College… Without a Safety Net

As a teacher at a college with a student population made up primarily of minorities, immigrants, and/or first-generation college students, an article in today’s New York Times hit home. By Jason DeParle, it is titled “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall.” One of my greatest frustrations, and one I constantly work to overcome, arises from a situation DeParle describes succinctly:

With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

I’ve long felt there’s something wrong with how “we” treat (and, quite frankly, profit from) students struggling to get a toe-hold in the middle class. We take their tuition (often forcing them into debt) on a promise of great future rewards, but we provide them with no clear swing to those rewards and no soft landing for those who, for one reason or another, don’t reach the other platform.

In the past, students who went to college from the “lower classes” generally went to college along with students from generations of college graduates, students who could provide a model for success in and through college. Today, we’ve segregated our college students. This is one of the unintentional consequences of the development of a robust system of community colleges. What we haven’t done is provide enough support around education to make up for what has been stripped away (though unintentionally), an understanding of what it means to become educated. What it means to create a career or to control one’s destiny through one’s own knowledge and skills.

We have allowed the idea of education as job training to lull us into a stupor where we don’t see… don’t see what we are losing by pretending that education isn’t something with a great deal more breadth than simply the acquisition of skills. Where we forget that the road to education is not one always successfully traveled, and that those who break down upon it, today, often do not have the resources to pay for even a small part of the road, not even for that they have already completed.

The deal for low interest rates on student loans included provision that not even bankruptcy (generally) can erase debts for education. The assumption is that the education received, no matter how incomplete, is still worth something. Thing is, for many people, it is not.

When half of students entering four-year programs do not graduate within six (if at all), when three-quarters of students entering two-year programs do not graduate in six (if at all), “we” (all of us involved in education) are failing those students. They aren’t finishing school for myriad reasons, but that does not mean we can wash our hands of responsibility. They aren’t finding jobs that can pay their educational debts; we can’t argue that isn’t our responsibility either.

“We” profit even when students fail. For that reason, if for no other, it is our responsibility when they don’t meet the goals set by their entrance into college.

We have been washing our hands of our students, both our ex-students and our graduates, for far too long. It’s time we start looking seriously beyond our classrooms… even beyond our new and classy dormitories, theaters, administrative offices (and salaries), and all the other things possible in part because of student debt… to what we are really doing to and for our students.

True educators take into account the entire lives of their students.

Are we to be true educators once again? Can we, as true educators, work with an eye to creating both real education and the real safety net that would entail?

I surely hope so, but I am not optimistic.

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