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Who Can't Afford Community College?

Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily. by Lita Kurth What Kind of Person Can't Afford Community College? I'm going to begin this blog like a Cassandra, but end it more positively. No one needs another blog entirely dedicated to how awful things are. Library of Congress public domainSo here's the bad part: I was talking with some moms recently and one, disparaging an acquaintance who was saving up to attend a two-year college, asked with an incredulous laugh, "What kind of a person can't afford community college?" The remark sent a chill through my bones. First, she was so insulated by privilege that she honestly didn't know how a decent hardworking person could not afford the bottom rung of the educational ladder, and second, that she seemed to consider it a moral failing to be poor. Finally, she represents the people most likely to vote, most likely to lobby a school board, Congressperson, or Council member.


"Books are actually very expensive," I pointed out, and later I wanted to kick myself for that answer because even without books, tuition at a community college - the very institution set up to serve all - is too expensive for a worrisome segment of the workforce. I recall talking to a waiter who told me that when the price went up to $20 a unit, he couldn't afford to go anymore. He had two kids and he couldn't work a second job. However, he was very interested in books for his kids. It was painful to think that someone willing to learn and grow, wanting a better job, wanting to contribute more knowledge to his kids and capable of contributing more skill, and taxes to the economy, should be barred from that opportunity. How un-American! And how troubling to meet a person with a great deal more power in the world who insists that he and people like him don't exist. Two Different Worlds My acquaintance pooh-poohed the expense of books. "What's that? A hundred dollars a class?" she asked and the conversation continued along other lines. It's nice to be in an income bracket where a hundred dollars is inconsequential. I remember once in graduate school, a professor touted a projector we students could buy for our computers. "It's really cheap," she said, "like two hundred dollars." My classmate and I looked at one another, telegraphing, "Two hundred dollars is cheap?" Do the Math

Early proponent of universal education J.A. Comenius

For those who genuinely don't know, community college costs a lot more than two hundred dollars, here are some facts: Full-time students take at least three classes, often four, sometimes five or six. Say $400 per quarter times three quarters. That's $1200 for books. Now add tuition at $20/unit for 15 units. Actually, it just went up to $26/unit. Three quarters would require another $1170. Wouldn't many of us have to save up to spend $2370/year? And that doesn't include parking and many other miscellaneous fees. "Oh, but there's financial aid!" people cry out, just as they cry out "Oh, but there's welfare!" The Net is Ripped David Breneman, a University of Virginia professor, pointed out that for four year colleges, Pell grants had fallen from covering a high of 78 percent of expenses in 1975 to 13 percent in 1993, adding that "In short, the early promise of the program as a true vehicle for access for low-income students has been lost." Furthermore, not all community colleges participate in the Pell grant program, and if they don't, their students can't receive them. Enter federal student loans, currently at 6.8 percent, and exit students already heavy-laden with debt as they enter their first low-level job.

Child coal minors Wikimedia commons

A Little Progress in Spite of the Shadows In spite of the economy and the discouragement of fees being raised, two helpful steps have been taken. President Obama's budget helped some. Now students can get a Pell grant for summer school and can finally get a Pell grant if they are not full-time students. According to the Pell grant site itself, however, "On an average, it covers only 45% of the course fee." But it's a little better than before. Reality Math Why can'tpeople afford the two-year colleges set up expressly to provide "open access," to serve absolutely everyone? In 2010, twenty percent of American workers made less than $20,000/year. That's $10 per hour at the top of the heap for one in five workers. Six percent of American workers lived on less than half of the poverty level. How would you live on $5,000 a year in the Bay Area? And yet people do it under great stress. Let's go back to our struggling community college student, perhaps among the fortunate few who have a full-time job. She lives on $400 a week minus social security and taxes. She still needs a bus pass which is $61/month in San Jose (though some colleges subsidize). But most likely if she plans to work full-time and also go to school full-time, she'll have to have a car unless she wants to wait 1 ½ hours for a bus in the middle of the day as one of my former students did. Without assets or credit history, she might pay 30 percent interest for a car loan as my brother did. And then there's insurance. Kaching! And parking. And since it's a used car, repairs. Worst case, the car breaks down irreparably and she's still paying off the old car while starting to pay for a new one. She has to be some kind of shrewd and parsimonious genius to avoid colossal debt. How can people of privilege become more aware of poor people's lives?

Hull House Wikimedia Commons

There are numerous examples we can be thankful for, of privileged people who took action once they knew the facts. Lyndon Johnson springs to mind. After travelling the Texas boondocks, campaigning and seeing the astonishing poverty in which people lived, he committed himself to a war on poverty. Jane Addams also springs to mind with her efforts in Chicago to better the lives of immigrants. We may quibble with the particulars of their approaches, but there is no question these people made a difference.

A Finnish co-op

Of course, it is best when poor people themselves organize and progress, hard as it is to find the time and resources. The early Methodist Sunday Schools in England were a combination of religion, literacy programs, and loan societies. Grocery co-ops, fuel co-ops, cheese co-ops, once flourished even in extremely out-of-the-way places like little Wisconsin towns where one might think people would lack the savvy to create such entities. But there's as much genius among poor people as among rich. What's at stake? Right now, brilliant students who should be attending UC Berkeley instead go to the nearest community college, sometimes having to take catch-up classes because they never got to experience a solid intellectual immersion - all through high school they were working thirty hours a week to help out their families, and all through college they worked forty hours a week. Might they have athletic or musical abilities? There's no time or money for that. They don't attend football games, debates, lectures, or plays. They don't study abroad. Opportunities for new ideas and contacts are restricted. The result is low social capital even among the educated, very little cross-fertilization between the privileged dispensers of jobs and the unprivileged seekers of jobs. Americans believe in a level playing field; they think it should exist, and some believe it does exist though the facts seem to show that it's more of a plateau with sheer drop-offs on every side. But, that could change.

Worker-improvised dryer

Lately when I feel despondent about the state of our politics, I turn to literature from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. When I read about the depth of corruption and the prevalence yet invisibility of suffering, it's hard to imagine how it could ever have changed. And yet it did. Through the continued, dedicated efforts of believing people, movements were kept alive like a banked fire. When the right fuel appeared, all was ready to cook a glorious new meal. We are in such a time now, when fascist forces are unquestionably on the rise, nosing their way into the mainstream, treated in some quarters as reasonable and everyday rather than extreme and reactionary. Now is the time to maintain and strengthen our connections and our commitment. We don't know when, by some crazy combination of circumstances, our opportunity will arise, to once again turn toward justice and democracy. To read more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s free newsletter, sign up for Tikkun Magazine emails or visit us online. You can also like Tikkunon Facebook and follow us on Twitter.