non-existent admissions hurdles? That's where mortgaging one's immediate future for a credential-token is worst, IMO, since one's rewarded via cultural capital for minimal concern with one's education and is least equipped for paying off finaid. I know two people teaching in different disciplines at that sort of school, and they're struggling to maintain classroom standards with no real support from their chairs or deans. One came from teaching community college, in fact, and has commented on the marked difference in how the two sets of students approach coursework.)

captain birthday said...

thanks for the shout-out, natalia.

seriously: affirmative action for the poor! employers should have to hire a certain % of non-college grads to non-service jobs!

write your representatives!

Natalia said...

Sharon, I think you took me to be berating students, when I really was berating something rather more nebulous.

Michelle, that's why I have the link in the sidebar!

Anonymous said...

you are, as always, totally awesome.

thank you for putting that link up! i'm going to share your idea and put one on my site too.

WilkersonMclaser said...
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Natalia said...

Michael, I just want to alert you to the fact that Sharon is very smart and cannot be bullshitted. Also, sometime you and I are going to have a chat with Strunk and White.

Michelle, that link has actually been in the sidebar since I started this blog. I love it.

Sharon K. Goetz said...

Michael, I read your comment.

Natalia, re: students/nebulous, yes, probably true.

Anonymous said...

huh. strange post