Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I started college in the midst of a serious recession. The vicissitudes of the Rustbelt economy hit my family hard. My parents weren't making enough to pay even a fraction of my tuition. My summer job, working in a furniture store stockroom for minimum wage, barely covered my expenses for books and supplies. Hat in hand, I went to my college’s financial aid office. Fortunately Alma Mater was (and is) a rich institution. Just as importantly, a slew of federal programs, most of them products of one of the more important, less heralded pieces of Great Society legislation, the Higher Education Act of 1965, helped make college affordable. Through a combination of federally-funded work-study, Pell Grants, low-interest National Direct Student Loans, guaranteed student loans, and scholarship support, I went to college for virtually free. (OK, so I did get saddled with $10,000 in debt that I finally paid off sometime early in the twenty-first century, but the interest rates were more than fair, especially the 3 percent on my NDSL). I thank Alma Mater and Lyndon Johnson for making it possible for a kid like me, whose parents were not college graduates, to get a damned good education at one of the world’s greatest universities.

Today, for students from backgrounds like mine, the situation is grim. The value of Pell Grants in real dollars has changed little since the 1970s, but college expenses have risen rapidly, far exceeding the rate of inflation. Recent legislation, sponsored by liberal lions Edward Kennedy and George Miller, upped Pell grant funding. But still, this year's maximum Pell Grants are only $4,310. Pell Grants don't make much of a dent into tuition and fees at most private institutions. Even at relatively affordable state universities, Pell Grants don't go as far as they used to. Complicating the scenario, predatory lenders have moved into the student loan business with devastating long-term effects. Recent college graduates from working-class backgrounds are guaranteed a charter membership in our debtor society.

The result, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education, is a decline in the number of lower-income students at many elite institutions, even at a moment when the Ivies and their peers are making noises about increasing the socioeconomic diversity of their student bodies. Thomas Mortensen of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, told the Chronicle that he worries that selective colleges are becoming "class segregated."

I worry about class (and racial) segregation for pedagogical reasons. Most of my students agree with Charlie Gibson that families earning $250,000 per year are "middle class" and find labor history irrelevant and uninteresting. It's hard to teach about class to students who think that their upper-class suburban lives are normative. But for me, the pedagogical benefits of diversity matter much less than opportunity and equality. In our increasingly class-stratified, unequal society, education should provide a way out for poor and working-class kids. But our woefully inadequate system of funding higher education throws up all sorts of obstacles in their already obstacle-strewn path.

Increasing access to higher education enjoys widespread popular support. According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities: "Ninety-four percent of Americans think every high school student who wants a four-year college degree should have the opportunity to earn one, but a majority feels that the nation is falling behind in offering people from all backgrounds the opportunity to go to college and in providing financial aid to college students." A majority of Americans support an expansion of need-based financial aid (and are skeptical of the current fashion in many colleges, merit-based aid that often goes to better-off students at the expense of support to needier students). Let's listen to them.

Our best colleges and universities should not be finishing schools for elite students who arrive in their freshman year with a bundle of privileges and a profound sense of entitlement. It's time to open the gates.