Access to Higher Ed for Lower Income and Working Students

MK-AH315A_PELL_20061024211118New Orleans Props to David Leonhardt, the Times financial columnist, and Louis Menard, the oft published New Yorker critic at large for raising the issue of both opportunity, access, and value for higher education for the masses.  Leonhardt did so in a recent column about the job shift of the former president of Amherst who had made an more egalitarian rebalancing of opportunity for low income students a signature program (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/25/business/economy/25leonhardt).  Menard made a different case, but related in a piece published in his magazine’s June 6th issue.  I wish such articles would ignite real debates about education, opportunity, access, costs, and the society and country we want to build, and how we are crippling the future by deepening the stratification all around us.  Unfortunately, it won’t.   Voices in the wilderness though are better than no voices at all, and eventually perhaps they will be heard.

Anthony Marx leaving Amherst was not deceived about having solved the problem though there was some begrudging progress made at that institution, largely by raising the money to cover the costs and doing actual recruiting.  Nonetheless, these comments in Leonhardt’s piece are telling:

“…he mentioned a Georgetown University study of the class of 2010 at the country’s 193 most selective colleges. As entering freshmen, only 15 percent of students came from the bottom half of the income distribution. Sixty-seven percent came from the highest-earning fourth of the distribution. These statistics mean that on many campuses affluent students outnumber middle-class students.

“We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent,” Mr. Marx says. “Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”

Meritocracy?  Hardly!  By and large the middle class can’t even push through the few open cracks, much less aspiring students from poor families.

If in fact they even know that such elite institutions exist, which is part of the point that Menard makes more obliquely.  Menard’s argument is that the classic arguments for education either tracking potential students to serve as an elite or offering all students broader education to make them better citizens and give them a more rounded life, are breaking down before a rising third wave which might be called “technical” training or job development training found in the massive increase of university business majors.  Menard is not sure what anyone is learning any more, though he is pretty clear that he doesn’t think the business majors are either learning or retaining much from the studies he has seen, and certainly there’s nothing out there in the current economy that would disprove that thesis.  He doesn’t make the same direct point as Amherst’s Marx about discrimination and blocked opportunity for lower income and working students, though he could when he describes his experiences teaching at large public universities rather than elite private colleges, though he should, because part of what is yielded through tracking as well as the luxury of “education for education’s sake” is the product of the elite and income bias that permeates the entire educational system.

Neither of them follow the roots back to the educational debate in public schools around privatization, charters, unions, and testing as tracking mechanisms that will channelize even more of the US educational system around hard class and racial lines.  Nonetheless, they both were at least willing to engage the issues of the fake meritocracy, wealth bias, and other cancerous problems that are skewing our educational system and our entire society as we face the coming generation and the issues they will address on a daily basis without much help, preparation, or understanding about what to do and how to do it.

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