Springtime at the school where I teach is usually a celebration of how far so many of our students have come. After years of hard work, often overcoming massive obstacles — poverty, violence, fractured families, inferior educational opportunities that did not prepare them for demanding and not always sympathetic high school teachers like me — graduation is supposed to be a moment of victory, a launching pad to greater success and a life full of possibility.
But more and more, I find those celebrations are tempered by a sudden cold slap from an indifferent world that cares little about the hard work of impoverished young people.
These past few weeks, with commitment day looming, I’ve often found myself trying to console at least one — often three or four — students crying in my classroom or in the hallway outside. They are frustrated and hurt because they are coming to the conclusion that all that work was for nothing, that no matter their dedication, they cannot figure out how they will ever be able to pay for college.
According to the College Board, the average annual tuition for a private university has more than doubled over the last 20 years, from just over $15,000 to almost $35,000. The average tuition for a public university has more than tripled, from just over $3,000 to nearly $10,000 a year.
In more stark terms, the average expense for a year of tuition, fees, room, and board at a public university is now more than 80 percent of the median annual wage of an American woman and more than 50 percent of the median annual wage of a man. The cost of college has risen almost three times as fast as wages.
When my wife and I filled out our first FAFSA more than a decade ago, we were surprised to discover that the income of two educators was above the threshold for receiving any need-based financial aid for our college-bound older daughter. It remained the case even a few years later when we had two daughters in college.
At the time, I understood the grim reality of limited resources. If there is only so much money available to subsidize college education, then it probably ought to go to those who need it most. But now, 12 years later, financial aid is covering less and less.
So you end up seeing what I saw last week — the financial statement of a student trying to become first in her family to attend college. Her federal financial aid determination was that her family contribution should be 0.
That’s ZERO. Nada. Not an unreasonable conclusion for a family living on less than $20,000 a year.
But that same student’s financial aid offer from the university she hoped to attend only accounted for about two-thirds of her tuition and expenses. Her family was somehow expected to come up with $5,000. Even the loans she was offered did not cover this.
Yes, some students still come out OK — those few who get a full ride based on merit and/or need and others who patch together enough scholarships and loans to get a degree without initiating a lifetime of debt. But that ought not to obscure the very real crisis that is playing out right now, this week, in the halls outside my classroom and in other high schools across the country.
Higher education has long been a fundamental element of America’s promise of economic prosperity and social mobility. And since the GI Bill following World War II, we had managed to make it largely attainable for those willing to work hard enough.
I’ve seen it firsthand. In my nearly three decades as a teacher, I’ve watched students defy all the risk factors of South Los Angeles to graduate high school, succeed in college and become engineers, educators, entrepreneurs, journalists, nurses, attorneys and so on.
Now, those dreams are dying amid the grim black ink of financial aid that doesn’t add up. Kids euphoric one day about the colleges that want them, devastated the next when they realize an educational institution has been taunting them, insensitive to the realities of poverty. These are kids whose families, in many cases, subsist on a minimum wage income in the city of Los Angeles where the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is upwards of $1,700 a month.
They’re being told they are among the elite students qualified for some of the best universities in the world, and they will probably never be able to go.
What a humiliating thing to do to a 17- or 18-year-old who has spent a dull life in a tenement apartment or a converted garage or trailer avoiding the streets, studying every night in dim light only to feel the blunt force of this savage injustice.
POVERTY MEANS NOT HAVING ANY EXTRA MONEY AND SOMETIMES IT MEANS NOT HAVING ANY MONEY AT ALL.
I’m afraid that privilege is the collective consciousness of universities.
This disconnect has finally begun to get some attention with the Wisconsin Hope Lab’s shocking findings: more than one-third of all college students are “food insecure,” or “housing insecure,” and nearly 10 percent of students are homeless at some point during college.
I had a personal experience with this phenomenon a few years ago when I discovered that a student I’d helped get into college had been de-enrolled after failing to show up for mandatory orientation. The orientation cost $140 and the student, recently homeless after her father was deported, only had about $20 to her name. She was too embarrassed to ask me or any of her other teachers for help. I called the university about it and was flabbergasted that our state’s largest university system, which serves an incredibly diverse student population, could be so oblivious to the realities of its most economically challenged students.
Poverty means not having any extra money, and sometimes it means not having any money at all. The admissions office of that university was not making exceptions. I finally managed to reach a counselor who was sympathetic, who had, herself, been a first-generation college student. She eventually took the young woman under her wing, got her re-enrolled and looked after her for a while. But it wasn’t in her capacity as a counselor; it was a personal gesture. Reforming the university so that it actually met the needs of impoverished students was beyond her.
Perhaps it is beyond any one person, but that would be tragic and shameful. If we are going to try to reduce poverty through education then we ought to make sure we understand what poverty is and provide a realistic path out of it.
I’ve wondered, seeing so many students crushed by the sudden impossibility of their educational aspirations, whether the current president and his administration was to blame. President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betty DeVos and Office of Management and Budget Director Budget Mick Mulvaney have called for slashing billions of dollars from financial aid programs. The recent congressional budget didn’t include such cuts, but if the administration gets its way then even those students who can manage college now might find it impossible in a year or two.
Perhaps that’s just the ups and downs of life in Dickensian America, but I have a suggestion for anyone who thinks we ought to cut financial aid or college subsidies. Come to my classroom or stand just outside the door. Listen to the stories of young people who’ve defied the odds, stayed out of trouble and overcome prodigious hardships, and then tell them to their faces that they don’t deserve a chance. Tell them you don’t care about their dreams. That their dreams are an inconvenience. That their dreams offend your ideology.
Help me explain why we’ve put them through this charade – filled them with hopes and dreams and then left them in free fall.
Or better yet, let’s put our money where our hearts are – or should be.
That student of mine for whom I advocated when she got de-enrolled over a $140 orientation had a tuition and housing gap of about $2,500, half of which my wife and I paid, half of which we helped her raise from sympathetic people we knew. She had a successful freshman year, then got bounced to the street because she could locate neither parent in order to file her FAFSA for the following school year. She drifted a few years until my wife and I gave her a room in our house and got her back into school at the local junior college. She’s worked while going to school in order to save a few thousand dollars and is about to transfer to a university.
There are probably thousands of other young people like her – smart, hard-working, a good investment. Find one or two and help them. Perhaps if we can get enough of this next generation educated they will somehow figure out how to fix what we have so spectacularly broken.
Larry Strauss is a veteran high school teacher and basketball coach in Los Angeles and the author of Students First and Other Lies.