Class, Race, and Student Debt

This report from Demos makes clear that student debt is disproportionately the problem of low-income and students of color.

Knowing that these students are also the least likely to make it to graduation makes the report more troubling.

  • Black and Latino students are dropping out with debt at higher rates than white students. At all schools, nearly 4-in-10 (39%) of Black borrowers drop out of college, compared to 29% of white borrowers. Around the same number (38%) of low-income borrowers1 drop out compared to less than a quarter of their higher-income peers. Nearly two-thirds of Black and Latino student borrowers at for-profit four-year schools drop out (65% and 67% respectively). Nearly half (47%) of Black student borrowers drop out with debt at for-profit 2, and less-than-2-,year institutions.

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.”


“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.

Naive about Race, but Possessing Fine Table Manners

It can be difficult to find writing on First Generation College students that doesn’t begin from a deficit standpoint.  First Generation students are presumed to lack “cultural capital“, access to basic information,  family support, or resilience needed to be successful.  These attributes are all, of course, contrasted with the experience, knowledge, social capital, savvy, and ambition of more privileged students who are presumed to arrive at college well-positioned to succeed.

It could be helpful to question more often what we might mean by “succeed”.  According to one recent project, at least some of the academically gifted, wealthy, and culturally savvy students of Harvard University  lack the most basic understanding of people different from themselves, but this racist ignorance has in no way stood in the way of their academic trajectories.

Because, of course, it’s those occupying the social class of these very students who make the rules about what does or doesn’t prepare one for success.  Using the wrong fork at a formal dinner?   One need go no further in that job interview.   Say ignorant things about race? Accuse those pointing this out of just playing “the race card”.

Missing the cues about table manners hurts no one, but  can mean missed opportunities to support oneself even after doing well in college.

Are there any consequences for the racism of Harvard students, when those very students will soon be hiring, sitting on college boards, and voting for candidates supporting their understanding of opportunity?


Update: Tressie McMillam Cottom dialed it in on Twitter this afternoon:



While President Obama is on his bus tour promoting his ideas for making college more affordable, so many barriers remain in place for low-income students.  The federal financial aid form — the FAFSA — is one barrier that could be fixed,  but isn’t.


Sara Goldrick Rab has been retweeting students’ laments about the FAFSA as another school year starts, and today she “Storified” the Tweets. This us a must read.


My colleague speak often about the financial aid available to our students.  My sense is that few people working in higher ed know how challenging the financial aid paperwork can be for many students — especially for First Generation students.

Social Pain and For-Profit Colleges

Blogger and scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom is writing about her work as an “admissions” counselor  at a for-profit university and subsequent research on the reasons that [primarily low-income] students are drawn to such expensive yet low-status places.  She writes that as she now asks students at her elite college whey they did not enroll at one of the many for-profits that they know about from TV ads and billboards, and they respond straightforwardly:  “That ‘s not a school for people like them.”.

Similarly, those attending the for-profits have internalized a sense of where they belong:

For-profit students are similarly hesitant during interviews when I ask them to discuss the milieu in which their educational choices were made. Even when fiercely proud of their education — and many of them are — there is a point of anger for many when asked to explain why a for-profit and not an area traditional college.

There is a sense, often unarticulated until I start prodding, that they made the best choice available to them.

Cottom frames the admissions decisions within deeper structural stratification, and despite the many ads for non-profits showing confident, aspiring young people nodding sagely at their computer screens or books, she finds that decisions to attend for-profits are embedded in pain of living at the bottom rungs of unequal social structures:

But the greatest correspondence between my data and the for-profit sector’s growth, admissions and matriculation processes is with the weakness in the economy. One finding jumps out immediately: more than educational aspiration and personal edification, fear and insecurity motivates the for-profit students I am interviewing.

This is brilliant and important work that I’ll be following.

First Generation Students

Inside Higher Education just published this interesting essay on how colleges might better service First Generation Students.

I deeply appreciate the attention on the complex journey of being “First”.  I appreciate the acknowledgement that first generation students are survivors.

Yet I struggle with the sense that  “survivor” implies victimhood.  Or perhaps, I struggle with how we can generate conversation about the challenges (clearly, often created by policies and practices that work against the interests of these students ) as well as the many strengths that First Generation students bring to our classrooms.

And I’d welcome more attention on the positive work ethic, the straightforwardness, the resiliency and the many other positive attributes of many First-Generation students, as these are things that all students (and their faculty) would do well to emulate.

I’ll be ordering the book today.   Does anyone want to read it together (virtually)?