Lives on the Boundary, 25 Years Later

When I teach about Education and Class, one of the books that resonates most deeply with my students is Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary.

The book was written 25 years ago, but students are still mesmerized by the narrative because so much of the book still rings true.

In his excellent blog, Rose tells the story of getting Lives on the Boundary published in the first place:

It was summarily turned down by 12 publishers in a row, for it is, after all, an account of one person’s educational journey, hardly the stuff of a best-seller. (In today’s market, it most likely would not get published at all.) Other potential liabilities: The vocabulary and syntax are not simple—I’m a big fan of the embedded clause. The book is peppered with references to cultural events and artifacts of my youth and early adulthood and to the books and ideas being introduced to me. Finally, though it is driven by stories, those stories are woven into an argument about social class and educational inequality. As a read, it is not a day at the beach.

He writes that now, the popular press is more likely to tell tales of insurmountable obstacles working against the academic achievement of the poor, or instead, of triumphant stories of homelessness to Harvard. While both kinds of stories are true and important, Rose’s lifelong work has been to quietly ell very different stories:

There are other narratives involving poor people and school; unfortunately, they are perceived by some editors as less dramatic, but they are hugely important. They are stories of people who do make it, maybe not with great fanfare, but they succeed. Not infrequently, they have benefitted from dedicated teachers and mentors, or special programs, or more timely and targeted financial aid and services. There are also stories of people who don’t complete a certificate or degree, but who accomplished something valuable, like the young man I got to know who turned his life away from drugs and the streets during the first year of a welding program and after a lot of thought and consultation joined the Navy to stabilize his life and finish his education.

 If all we read are stories of failure, we can come to think that little is possible for students who start out behind the eight ball, that it doesn’t matter what the institution does. We have to have stories like DeParle’s, absolutely, for they slam home the devastation of inequality. And also give us the story of a young person’s exceptional achievements—the rise from mean streets to a robotics lab. I’ve told both kinds of stories. But give us as well the full range, the less dramatic, but tremendously important testaments to our broad and varied intelligence as a people and to the difference a responsive institution can make as people go to college or return to it, seeking a better life. All of us need to read these stories, but especially the students who are living them.

I highly recommend Lives on the Boundary, as I’ve been recommending it for almost 25 years now.

New Report on Financial Aid

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A new report on financial aid  by the New America Foundation,  Education Trust, and Young Invincibles (and commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) calls for  “bold” federal action to ensure that college is affordable for all families.

Now, instead:

[O]ur aid system places a disproportionately large burden on families at the bottom of the income scale. Families in the lowest income quintile are asked to come up with an amount equal to 80 percent of their annual income to pay the net price (i.e., price after all grant and scholarship aid) for one year of education at a public, four-year college or university … . That’s more than five times the percentage of income high-wealth families are asked to contribute for higher education — hardly, an equitable share of the cost burden.10 The result? Rather than operating as engines of opportunity and social mobility, all too often higher education is calcifying existing inequities, shifting back toward the extreme stratification that mainly serves the elite. (emphasis added)

I understand that all of this is a complicated outcome of steeply declining state spending in a time in which many argue for a smaller federal role in education.

But I object to framing the most basic steps to make access to college equitable as “bold”.

It’s the morally right thing to do.

Blaming Parents of First Generation Students for What Colleges Don’t Simply Do

There are so many problems with this essay in today’s Inside Higher Ed about the parents of First-Generation college students.

I first cringed when reading this quote from a college administrator early on:

They give him a $100 and send them off to school. ‘Here’s 100 bucks. That should last you four years. Now, go save the family.’”

As if there is no difference between being able to provide particular emotional support for the distinctive stresses of being a college student and abandoning one’s child altogether — while putting considerable pressure on them — and as if low-income parents have no idea about budgeting and the costs of living.

And the disturbing language continues:

If so-called helicopter parents typically hover above students from more elite and educated families, many first-generation college students have the opposite problem: parents who may as well be watching their children from a space station. [italics mine]

Again, the language here implies that parents have receded to isolated  “watching”, not still celebrating birthdays or holidays, nagging about late hours on home visits, taking joy in just having the child home sometimes, being proud, or maybe even making favorite meals when one comes home.

But no. Blame is the story here:

Those less-supported students also reported having higher levels of stress and anxiety than the few first-generation students who did feel supported by their parents.

There is no possible way without rigorous controlled experiments to attribute stress and anxiety among first-generation students to parent support rather than to anything else within the constellation of other differences — having no money for social events that other students take for-granted, hearing stereotypes about people like them in class, having  to work more hours than any student should, facing professors who have no idea how to provide basic academic support yet convey their impatience with you for needed it, having everyone take for granted that the upper-middle class students are the  norm and you are an outsider.

And then we got to the heart of the matter:

Marilyn Moller, director of teacher education at Rosemont College, said it’s important to remember that those phone calls [from interfering “helicopter” parents of more privileged students]– as annoying as they can be — are rarely coming from the parents of low-income and first-generation students.  “I really don’t see that as much anymore, and especially with these kinds of students,” Moller said. “I hope for phone calls. Often times, with these students, a parent may be his or her only advocate.”

And:

“The problem is that many these parents know nothing about college,” he said. “Students with parents that didn’t go to college don’t have that person they can call when they have a question. They have no map. That child is lost.”

And as I read these last statements I feel begin to feel the familiar tension in my jaw, the familiar frustration and anger and impatience.

I read that it is just taken for granted that there is nowhere at college where a student can ask basic question.

I read that no one has provided students with the basic map of what is expected of her.

I read that no one notices and steps in when a student is “lost”.

I read that no one takes responsibility for being an advocate for a student who needs an advocate to get through all of this.

But it’s the parents’ fault.

I have no idea how much of the tone of this article by Jake New is New’s own naiveté (he’s a relatively recent addition to the Inside Higher Ed line-up and seems mostly to report on things requiring less social context).   I have no idea how well this reflects attitudes of colleges more generally.

I’m just grateful that at my college, I  was told where to go with questions, told where to go when I was lost, had any number of faculty and staff I’d count as advocates, and knew that my parents were in my corner, even if they had no advice about the professor who simply refused to give me an A (and refused to explain what I needed to do differently) and could rarely afford to do more than buy me a bag of groceries once in awhile.

And I’m very grateful that at the college where I now work, we’re in constant conversation about how we can better serve our many First-Generation students.

Because we are so clear that it’s our job to support all the students who come to us with so much promise and such immense dreams.

 

Sorting Through the Arguments on Education and Class: Clear Voices

Every pundit and politician has talking points now on education, opportunity, access and the needs of low-income students.   It can feel impossible to know how to sort through all the competing claims.

Someone I’ve grown to trust immensely is Sara Goldrick-Rab who writes clearly and incisively about higher education and access.

This piece taking apart a New York Times column on college costs is a case in point.

Follow her website; follow her on Twitter.  You’ll learn about what’s going on now and what’s coming down the policy pipeline.

Starbucks, College Access, and an Unquestioning Media

I live near the original Starbucks and often have to walk through the crowds of people taking selfies, standing in long lines for the same coffee drinks they can get anywhere, and taking endless photos of one another.   I’m often asked for directions to this Starbucks as I’m walking nearby.   The accents and languages suggest that people make this pilgrimage from all over the world.

They spend precious time of their vacation to come there, even while there are several others Starbucks — and, more importantly, several other excellent local coffee shops — within a few blocks.

There’s just a mystique about Starbucks.

And that may explain why so much of the media simply reported the carefully orchestrated press release about Starbucks’ subsidizing college tuition for its employees rather than actually reporting.  The story was everywhere on Monday — in print, on TV and radio, and even on The Daily Show, in which  even Jon Stewart claims that though it’s out of character, he can’t “hate” Howard Schultz’s announcement that Starbucks will be “the first U.S. company to provide free college tuition for all employees”.  Schultz talks at length about Starbucks as a company and explains that “we can’t want for Washington” to solve the problem of college indebtedness.   Schultz goes on to argue that private businesses have to step in when government does not.

Yet it turns out that the Plan depends more on Washington than on Starbucks’ bottom line, as was clear by midweek.   Just a sample of the pushback that began showing up on social media:

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the deal was actually highly subsidized by the for-profit on-line sector of Arizona State, that students would likely be getting federal Pell grants and subsidized loans,  and Starbucks would actually be shelling out  relatively little.

Tressie McMillan Cottom placed this deal in the broader context of for-profits targeting education for lower-income workers whose education will be subsidized from public coffers. She writes:

My read of that is Starbucks gets to minimize its contribution to tuition assistance by funneling aspirational student-workers into the student aid system and ASU gets to extract profit from student aid on a sliding scale where lower income students are the most profitable human widgets.

The New York Times simply reported that critics were pointing to drawbacks of the “scholarship” program.

Matt Reed at Inside Higher Ed noted that college might well be less expensive if Starbucks employees just went to their local community college for their first two years and then transferred to a four year school.

The Pell Grant program that would in fact pay much of the costs of attending the profit-generating ASU program is already on precarious footing.

Starbucks, meanwhile, joins other huge corporations in seeking tax breaks.

But no one was reporting any of this at first on Monday.

Everyone in the media instead seemed to be lining up and smiling within Starbucks’ orbit, just like all those tourists down the street.