College teachers, such as myself, are always telling our students that whatever else they get out of college, (and I hope they get a lot more) they can be confident that their investment of time and energy will underwrite a lifetime of relative economic prosperity. (Last night’s passage of the health reform bill may make an equally important contribution to the financial security of the middle class.) Doug Henwood’s recent costs and benefits analysis of education (“I’m borrowing my way through college…“) shows that this is still true.
Someone who doesn’t finish high school will on average earn only half as much as a high school graduate; if you earn a graduate degree, you can earn 2 to 3 times the income of a high school graduate. The caveat, and it’s a big caveat, is that students are leaving college with more and more debt. One reason is that college costs have risen dramatically, outpacing even medicine. And while there are grants available, the prohibitive costs have helped to ensure that class reproduction rather than class mobility is the new normal.
I see other limits to access in my classes, which are dominated by working class students; it’s particularly dramatic at the end of each session, when I’m thinking once more about the students who give up or, more mysteriously, sign up for the class but never show up, much less participate. There seems to be two main kinds of problems. One one side are students who don’t have the skills. Maybe they dropped out, or are non-native speakers, or just slipped through school without learning to write. They often mistrust teachers.
On the other side are students whose lives seem to be so chaotic and difficult that they can’t quite muster the discipline and focus. This is hard to judge accurately, of course; in any class there are always an alarming number of family deaths and catastrophes. (It’s more effective than “the dog ate my paper.”) But I know from my own family that too many of these stories are true and that if you don’t have much help (or money) to begin with, then every sort of problem is that much more draining and difficult and time consuming.