Ann Larson’s recent IHE column, in which she dissects the popular idea that that a college education is the key to upward mobility for lower-income Americans, resonated for me in a personal way, because I have two nephews who joined the military after they ran out of money for college tuition. One, in the National Guard, spent a year in Iraq and could be called up again. The other will have shipped out to Afghanistan when this column is posted.
Both are highly intelligent young men who made what seem to a fond and panicked aunt to be foolish decisions based on false assumptions, though they would tell you otherwise. Our politics are very different, but neither joined up out of a fervent desire to further a political cause. It was a trade-off, in both cases: service in return for educational support. And because they are honorable people, they are prepared to give their lives to fulfill their end of the agreement.
Larson discusses the case of “Valerie,” who immigrated from Haiti with the dream of attending college, and is now saddled with student-loan debts she is unlikely to ever be able to pay off given the jobs available to her. A recent NYT article describes a middle-class family in a similar economic situation. My nephews, like many other young people, saw the military as an alternative to a life that is crippled by either crushing debt or limited vocational opportunities. But, Larson argues,
The issue of college payoff becomes even more complicated when we consider that many students who begin college will not complete degrees. While the U.S. leads the world in college attendance, it is ranked near the bottom in the number of students who actually graduate. In fact, college access, which is touted as a symbol of our meritocratic ideals, leads to a degree for only about half of all students who enroll. Completion rates are even lower for first-generation collegians and people of color. According to education researcher Peter Sacks, the chance that a low-income child will earn a bachelor's degree is no higher today than it was in 1970, a grave contradiction in the meritocratic narrative of the education gospel.
In fact, as the sociologist Annette Lareau has shown in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, the qualities that lead to academic success are not linked to college access, effort, or intelligence, but to accidents of birth. For the most part, the children of affluent parents attend the best colleges and get the best jobs. Opening the doors of higher education has not altered this basic arrangement. Still, the myth persists that, to get ahead in life, the first thing you ought to do is write a tuition check.
I don’t have an answer to this problem. Certainly, discouraging thoughtful, intelligent young people from attending college is not the solution (and Larson isn’t proposing that, either). The European system of free, or nearly free, university education to qualified residents seems ideal to me, but since “socialized” medicine is still considered problematic, college on the European model seems unlikely.
As already chronicled here, we are hoping that my son’s education will be subsidized by a sports scholarship. It’s a long shot. Lacking that, he may find himself in the position of my nephews. I have informed my son that if he chooses to follow his cousins’ example, I will personally shoot him in the foot — and I am a Quaker, committed to nonviolence. But these are desperate times, obviously.