Lessons learned as an Uber driver about education's inability to equalize opportunity for students (opinion)

Some people believe that education, and especially higher education, is “the great equalizer.” I believe education can be an opportunity giver rather than an equalizer, as it was for my father, husband and grandmother. My view of education’s inability to work as an equalizer in our society became more deeply entrenched after I spent two weeks as an Uber driver.

One of the first rides I gave was to a 26-year-old black man who was going to meet his friends at a popular golfing venue. In high school he had received a partial academic scholarship to a prestigious private institution in Texas. I knew the annual tuition, fees and housing costs for that institution currently totaled nearly $50,000 a year. In fact, my husband actually attended the same private institution on a full athletic scholarship many years earlier. This young man said his college-educated parents took out loans to pay what remained between his scholarship and the cost of attendance. However, he had to leave after two years because his parents could no longer afford to carry such a large financial burden. After not being in college for a few years, he was now enrolled at a more affordable, large public institution.

As I listened to his story, I could not help but think about how many other students travel a similar path -- some never finding and attending an alternate institution to complete their degree. I was also frustrated thinking about the rider's parents and the financial burden they assumed on behalf of what I would say was a misguided institutional choice. Meanwhile, the young man, currently working part-time at a local sports arena selling drinks as a vendor, said he had “no regrets” in choosing to attend the private institution. I wonder if his parents would say the same, as both institutions he mentioned are respectable research universities, and the debt his parents incurred likely would have covered the entire undergraduate education at the public institution.

On another occasion, I picked up a young woman, a high school senior, who was catching a ride to school. She lived in an apartment with her mother and told me it was the 12th place they had lived in the past year. I asked her about her plans after high school. She said she wanted to go to college but had no knowledge about how to make that happen. For the next 15 minutes, I gave her every piece of information I felt was relevant for a high school senior. I told her about the SAT, grants and differences in costs between institutions. I told her about the state college application and about filling out the FAFSA. As she exited my vehicle, she turned, thanked me and said she “never knew an Uber ride could be so informative.” Perhaps due to frequent relocations, she missed the opportunity to obtain such information from her teachers or counselors.

After driving my next young passenger, I would be willing to bet the house that he would go to college. This white middle school student was actually catching a ride with his father. They lived in a gated community, and the father said he owned a lucrative business. The son kept quiet most of the time except when his father’s lawyer phoned to discuss a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. At this point, I engaged in conversation with the son, who was well spoken and respectful. (Although I still feel like I’m too young to be called “ma’am.”) As we talked, all I could think of was that, out of all the passengers I’d had in my vehicle, this boy was like an athlete in the outside lane on a track with no curves: he had a head start only Bolt could catch. He probably would not only go to college, but his family would also be able to afford the prestigious private institution that the other young man I described earlier had to leave.

The last two passengers I want to mention left a deep impression on me. The first was a black man, probably in his late 20s, who had moved to Texas to get away from an environment that he said would lead to “jail or the grave.” In my mind, I imagined neighborhoods that I would quickly drive through while living on the East Coast or had seen on television. He was catching a ride from his new job at a large national chain restaurant because, after he deeply sliced his hand, his manager deemed him a “hazard” and asked him to end his shift -- not to get medical care, but to just leave.

I encouraged the man to go get medical attention, but he insisted he was fine. I assumed he probably did not have health insurance or the means to pay for urgent care, as he had expressed worry about not working his entire shift. He explained he earned slightly more than $10 an hour-- a statement he made with excitement, because it was an improvement from his previous position by a few cents.

He had a girlfriend who was in college and said he was going to community college himself to earn his GED. He disclosed that his girlfriend was embarrassed about him not having a GED, so she “just tells people [he is] in college.” He hinted that he had spent some time in a juvenile correctional facility when he was a teenager. His sounded like a rough life, and although he was working to move in a good direction, his journey hardly compared to my previous middle school passenger.

My last passenger was a Latino high school senior. He told me his father was in prison and his mother was remarried. He had recently moved to Texas to live with his uncle and was planning to join the military. That hit a chord with me, as that route sounded all too familiar. Many Latino friends I knew in high school had considered it -- not necessarily from a place of duty but mostly as a way to “get out” and earn a good living. The rider went on to say he liked mechanics but did not want to pursue that line of work. In his K-12 career, he was held back in sixth grade because of being “picked on” to such a degree that he had suicidal thoughts. In fact, he said that where he was from, “a lot of kids committed suicide because of bullying.” It was hard not to express the internal heartache I felt.

As he continued to talk about going into the military, he said he had a cousin in the army who was his primary source for information. From what I could tell, no one was talking to him about college. I told him about grants (something he did not know existed) and about ROTC as an option where he could attend college and serve in the military. The ride was fairly short and the end location was the mall. He said he had just been paid from his job and wanted to go to there to walk around and “clear his mind.” I could only imagine what feelings he was grappling with -- his seemed like a difficult life.

Upon leaving, he turned and began to hand me a $20 tip for the 10-minute car ride. I refused and told him to put it aside for his college application. As this tenderhearted young man walked away, my soul ached.

In just two weeks, I met so many young people struggling with moving from difficult pasts to happier futures, and very few of them had the resources, information and/or knowledge to change the course they were currently on -- through no fault of their own. I thought about the phrase we hear in society so often about pulling up yourself up by the bootstraps or the many words that follow phrases like, “Well, if you work hard enough …”

But is it the inner person who is at fault for not being “strong” or changing their life by working hard at their education? I submit my experience to you as a response to that question. A religious perspective might suggest we are not fighting against people, but rather against evil, powers and principalities (Ephesians 6:12). And there are evils (unfair hardships in life), powers (social forces) and principalities (hierarchal structures) that can’t be overcome by grit alone. Education is not the great equalizer, but it can be an opportunity giver if we can create a better society, get the tools and information to succeed to those who need it most, and continue to support research to help those students who require our help.

Where do we go from here? How can each of us be an opportunity giver to those around us and within our scope of influence? I hope my experience and thoughts serve as a reminder about the real lives of the people whom we in academe are serving and must continue to try to help. More than numbers in a report, these are people. It is our privilege to use our talents and abilities to help human lives -- one passenger at a time.

Amanda O. M. Jackson is a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant in the higher education program at the University of North Texas.

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