F is the grade I give myself for this past academic year at Bunker Hill Community College.
F? I ran out of bread.
A few Fridays ago, at the end of the day, I asked a young boy, maybe twelve, if he had had anything to eat that day.
“No,” the boy told me.
He had arrived with his mother, a student, who was looking for help. We used to ask students if they were hungry. The question was too easy to evade. Instead we ask, “Have you had anything to eat today?” A colleague helped the mother.
I had just the end of a baguette -- from the four? five? boxes of bread that Panera had donated that day. All day, students had arrived for loaves of bread or to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, to find help enrolling for food stamps, to sign up for the next food pantry when the Greater Boston Food Bank each month delivers 5,000 pounds of groceries that vanish in an orderly hour. All this, remember, at an institution of higher education in the United States in 2014.
I drew the baguette end from a plastic bag. To make a tiny sandwich for the boy, I broke the bread. I what? For crying out loud, you don’t have to be an English major. I broke the bread. (I know, I know; that’s just what I did.) I came to Bunker Hill seven years ago to teach College Writing 1. I have become a jury-rigged social worker. No complaints. I hadn’t worked out then that relieving hunger is a prerequisite to teaching College Writing.
F? Again? (Click here.) So far, I have no decent plan, beyond shouting, to persuade 14,000 poverty-pummeled students to commit to a job letter or a transfer essay free of errors in grammar, in punctuation, in ESL.
F? I failed to put a question about hunger/poverty on the federal College Scorecard. Even with a deputy under secretary of education interested, I failed to persuade enough colleges to write in with the request. F? No luck on my plan to improve college completion with my way-too-simple idea – a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for the nine million students on Pell Grants. (Details here.) I even lobbied the peanut lobby. Forty-five million peanut butter sandwiches a week added to the federal budget? Not a nibble.
Paying students to study, to ease the money-for-rent/time-to-study tradeoff? (Details here.) Nowhere.
Slight shifts in tax policy? Nope. Any action to alter the reality that the neediest college students in the U.S. receive the least college aid? Nope. (My failed May 2013 proposal, Time for a Revolution.) Did I find a plaintiff to bring this to federal court? Nope.
“Are you off your meds?” a close family member demanded. “Stop being so depressing.” Find a shrink in August? I’ll put on J.S. Bach, no, WGBO Jazz 88 in Newark to stir me in a cheerier direction.
F? I haven’t stopped that asteroid about to smash into the U.S. economy and society. What asteroid? The nine million students on Pell Grants. That group for whom the accepted, not-Cassandra, not-Chicken-Little truth higher ed experts believe (and I agree) is that half will fail to complete their college degree or professional certificate. Query to the many wonks more able than me: Which half will fail? Help me begin?
My refrain, for as long as I’ve been writing, I still pray every day for better ideas than mine. I have many critics; no takers with better ideas.
F? Am I Cassandra? Chicken Little? Or just a fool?
Am I wrong about the asteroid? How about another metaphor? America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future, the 2007 report by Arwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Kentaro Yamamoto, and Andrew Sum, published by the Educational Testing Service, the higher ed establishment itself. (Click here for details.) The report details how “substantial disparities in skill levels (reading and math); seismic economic changes (widening wage gaps); and sweeping demographic shifts (less education, lower skills)” are creating skill and income gaps that shut too many out of the workforce. The American Dream, the report despairs, could become the American Tragedy.
Why are we, the people, stuck?
Three points, beyond "The Perfect Storm," I can’t reconcile. First, from the Holy of Holies of higher ed thinking, the College Board, "Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society," a thorough report by Sandy Baum, Jennifer Ma, and Kathleen Payea. Education is a good investment, for society and for individuals. (Oversimplified, I know.) I agree.
Second, the U.S. is a market economy. If education is a good social investment, and if the U.S. needs more trained workers, should we, the people, be shortchanging nine million students we all know are at risk? Finance 101 says public capital should follow good investments. Wouldn’t, then, more public investment to prevent the perfect storm be a sound investment? Won’t undereducated students cost more public money? Why isn’t public capital trying to invest in even one million of the nine million?
To the critics about to post comments below: I have oversimplified nothing here. Don’t blame Congress and the U.S. Senate. Why are we, the people, stuck? Do I mean free discretionary education for all? No, I have proposed federal funding first focus on essential skills -- reading writing, and math. My plan is that Pell students must pass the Advanced Placement exams in expository writing and statistics before being eligible for Pell funding for courses in any other subjects. F again. (Click here for details.)
But, third, why are we, the people, watching this asteroid plummet? Or, worse, going to conferences with free lunches? Spewing undereducated, industrious, motivated human beings into society and the economy makes no sense. To me, anyway.
We may not (yet) have a unified theory to solve everything for the nine million students on Pell Grants. How about lunch and a T pass? Apply the Hippocratic oath? Paul Farmer, in public health, has called out similar blindness to public health crises such as AIDS in Africa. What gives any of us the right, Farmer might ask, to just watch 4.5 million students fail? “A failure of imagination” is one of Farmer’s terms. I feel so convicted. Anyone else?
Here is an example, of such “failure of imagination.” School opens again in a few weeks. What about the federal free and reduced lunch students voluntarily going on to a postsecondary credential?
Here in Boston, leaders know 70 percent of the k-12 public school students are on federal free and reduced lunch and most receive a free bus/T pass. Any of these students continuing their education after high school lose their lunch and the T pass. The T pass is $70 per month. Lunch? Pick a number.
I’ve heard no disagreement to the notion that students on free and reduced lunch are low-income, poor. I’ve read of no infusions of capital after high school for such students. So, the students are down $100 per month, and often hungry, for choosing to go beyond high school. And I’ve added food stamp certification, bread, peanut butter and jelly, and food-bank-pallet unloading to my professional skills.
“Cheer up. Can’t you write a column about the good that happened this year?” said another empathetic /despairing/weary friend.
O.K., with my essential disclaimer: All my good outcomes depended, too, on many, many people. “Might not have happened without me (or them)” is my good-outcome criterion.
- A student who had gone on to graduate from UMass Boston came by with an impenetrable offer of financial aid (or maybe not?) from her “dream school” in public policy. I connected the student with a human being at the school. Success. The student is back on her track to start an NGO to help women in poverty in Africa.
- “You came to my class a few weeks ago, to show us that cool website to help us with grammar and punctuation. I know I need to improve my writing. I have some questions about the site. Can you help me?” This was after spring classes had ended. The speaker standing in the doorway of my office? A male, of color, urban, U.S.-born, in other words the group deemed least likely to succeed in college. At my door. We are working on grammar.
- Six veterans succeeding this summer in the Research Experience for Undergraduates at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Should I be cheered up? But, but, but…. Such success reporting just enables the stuck-in-a-swamp narrative we have about educating the poor in the U.S. today. “Oh, the problems are overwhelming. What can we do? Help one student at a time. Thank goodness people like [fill in the name of a public school teacher or community college professor you know] are willing to do what they do every day.”
And the asteroid plummets closer.
F? I ran out of bread? I can’t mark any progress.
A homeless student showed up late one Friday last summer. I had bread enough to make him a weekend's worth of PB&Js while he telephoned shelters. I had a bag, and I sent him on his way with more bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly, a plastic knife and napkins.
Progress this summer? A family instead of one student in need, including children? And I ran out of bread? Is it progress that this summer I could send the boy on his way with a 40-oz., instead of a 16-oz., jar of peanut butter?
F? Yes, because this summer I ran out of bread.
Wick Sloane is an end user of a higher education. Follow him @WickSloane.
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