Working-Class Education and Economic Stimulus

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.

Sherry Linkon

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7 Responses to Working-Class Education and Economic Stimulus

  1. Pingback: Memo to the Next President: Don’t Forget the Working Class | Working-Class Perspectives

  2. Pingback: Why College Costs Are Rising, and What Not To Do About It | Working-Class Perspectives

  3. Kim says:

    I grew up working class. My husband and I have been working poor since we met. After years of going back and forth between raising kids and trying to finish school, I graduated last year. I owe over $50,000 in student loans. I only make $32,000, and my husband (still) makes less than $15,000. We have two kids, the youngest of which is autistic. I work for a large public university, so I have good benefits. However, my salary will not cover all of our needs–housing, utilities, transportation, therapy and care for our disabled son, etc. Student loans are not my priority. I couldn’t care less about my credit rating. I don’t want to own a home. (We hope to get our children out of this country at the first opportunity. Of course, that takes money.) So, my priority is covering my family’s needs. The student loan holders? Can go screw themselves. They are profiteering off what should be a right. I don’t feel the slightest bit of guilt in saying, “I will pay those if and when I can. If I can’t pay, I won’t. Let ’em default.”

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  4. Mike says:

    Thanks for the post. Hardest part is getting a loan nowadays.

    My tuition was raised (public) about 3 weeks before it was due. No time to get more money from my loan, so I had to front it on my credit card.

    I know this isnt a option for most people, but it was the only way I could continue on with grad school at the moment.

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  5. Karen Weyant says:

    I’m so glad that you covered this issue — which is so much more complicated than most people realize. As someone who comes from a working-class background, I was always encouraged to go to college, so I could get “a really good job”. Now, I consider myself very lucky to have a full time job at a community college with great benefits, but I realize that many people my age are not so lucky — and I believe that times will only get worse before they get better. I advise many students, yet I feel discouraged about the job market, and I don’t know (outside of all the standard advice) how to help these students find their way in today’s job market. One aspect that I do find rewarding is that many students come back to me (after they move on to a four-year college) to say that they do have jobs and NO student loans to pay back. As someone who pays about $300 a month (which is low compared to most students) back in student loans, I am relieved that many of my students don’t have that burden.

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  6. All of the players involved (students, governments and colleges) need to clearly identify what is in their best interests and they need to recognize that they are not the same for each. Resources are wasted because no one wants to admit this basic fact.

    All college is not equal and all degree fields are not equal. At least many state governments are starting to recognize this fact and they are targeting their aid towards the best interests of their citizens. Increasingly, they are offering loan forgiveness to those students who will get their degrees in low-paying but necessary fields (like social work).

    Colleges also ought to target their aid towards the degree programs that need to be subsidized- the ones where there is little demand (like art or history).

    Corporations ought to do more to subsidize the type of education that will most benefit their sector, rather than giving away blanket scholarships to any accredited school for any type of degree.

    This will leave students free to make the choice about their own (future) resources and how committed they are to what will benefit them the most.

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  7. Tyler says:

    Thanks for covering this. I imagine that, as a new graduate with a low starting salary to begin with, making loan payments on tuition debt makes getting by difficult indeed.

    Yes, I like the idea of doing it all.🙂

    Education should be a birthright, and increased training and apprenticeship programs that take place in conjunction with a degree would help ensure the graduate’s first job finds a skilled individual with fulfilling work at sufficient wages.

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