Sunday, November 12, 2017

Across the Class Divide

This weekend I took The Boy to Boston, for the first two of what will eventually be several college visits.  It was a terrific chance to spend some time with him, even if much of it was necessarily “windshield time,” and we even got to see some old friends while we were there.  As a recent New Englander, the territory was familiar, and I knew enough to know to stop at Frank Pepe’s pizza in New Haven on the way.  (The slightly charred pepperoni is _amazing_.)  But having spent the last decade and a half at community colleges, I couldn’t help but notice the stark class differences.

TB has declared forcefully that he wants to get out of New Jersey.  I get that; when I was his age, I ruled out anything in Western New York for much the same reason.  In his mind now, and in mine then, part of the point of college was getting some physical distance from your parents.  I had a good relationship with my Mom, and he has a good relationship with us, but there comes a point when it’s time to stretch out.  I was the same way, so I don’t hold it against him.  Sorry, Brookdale, but you’re just too close to home.  That may be culturally specific, but so is he.

He’s thinking of becoming a surgeon, so he’s looking at pre-med programs.  His criteria are different than mine were, but just as idiosyncratic.  I wanted a small liberal arts college setting; he wants big and urban (and cold).  So off to Northeastern and BU we went.  It was certainly cold.

(At one point, we ducked into a used record store, seeking warmth.  I tried to explain some classic album covers to him, mostly in vain.  By the time we got to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Tarkus,” I just muttered “it was the 70’s” and moved on.)

College visits are more structured now than I remember them.  It used to be that you got there on a weekday during regular business hours, and students would lead periodic tours.  Now you have to pre-register and check in on arrival.  I’m told that they use registered visits as signs of “demonstrated interest,” which count in your favor at admissions time.  (Add that to the list of ways that low-income and first-generation students fall behind.)  Both schools started with group presentations featuring an admissions rep and a high-achieving student before turning us loose on tours.  (I had to smile when they did a show of hands to see which states people were from; New Jersey was a clear majority in both cases.  The public schools here were closed on Thursday and Friday of last week, so it was a popular college visit time.  TB saw a friend from his school at Northeastern.)  

To be fair, residential universities with research profiles will be different in some predictable ways from community colleges.  But the sheer monetary difference was staggering.  Yes, the tuition -- a full order of magnitude higher than ours -- but that’s only a part of it.  They offer far more options than most community colleges ever could.  The facilities are vast, modern, and impressive.  The cars parked along Bay State Street, at BU, included multiple Porsches.  The student presenter at Northeastern mentioned the discount that students get for Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, and that she and her friends dress up and go monthly.  One Dad asked at Northeastern what their adjunct percentage is; the guide replied “zero.”  (The guide at BU didn’t understand the question.)  The racial composition of the student body at both schools was visibly different than most community colleges.  

I heard words like “co-op,” “internship,” and “abroad” a lot; words like “diversity,” “basic needs,” and “preparation” not at all.  I didn’t pick up on any economic anxiety among the students; the only anxiety in the air was about getting in.  In the community college world, that’s reversed.  And it probably goes without saying that remediation didn’t come up.

I don’t begrudge those universities what they have.  But it’s hard not to notice that the divide, already glaring, is getting bigger every year.  In America, we seem to have decided that elite education is worthy of tremendous support, but that mass education is a deadweight cost.  That may sound hackneyed or ideological, but if you go physically from one campus to the other, the difference hits you in the face.  It would take active effort not to see it.  

In my preferred world, we’d be closing the gap, rather than expanding it.  We’d look to offer the same sorts of opportunities to the students for whom leaving home isn’t an option, or even for whom “home” remains an elusive ideal.  We’re not there, which is one thing; as a society, we’ve nearly stopped trying, with is much worse.

In the meantime, my job is to help TB do what he wants to do.  To his credit, he has a much better sense of some of these disparities than I did at his age.  And he knows what he wants much more clearly than I did.  I don’t know where he’ll go, but I know the school will be lucky to have him.