Monday, October 06, 2014


This weekend, two thoughtful stories about community college students got unusual play.  Both were about sympathetic students whose studies were in constant tension with the need to make money (and, in one case, with the needs of a young child).  In both cases, you couldn’t help but root for the student, and in both cases, relatively small amounts of money made a terrible difference.

The stories are pretty representative of many community college students.  Many of them are living on the economic margins, and their studies are easily derailed by shifting work hours, abrupt and expensive car repairs, or other vagaries of life.  

As a policy issue, it gets complicated quickly.  But it’s also potentially instructive for those of us on the other side of college (and grad school).

Looking back on my own student days, there were a few times when economics could easily have derailed me.  But I had two things that some students don’t have now: access to credit, and when things got really bad, parents who could help.

I remember one expensive car repair in grad school for which I had neither choice nor means.  The area I lived in pretty much required a car, so just going without wasn’t really an option.  (Some people tried; they lasted a few weeks.)  Old cars that are cheap to buy are often expensive to maintain, which I learned the hard way.  When the transmission went, there was no earthly way I could cover both that and rent on my grad student money.  After a lot of agonizing, I finally called for parental help.  I hated doing it, but at the time, I didn’t see any other way.

What if I didn’t have that option?

That’s where race and class become mutually reinforcing.  I had middle-class parents who could, when the storm got really bad, throw me a life preserver.  (They were divorced, which made asking just that much more fun, but that’s another issue.)  I was responsible for my own day-to-day stuff, but at some level, I knew I was working with a net.  That, combined with the we’re-all-broke-so-let’s-take-it-easy-on-each-other culture of grad students, made it possible to tread water economically for a while.  Knowing that I wouldn’t have to chuck it all and start bagging groceries allowed for a level of focus that wouldn’t have been possible if everything were riding on me.  Not having kids yet helped, too.

Decades later, it’s easy to forget moments like that.  It’s easy to look past the lack of static from landlords, the occasional financial rescue, and the benefit of the doubt from neighbors. Those just sort of fade into the background, the better to highlight stories of bizarre advisor behavior and the various indignities of grad school.  But those small favors made completion possible. Whatever “merit” came later, from doing well the work that the degree required, was made possible first by some cultural tailwinds.

I don’t bring this up out of guilt; I don’t think I did anything wrong.  It’s about working to extend those tailwinds to everyone.  

That’s hard in practice, because the issues are so complex and the money so scarce.  But the impulse, I think, is right.  As long as we put students in positions where only those with cushions can make it, then only those with cushions will.  The rest, well,...

I’ll be much more comfortable with talk of “merit” when cushions don’t matter.  Until then, there’s work to do.