Education Stuck in Class

Galveston, Texas, natives Melissa O’Neal, from left, Bianca Gonzalez and Angelica Gonzales took part in a college-prep program for low-income students, but found that school wasn’t a ticket to upward mobility. Michael Stravato New York Times News Service

Dauphine Island    “Life happens,” was a quote from one of the three young women from south Texas who believed so completely that education would change their lives, and perhaps more significantly, redirect their fate and future from the path of their parents to a brighter new world of opportunity.  The Times story was unfair to these three young women though.  “Life” actually happens to everyone.   Decisions are made.  Paths are taken or abandoned.  Choices abound at the crossroads.

Reading the story it became clear that any chance of education changing their lives in the radical way that they hoped it might when they were naïve young girls was only true in the margins or perhaps by even more random luck, because class had already created most of the limits and boundaries.  One faced the long shot odds of $40,000 in debt to Emory University in Atlanta because the university somewhat arbitrarily closed off her application without giving her financial assistance and got the money by almost implicitly agreeing to marry the high school boyfriend and work for his furniture store later.  Even with some college all three were all working hourly shifts in the service industry back in Texas five years later.  One was still trying and close to getting a degree in a local college, but I honestly would challenge anyone reading this piece to smugly argue that graduating or not graduating in her case is going to radically change her prospects.

There can’t be a crueler lie now in America than the notion that simply getting a college degree from any of the thousands of schools out there somehow put the young graduate on the path to a great job and a wonderful future.  She’s still going to be in South Texas, and that’s not a bad place to be, but the jobs are what are available there:  agriculture and its service, service in general, warehousing and distribution, and so forth.

To move out of “class” is not $40,000 but over $200,000 and more if one stumbles from South Texas or any lower income urban neighborhood into something approaching the Ivy League and its “gold card” of greater opportunity.  And, frankly, in this economy that’s no guarantee as well.  I listen and watch at the challenges faced by the young men and women who were my daughter’s classmates at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, which was an excellent institution that provided her a spectacular education.  I don’t mind writing the check every month for what is left on that debt, but I guarantee none of them jumped on the fast train out of Hampshire.  ACORN International has a brilliant volunteer that has done research for us whose mother I met speaking at Williams and who graduated from Hampshire a couple of years after my daughter.  She has gone through internships, interviews, and more to try and find a place to work and make a contribution.  My son with a degree from Rochester Institute of Technology:  same story, different verse.  Frankly, compared to the odds faced by these young women in Texas, both of them had it easy and have emerged smelling like roses.

Was it only last year or the year before when all of these colleges and universities used to talk about need based scholarships and special recruiting efforts to diversify their enrollment based on a fairer chance for lower income, working class students?  What happened to that?  Yes, I know:  life happened to them!  Now all we hear about is that they are raising their tuitions and struggling in the economy, blah, blah, blah.  The first hint of news I heard in this direction was some kind of sweetheart, side deal that some high priced school make recently with KIPP, the charter school operator.  That kind of deal might assuage the conscience of some well paid admissions officer somewhere, but that’s nothing but a sweetheart deal and a slap in the face at public schools and the places where education could be a key out of the class jail.

We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t when it comes to our sorry education systems.  The competition in a small job market means that too many want a college degree for $8, $9, and $10 per hour jobs, so some degree, any degree, is a bump over minimum wage, but $20,000 a year is not a break out of the rigidity of American society’s increasingly rigid class structure.  The sooner we stop pretending that we are solving any problems with either our higher education or “lower” education system, and start really talking about this and other scalable tools to break down class barriers all around us, the better. We’re going to lose more than a generation though by continuing to look backwards and not facing the reality of the mess we have today.


Oil Field, Big Money, Big debt or School?

Dauphine Island     A front page article in the Times blurted out that “Pay in Oil Fields, Not College, Is Luring Youths in Montana,” as if they were sounding the alarm that perverts were roaming loose in the playgrounds.  A 19-year old was shown in front of his new, black GM Silverado pickup in short sleeves with the snow dusted trees of eastern Montana behind him.  Just out of high school, he was making $50,000 per year in the latest oil field boom with fracking wells there between Montana and North Dakota.  A young woman was making $20 per hour as a server.  Others were helping build the “man camps,” hotels, and houses.  School principals when interviewed told of shooing away recruiters, as if they were candy men, from their charges.  Community college enrollments were down by almost half in the area.  I scratched my head reading this, was in an alarm or an advertisement?

We have national crises of youth unemployment with escalating higher education costs and student debt loads that are staggeringly unconscionable with no relief in sight, and someone thinks it might be news that young people would jump at the chance to make $40 or $50 grand right now, today in the oil fields.  What world are these people living in?  Pull up your pants and stop showing so much of your class!

We all remember forks in the road in our lives, where we might have taken this route or another, made this decision or another, and our lives would have been totally different.  Being born and raised in the oil patch from Wyoming to Colorado to Kentucky and finally to Louisiana where we chased the fields, I can tell you the siren call is loud and tempting.  I worked as a roustabout in the Velma oil fields south of Oklahoma City the summer after graduating from high school to make money to go to college.  I was only there to make money.  I’d work my shift during the day and at night I would process invoices and run totals on a hand cranked calculator in the office.  One 20 day stretch it was over 100 degrees on that red dirt and dry as a bone so much that several times we dropped a job, threw our tools in the truck, and when highballing on the dirt roads to fight grass fires with tanks strapped to our backs to keep the fire from the horsehead pumping wells.  I was offered a job as a foreman on a crew at the end of the summer, but I had spent too much time listening to Pete Bills tell about his life from Oil City, Pennsylvania to Texas to Oklahoma chasing oil to be tempted.

On the other hand the next summer working offshore for a contracting company on Chevron rigs out of Venice, Louisiana, 14-on, 7-off with 12-hour shifts and living on the rigs, I had one year of college done, Vietnam was raging, I was making money, and the bloom of school was off the rose from studying, working shifts in the cafeteria, driving a laundry truck, and stacking boxes of books at the college bookstore.  Drilling was in full force on the huge new fields in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, they were desperate for workers with oil field experience, and the rumor was that they were so desperate you could get a critical job draft deferment.  Alaska, too, was something ever kid raised in the West wished and wondered about – it was Wyoming on steroids!  But, at the end of that summer the gut check was really all about the money.  If I signed on for 90-days straight on a drilling rig they would pay me $20,000 for the tour, shake my hand and I could come back for more or keep walking wherever my life led me.

$20,000 for 90 days work would be tempting today for 19-year old, but $20K 45 years ago was big time, crazy money!  Thanks to the miracle of Google, I can tell you that those 20000 dollars in 1967 would have had the same buying power as $137,186.63 in 2012!!   I was going to Williams College at the time which then, as now, was priced at the top of the scale, but $20K would have paid my tuition all four years meaning a 90-day turn in Alaska and the financial loan and debt burden of school would have been next to nothing.  I rolled around on that platform bunk 10 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico many a night trying to figure out what to do and whispered about what it all meant to the young girl back home I was dating in New Orleans until her father would come to the door in the wee hours to reel her back in again.

Maybe if the offer had been a little firmer?  Maybe if my years in the warm weather of Louisiana and then the freezing winter of western Massachusetts hadn’t made me wary of 90-days in the winter in Prudhoe Bay?  Maybe if I had been willing to break with my parents then, as I was only a few months later?  Maybe if I were surer about the draft deferment or whether my bad knee would keep me away from the rice paddies and war of Southeast Asia?  Maybe this, or maybe that?  In the end I passed on Alaska and all the money that came with it then, and went back to school for another 4 months before leaving to organize against the war and making the series of large and small decisions which became my life to this day.

Nonetheless, I can’t read an article like this one in the Times without knowing how easy it would be to grab the job and the money now, rather than the certainty about school debt and uncertainty about employment later.  If I were living anywhere in the West east of Billings, I would be in the oil fields in a minute today.  I still think about how close the call was then in Louisiana to pass on Alaska and give Massachusetts one more, last chance.

More of us need to realize, there but for fortune….