College cost drag down strivers

NY Times:
Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“I don’t want to work at Walmart” like her mother, she wrote to a school counselor.

Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.”

Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.

Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.

“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”

Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”
There is more.

It is not the income of the parents so much as the unsustainable cost of college now.   In the mid 1960's when I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, the tuition was $50 a semester.  There were other fees, but the total was rarely over a $100.  When I got back from Vietnam and went to law school in 1069 the tuition was still the same, but the fees pushed the total to between $300 and $400 a semester.  It was still a reasonable amount for a top quality education.  The costs have gone up well beyond the inflation rate to the point now where it costs $5,000 to $10,000 a year just for tuition and fees.  Private school costs are substantially higher.  The inability of educators to manage their costs is what has made it so much more difficult for poor students these days.  I knew a lot of poor students who could work their way through school back when costs were more reasonable.

Sure there were a lot of rich kids in school back then too.  I remember being surprised to see students driving around in a Jaguar XKE.  I had never even seen one in my home town.  But I never once complained about income inequality.

When my kids were in college in the 1980's things cost more, but they were also able to get scholarships to help pay some of the tuition.  What I find unconscionable now is the student loan program that uses predatory loans to the unsophisticated to cover for the mismanagement of the administration which keeps increasing the cost of tuition.  These programs have been a disaster for the students and have allowed the administrators to be sloppy about managing their operating expenses.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has been pushing higher education reform including a $10,000 four year degree program.  That is the only way education can be provided to struggling students like the girls in this story.  They will also have to be very selective in their field of study.  They can't afford to waste their time and money on ethnic or gender study programs.  In fact these programs would be one of the ares where I would cut cost.  Right now students who graduate with a degree in petroleum engineering are paid a bonus to sign with a major oil company, because there is more work than their are engineers.

A brief word about Galveston should be added.  The city has been in decline for over a 100 years since the hurricane of 1900 which sent a surge tide sweeping over the island and killed thousands.  But one reason it has don so poorly is the "Born on the Island" mentality that chases off outsiders.  It is the only place in Texas where I have seen that mode of operation and it has been happening for ages.  They even ran William Marsh Rice off who wound up in Houston and established Rice University with a trust from his will.  Even a "BOI" like George Mitchell choose to build his "new town" north of Houston.  The Woodlands is now probably has a larger population than Galveston and is certainly more prosperous.


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