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Higher Education and Class

This New York Times story about the class divide in higher education is troubling:

Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.

While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead.

Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes. Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.

I was one of those “low-income students” once. Not poor — we always had plenty to eat and toys at Christmas and decent if shabby cars to get around in — but not comfortably middle-class either. We lived primarily off my mother’s income, and women didn’t get paid a lot in those days. (My father was in prison for much of my childhood and inconsistently employed when he was home.) I doubt that my parents could have saved money to send me to college if they had wanted to, but they didn’t want to: they saw no value in college education.

In high school I was a good, if undisciplined, student, and scored very highly on standardized tests, but no one — and I mean no one, not a teacher nor a counselor — at my school ever said a word to me about college. So when I graduated I wasn’t sure what to do. I had started school early and skipped the second grade, so I was only sixteen, too young to go away to school even if I had had the money or inclination. But I liked books and ideas; I wanted to study more literature and history. So I signed up for classes at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a fifteen-minute drive from my house.

My parents were willing to let me continue to live at home if I paid tuition, which, with a 24-hour-per-week at a mall bookstore — forty hours during breaks and over the summer — I was able to do. Student loans weren’t a possibility because my parents were required to co-sign them and they refused to do so. If I didn’t pay cash money for my education I wasn’t going to get one. So that’s what I did. And here’s the key point: I could. UAB wasn’t a great school, in the humanities anyway, but it wasn’t a bad one at all — my teachers were all competent and in some cases excellent — and the tuition was low enough that even a part-time receiving clerk could write out a quarterly check to cover it.

My situation wasn’t ideal: working that much, I struggled to keep up with my studies. Eventually I decided I wanted to take my education more seriously and transferred to THE University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, where the History and English departments were much better, and I cut back on work. But I only could do this after convincing my parents, finally, to sign those student loan forms.

In the end, I graduated with some debt, but it was manageable. And while as an academic I’ve never made much money — certainly not as much as I would have if I had gone into the law, the only other option I ever seriously considered — I’ve been able to provide a better life for my son than my parents were able to provide for me.

America is supposed to be about, in some fundamental way, just that possibility. But as the NYT story shows, the costs of higher education are making experiences like mine effectively impossible for young people who grow up today in the economic class I come from. And that’s really, really sad.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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