Claiborne Pell, the man largely responsible for the creation of the Pell Grants program that has helped so many working-class students afford to attend college, died on Thursday. Pell Grants are more important these days than ever. As a recent series on PBS’s The News Hour reported, increases in tuition and fees – up 375% since 1980 according to Learning Matters, the producer of the News Hour series – combined with (and in part due to) cuts in state funding for higher education are making it harder and harder for lower-income students to get a college education or to benefit fully from that education.
As many scholars have noted, higher education has not always been welcoming to working-class students, and unequal primary and secondary schooling puts many of them behind from the beginning. Combine unequal preparation with cultural tensions about higher education – working- and poverty-class students often feel conflicted about whether they should even go to school, and many find the culture of higher education alienating – and just going to college can be a major challenge.
But these days, a college degree is increasingly seen as equivalent to what a high school diploma once was: the entry ticket to any kind of decent job. Combine that with escalating costs, and the result is incredible pressure on working-class students, poverty-class students, and their families. They face several key questions and problems.
First, how should they balance the cost of taking on student loan debt against the value of the degree? While conventional wisdom says that education is always worthwhile, the costs of higher education make it a serious gamble. This is especially true in tough economic times, when even the most successful graduates are likely to find it difficult to secure a good job. Even if the degree leads to employment, paying off college loans can put graduates in a financial vise. As Nan Mooney reported on Alternet in November, some fully-employed graduates find themselves spending a significant portion of their monthly income in loan payments. For those who, in this struggling economy, don’t find good jobs, the risks are even greater: failure to keep up with student loan payments can undermine a young person’s credit rating long before they even attempt to buy a home or new car and thus have long-term consequences. Going to college is supposed to help individuals improve their economic condition, not get them stuck in what Mooney terms “college loan slavery.”
On the flip side, the cost of education creates a paradox that I see in my own classrooms every semester: working to pay tuition (in order to avoid taking on so much debt) means that many students struggle to find time to study. Too often, students who come to college from mediocre high schools or out of vocational tracks – which is more likely to be true for working-class students than others – often don’t have college-level reading and writing skills. They need more time than better-prepared (usually middle- and elite-class) students to complete assignments. But because they lack financial resources, they need to work more. A report by the American Council on Education reports that, not surprisingly, students with lower household incomes work more than wealthier students . For too many, the result is that they don’t learn much. Without adequate time to read assignments, work thoughtfully on papers, or study for exams, some working-class students squeak through college, maintaining GPAs just high enough to keep from being suspended and learning only a fraction of what they might if only they had time to really focus on school. For these students, college is more about getting the credential than about getting an education. The credential matters, but the lost opportunity for learning is frustrating to students and professors.
Put these realities into the context of the current economic crisis, and we’re facing some tough questions. If education is, as most seem to agree, the key to both individual economic improvement and economic growth for communities, states, and the nation, then shouldn’t state and federal governments do everything possible to ensure that students can not only attend college but do so without taking on crippling debt and under conditions that foster real learning? The answer might sound obvious, but nothing is obvious in tough economic times.
I believe in education, but as I think about the challenges facing working-class students, I sometimes find myself wondering which is better for the working class: college credentials or blue-collar jobs for people without degrees? How can states and the federal government best stimulate the economy and support working-class families? Should we fund education or create new jobs repairing roads and bridges? Provide college grants or bail out American industries? Ideally, of course, we’d do it all.