Should I Put My Students on a Melting Iceberg?

And four other questions about the community college puzzle that Wick Sloane, after 18 months in the trenches, still can’t answer.

October 10, 2008

The lucky ones are on the iceberg. Too many others are in the frigid water, the 21st century U.S. death we just call poverty. Bedford/St. Martin's, the publisher, called Monday looking for a student from 2007 for permission to publish his English 111 essay in a textbook. I can’t find the student.

More than a year ago I won a modest fellowship to write about the finances and other inequities in community colleges. I’m embedded at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, with no plans to leave. Every story I file unearths few answers and more questions. My editor here at Inside Higher Ed is anxious to move on to the movie deal and has suggested, often, that a summation is in order. The story continues to be the questions.

Why is educating the poor such a dreary issue, when even droning Al Gore can win a Nobel Prize on global warming? Isn’t spewing of millions of bright but undereducated people into the economy as dangerous and expensive for society as any environmental toxins? How has the environment cornered all the glamour in public policy? Look at all those happening environmental organizations and ideas: The Sierra Club. The Nature Conservancy. The World Wildlife Fund. Earthwatch and Lester Brown and Plan 3.O. I watched the documentary, Everything’s Cool. I just don’t see, as in the film, a bunch of white kids from elite colleges spending Saturday at a conference about educating the poor.

We know the six million credit students now in community colleges have little chance of completing even an associate degree. Yet, community college is voluntary. These are individuals who, against the odds, choose education over extra food in the kitchen and who, often on top of 50- and 60-hour work schedules, choose to come to school and learn.

Here’s an e-mail from a student last week: “My 10 mo. old daughter is very sick and I have been at the hospital since last night. She will get monitored all day today to track her progress. I will email some assignments later today. Thanks in advance!” His daughter has meningitis. He did e-mail me the homework.

Causes need a visual. I can’t find one for community colleges. With the Wal-Marting of America, the students have perfectly normal clothes. Their pain and their wounds are of the soul. In theory, I have no trouble making comparison of these students with James Nachtwey’s Thirty-Seven Pictures the World Must See. In 2008 terms, the lives of my students are close enough to Walker Evans from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or even Jacob Riis, who coined How the Other Half Lives. Community colleges compared with Third World suffering? However true, I’d be laughed off the American Council on Education conference panel on that topic, if ACE ever had the guts to have such a panel.

Do we, the people, really want to educate the poor?

Federal policies today shut the doors to the poor as tightly as state laws kept James Meredith out of Ole Miss in 1961. Recent reauthorizations of the federal Higher Education Act futz around at the edges. No one has a plan to open the doors to the millions shut out.

Before the fall semester opened, a friend called about a Boston public school student who had been denied a federal Pell Grant, the primary aid for the poor, because he could not produce a W-2 for 2007. But this student had no income for 2007. Now what? He had to prove that he had no income. (Proving a negative?) Another adult student, self-supporting and living alone, was at last persuaded to return to school. He had to turn back from registering because he couldn’t produce his mother’s federal tax form. Those students enrolled, but no one knows how many students had no one to help. These situations are not the work of untrained bureaucrats. These are federal requirements that institutions ignore at their peril.

Remember, winners of these federal grants – barely $4,000 for a full year and usually less -- do not receive the funds in a brown paper bag of unmarked tens and twenties that they could, say, spend on food for their families. Remember that all the students this fall at Williams and Yale and the rest of the Ivies, and at Amherst and Grinnell, receive federal subsidies via tax policy of at least $25,000 per student. Fair enough. Do our federal policies require the children whose parents are wealthy to submit their parents’ tax forms to enroll and receive the $25,000 federal subsidy? No.

Why aren’t there any national leaders?

How about the Congressional Caucus for Community Colleges, now up to 33 Senators and 205 House members? I’ve been in polite contact with the staffers of that for more than a year. Any plans? Anything on the table? Any meetings? Nope.

The trade associations – the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees – have all the work they can handle with the immediate crises, losing even more funding. Campuses have as presidents great leaders – Cha Guzman at Palo Alto Community College (Texas) and Gail Mellow at LaGuardia Community College and Mary Fifield at Bunker Hill Community College are ones I’ve seen in action. The presidents of the 1,200 community colleges have 48-hour days just keeping their strained campuses operating.

No one today has a plan on the table for these motivated students, for the 6.5 million credit or the 5 million non-credit or trade school students. You’d think some presidential candidate might be looking for 11.5 million votes.

What about community college faculty?

In the public debates that do exist, the plight of community college students has most of the attention. What about the faculty? These are people who teach four and five and even six classes each semester. These are classes of 20 and 30 and 40 students who arrive through open enrollment. These are not the homogenized groupings, carefully sorted by an admissions office that one finds at flagship state universities and the elite privates. These faculty are exhausted. I have not found a solid plan for faculty relief.

What’s the point of improving student aid alone for community college students without equal relief for faculty workloads? Sending more students to an already exhausted faculty makes no sense. Adding to the complexity, an overworked faculty is, sadly, a key component of the low cost of attending community college.

I e-mailed some questions to the press offices of the unions that represent community college faculty, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). That’s for another column. The AFT replied right away and has given the matter solid thought. The replies of the NEA, my union, fall short, for now, of what I’d expect for my $835.75 in dues. The AAUP did not reply at all. That one stings. Back in my management days, I was on a team that found money for raises for AAUP faculty.

Whose job is educating the poor? Or, is “Random Acts of Kindness” a viable national education policy?

Management and Leadership 101 are clear that making something happen requires someone whose job depends on that something happening.

Who is accountable for educating the poor? Who is responsible for able, motivated students who want to be in college but can't find the money, just for skills never mind four-year degrees? Policy groups such as the Institute for College Access and Success, led by Bob Shireman, and Education Trust, led by Kati Haycock, are effective advocates for these students. No individual or institution, however, is accountable for the students left out.

I mean the student from from my course last semester, who dodged bullets and dead bodies to get to high school in Africa. A colleague and I tracked her down last week because she's not here this semester. "Hi Wick Sloane, am so happy to get your email, i try to register for the fall but i was having some problem with financial Aid, and i could not afford to pay for myself. but i am trying to start in the spring.” Our national policy is random acts of kindness.

The U.S. higher education system has emerged, without ill intent as far as I can see, to favor institutions over students. If institutional budgets are in balance that's sufficient. No one pays a penalty for able students left out when classes start each semester. Why not?

Will my students all live through this semester?

A student last spring won a James Baldwin Scholarship at Hampshire College. It’s a wonderful program, with the counseling and support to ensure that the poor can make the transition to a four-year college. This student’s Boston high school had launched him to Hampshire; we just gave him a cup of Gatorade as he ran by. He planned to spend the summer working near his home, the same neighborhood where another of my students was shot and killed. We checked in over the summer. A lot. The week before Labor Day I learned that the student had arrived at Hampshire and moved into his room and begun orientation. In a move uncharacteristic of my genus and species, dead white male, I found tears in my eyes. He was safe at Hampshire. He was alive.

Can a nation that can back into and finance a $3-trillion dollar war in Iraq and then find $800 billion more for the federal bailouts of financial institutions run by deficient M.B.A.s claim the inability to finance a basic education for the 11.5 million in community colleges? As to these poor, must we admit to being only the nation that ignored genocides in Rwanda and starvation in Darfur. Or are we a better country than that?

One I can answer: Why do community colleges rock?

Ken Burns, the filmmaker, came to Bunker Hill Community College for a talk last year. Afterwards, Burns said of the students, “I saw the future of America. The future looks good.”

I am not publishing the photos I took of my students, to learn their names quickly. I don’t have permission, and I decided not to ask. These are citizens, not poster children. A great visual for an obscure columnist may not be good for them. (The students on the iceberg are models from clip art.) Their languages are Arabic and Somali and Creole and French and Spanish and Russian and English. My favorite photo is the man who is a U.S. Marine veteran, from Boston, who served in Iraq standing beside a Moroccan woman in a white headscarf.

Walt Whitman would know why community colleges rock -- it’s “I Hear America Singing” all the way.

I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics -- each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat -- the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench -- the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song -- the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother -- or of the young wife at work -- or of the girl sewing or washing -- Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day -- At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.


Wick Sloane, who writes The Devil’s Workshop for Inside Higher Ed, won a fellowship to write about community colleges from the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. This is the sixth of his reports from that work. He is also the author of the just published “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top