Challenging the "Access Myth"


We all like to hear about deserving low-income high school seniors who have won generous college scholarships. However, as Nick Anderson points out in a recent Washington Post article, “For the Poor in the Ivy League, a Free Ride Isn’t Always What They Imagined,” low-income students struggle on a daily basis with the unexpected costs of getting an education. The need to skip meals and photograph the pages of unaffordable textbooks sets them apart from their more privileged peers. Not only do many students lack financial support from their families, some also feel obligated to do what they can to support worse-off family members financially. Certainly, such struggles are not limited to the Ivy League, and are far more perilous for students who receive inadequate financial aid packages and take on excessive student loan debt. But we need to worry as much about the people who don’t make it to college as we do about those who do.


Photo by Erich Ferdinand (CC BY 2.0)

Heather A. Howley argues in her May–June Academe article, “Social Inequality and the Access Myth,” that the emphasis on students who have a “shot at success” distracts us from the fundamental injustice of the poverty they are attempting to escape. She demonstrates how politicians, journalists, and others have embraced the rhetoric of the “access myth,” focusing on social mobility rather than on addressing systemic inequality. Howley extends her critique to education reformers—such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation—who present themselves as disinterested parties while promoting agendas that benefit corporate interests. She discusses Starbucks’s initiative to support online education for its employees as a means of maximizing the flexibility of a labor force expected to work schedules that change constantly to meet market demand.

Pointing to the track record of unions in improving the lives of workers and their families, Howley urges faculty to resist buying into the access myth and to refuse to accept exploitative labor practices. Comparing overworked and underpaid adjunct faculty to Starbucks baristas who “clopen” (close in the evening and open the next morning), she calls for collective action to secure better working conditions and compensation for all workers.

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.


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