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Who Can't Afford Community College?

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Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily.

by Lita Kurth

What Kind of Person Can't Afford Community College?

I'm going to begin this blog like a Cassandra, but end it more positively. No one needs another blog entirely dedicated to how awful things are.

Library of Congress public domainSo here's the bad part:

I was talking with some moms recently and one, disparaging an acquaintance who was saving up to attend a two-year college, asked with an incredulous laugh, "What kind of a person can't afford community college?"

The remark sent a chill through my bones. First, she was so insulated by privilege that she honestly didn't know how a decent hardworking person could not afford the bottom rung of the educational ladder, and second, that she seemed to consider it a moral failing to be poor. Finally, she represents the people most likely to vote, most likely to lobby a school board, Congressperson, or Council member.

Textbooks

"Books are actually very expensive," I pointed out, and later I wanted to kick myself for that answer because even without books, tuition at a community college - the very institution set up to serve all - is too expensive for a worrisome segment of the workforce. I recall talking to a waiter who told me that when the price went up to $20 a unit, he couldn't afford to go anymore. He had two kids and he couldn't work a second job. However, he was very interested in books for his kids. It was painful to think that someone willing to learn and grow, wanting a better job, wanting to contribute more knowledge to his kids and capable of contributing more skill, and taxes to the economy, should be barred from that opportunity. How un-American! And how troubling to meet a person with a great deal more power in the world who insists that he and people like him don't exist.

Two Different WorldsMy acquaintance pooh-poohed the expense of books. "What's that? A hundred dollars a class?" she asked and the conversation continued along other lines.

It's nice to be in an income bracket where a hundred dollars is inconsequential. I remember once in graduate school, a professor touted a projector we students could buy for our computers. "It's really cheap," she said, "like two hundred dollars." My classmate and I looked at one another, telegraphing, "Two hundred dollars is cheap?"

Do the Math

Early proponent of universal education J.A. Comenius

For those who genuinely don't know, community college costs a lot more than two hundred dollars, here are some facts: Full-time students take at least three classes, often four, sometimes five or six. Say $400 per quarter times three quarters. That's $1200 for books. Now add tuition at $20/unit for 15 units. Actually, it just went up to $26/unit. Three quarters would require another $1170. Wouldn't many of us have to save up to spend $2370/year? And that doesn't include parking and many other miscellaneous fees.

"Oh, but there's financial aid!" people cry out, just as they cry out "Oh, but there's welfare!"

The Net is RippedDavid Breneman, a University of Virginia professor, pointed out that for four year colleges, Pell grants had fallen from covering a high of 78 percent of expenses in 1975 to 13 percent in 1993, adding that "In short, the early promise of the program as a true vehicle for access for low-income students has been lost."

Furthermore, not all community colleges participate in the Pell grant program, and if they don't, their students can't receive them. Enter federal student loans, currently at 6.8 percent, and exit students already heavy-laden with debt as they enter their first low-level job.


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