Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Inner 3rd World- Educating The Poor

I am sure that I have written about some aspects of this previously, but I am way to lazy to go dig through 1000 plus posts to find it.

Education is supposed to be the great leveler in this country. Supposed to be. But we throw so many roadblocks in for poor students that even if they start a college education, finishing is a problem.

First, there is the atrocious way that poor kids are not prepared for college. When I went back to college I had to start with pre college level math. I'd taken the hard math in high school, all the college prep classes. But it had been so long that I had forgotten almost everything. To get myself up to college level required 2 quarters of remedial algebra. Each of those classes cost a little over $300, plus books (another $150) and a graphing calculator ($75). So I spent nearly $1000 of my paltry financial aid money on classes that won't count towards my degree but must be taken.

Now I'm an older student. It had been a while for me. But what was shocking was the number of just out of high school kids who were in my classes. This is a community college in an urban area. Nearly every student in the school is poor enough to qualify for financial aid. And a enough of them need remedial math that there are dozens of class options for it (there are 34 options for remedial math in the college catalogue right now and only one option for Math 102, the first college level course offered).

And then there is Welfare reform. Before Welfare reform, back in the 80's, my mom and dad split up and then she got laid off from her job as a cocktail waitress at a casino in Lake Tahoe because of a bomb. Someone blew up parts of Harvey's. She eventually went on welfare and between her monthly grant and financial aid she was able to go back to school and support two kids. She didn't get child support. She eventually got her degree in natural science and then turned her work study experience in the college budget department into a career as a comptroller for government funded non-profits.

But she got to stay on welfare the entire time she was earning her academic degree. We weren't rich by any means. But we were safe and reasonably comfortable for that level of poverty.

Welfare reform changed that. Now the only way that you can get welfare and go to school is if you are in am approved vocational program. I could get welfare money to become a nurse's aid, but not a nurse, for example, as long as I cannot receive an actual degree from the program. Lemme say that again. You cannot get welfare in a degree program. You can get it for a certificate program. So I could go to school to get certified in a job that would pay me less than half of what I can make as an unschooled secretary. Or I could be a baker. Or a dental hygienist. Or a hair dresser. The one thing all these jobs have in common is a lifetime of low pay and few advancement opportunities.

Now, if you are a poor student who wants to get a real college education, you must rely on financial aid and loans. My school stopped offering loans about 10 years ago because it wasn't actually doing much for the students besides putting them in debt. So financial aid was all I had to live on, plus the meager earnings from my job (at the school, not work study, whole 'nother post for a whole other time). Most poor students work full time. Not part time. 40 plus hours a week waiting tables or being security guards at night. Plus another 15 or so hours of classtime and 15 or so hours of homework. And as tuition keeps rising, financial aid does not keep up. My first year I got enough in financial aid to pay for books, tuition, and my rent for the 3 months of the quarter. My last quarter there I could afford tuition only. The financial aid amount hadn't changed, but tuition had risen so steeply that there was nothing left, not even for books.

So we start poor college students out with a need to take extra classes to catch up, plus the cost of those classes, then hit them with rising tuition, and require them to maintain grueling work/school schedules. When something stresses the system (say a job scheduling conflict) these students who are so close to the poverty edge already have to choose their jobs over their education. It seems ridiculous to worry about sacrificing an education in order to keep a minimum wage job, but that is what they have to do to survive right now. And it always comes with promises to themselves that they will go back when they can. The financial aid counselor told that it takes an average of 4 years for their students to complete a 2 year degree, what with all the remedial classes plus the stopping and starting. Shit, I've got one quarter left (and no further financial aid money till I transfer to a university) and I'm at the 4 year mark.

And there are lots of students like me. So close to transferring, but no money to finish. And that's at community college tuition rates. Cheap as far as education goes, but out of reach for the very students they are supposed to educate.

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