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Who Can't Afford Community College?

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A Little Progress in Spite of the Shadows

In spite of the economy and the discouragement of fees being raised, two helpful steps have been taken. President Obama's budget helped some. Now students can get a Pell grant for summer school and can finally get a Pell grant if they are not full-time students. According to the Pell grant site itself, however, "On an average, it covers only 45% of the course fee." But it's a little better than before.

Reality Math

Why can't people afford the two-year colleges set up expressly to provide "open access," to serve absolutely everyone? In 2010, twenty percent of American workers made less than $20,000/year. That's $10 per hour at the top of the heap for one in five workers. Six percent of American workers lived on less than half of the poverty level. How would you live on $5,000 a year in the Bay Area? And yet people do it under great stress.

Let's go back to our struggling community college student, perhaps among the fortunate few who have a full-time job. She lives on $400 a week minus social security and taxes. She still needs a bus pass which is $61/month in San Jose (though some colleges subsidize). But most likely if she plans to work full-time and also go to school full-time, she'll have to have a car unless she wants to wait 1 ½ hours for a bus in the middle of the day as one of my former students did.

Without assets or credit history, she might pay 30 percent interest for a car loan as my brother did. And then there's insurance. Kaching! And parking. And since it's a used car, repairs. Worst case, the car breaks down irreparably and she's still paying off the old car while starting to pay for a new one. She has to be some kind of shrewd and parsimonious genius to avoid colossal debt.

How can people of privilege become more aware of poor people's lives?

Hull House Wikimedia Commons

There are numerous examples we can be thankful for, of privileged people who took action once they knew the facts. Lyndon Johnson springs to mind. After travelling the Texas boondocks, campaigning and seeing the astonishing poverty in which people lived, he committed himself to a war on poverty. Jane Addams also springs to mind with her efforts in Chicago to better the lives of immigrants. We may quibble with the particulars of their approaches, but there is no question these people made a difference.

A Finnish co-op

Of course, it is best when poor people themselves organize and progress, hard as it is to find the time and resources. The early Methodist Sunday Schools in England were a combination of religion, literacy programs, and loan societies. Grocery co-ops, fuel co-ops, cheese co-ops, once flourished even in extremely out-of-the-way places like little Wisconsin towns where one might think people would lack the savvy to create such entities. But there's as much genius among poor people as among rich.

What's at stake?

Right now, brilliant students who should be attending UC Berkeley instead go to the nearest community college, sometimes having to take catch-up classes because they never got to experience a solid intellectual immersion - all through high school they were working thirty hours a week to help out their families, and all through college they worked forty hours a week. Might they have athletic or musical abilities? There's no time or money for that. They don't attend football games, debates, lectures, or plays. They don't study abroad. Opportunities for new ideas and contacts are restricted. The result is low social capital even among the educated, very little cross-fertilization between the privileged dispensers of jobs and the unprivileged seekers of jobs.

Americans believe in a level playing field; they think it should exist, and some believe it does exist though the facts seem to show that it's more of a plateau with sheer drop-offs on every side.

But, that could change.

Worker-improvised dryer