• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Time Out

Poverty in a nation of wealth.


June 7, 2016

More public school students in America are on free or reduced price lunch than aren’t.


When I read that, I had to read it a second time to make sure I got it right.  It didn’t seem plausible. The Southern Education Foundation supplies a map showing rates by state, and you can click through to get county-level numbers. It uses traffic-light colors -- green, yellow, red -- to denote the relative percentages of low-income kids; what really struck me (other than the regional distinctions) was that “green” goes up to 38 percent.  

In America, having “only” 38 percent of public school kids require financial aid for lunch is considered good.


The concentration of desperation among the young is an effect with many causes. From the perspective of someone at a community college, this is a pipeline of future students. The ones who make it.  


In Springfield, Massachusetts -- just a few miles from where we used to live -- the percentage got so high that the school district essentially threw up its hands and made all lunches free. Students who could pay were so rare that it wasn’t worth the monitoring. This, in a city of 150,000 people, in a state rated “green.”

Some of us are old enough to remember predictions that in the future, energy would be “too cheap to meter.” Now so many students are so poor that the schools stopped bothering to ask.

Something has gone very wrong.


In the wealthiest country in the world -- the one undisputed superpower, the global hegemon, the winner of the Cold War, coming off a seven-year economic expansion, a country so rich that it pays farmers not to grow food -- more children can’t afford lunch than can. 


I’m a social scientist in America. I know that racism plays an outsize role in this. The data and the history are just too much to ignore. But I’m also a college administrator in America, working with people with a wide range of backgrounds and political beliefs, and needing to work well with them all. Holyoke is in a Democratic area; Brookdale is in a Republican one. You’d be surprised, maybe, by how little difference that makes. The challenges are the same, and so is the need to enlist help from whatever corner. I’ll grab useful ideas no matter who champions them, and I’ll work with anyone who can help.  


This is why I’m such a fan of OER and Universal Design. It’s why I’m a proponent of Sara Goldrick-Rab’s call for an extension (and adaptation) of the school lunch program to community colleges. It’s why I like dual enrollment and year-round Pell.  It’s why one of my proudest achievements at Holyoke was the establishment of a quiet study room in the library; some students didn’t have anyplace else they could be left alone long enough to focus.  It’s why I like makerspaces and entrepreneurial training for art majors. It’s why I’m pushing locally to reduce the number of students placed into developmental courses.  It’s why I’m proud to work in a sector of higher education that is often either overlooked or disparaged. It’s why I take severe personal offense to the “undermatching” argument, as if the only reasonable response to underfunded schools is total abandonment.

And it’s why all of that taken together, even on its best day, is nowhere near enough.  

Community colleges were established to create and sustain a large middle class.  They’re struggling because that mission isn’t as widely accepted as it used to be.  Somewhere along the line, as a country, we decided that a majority of kids needing help to afford food was somehow okay.


It’s not okay. In the rush of events, we shouldn’t lose track of the big things. More public school students get free or reduced price lunches than don’t.  

I hope we never get used to that.


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