Knowledge for the Poor

Richard D. Kahlenberg’s article on “The Genius of Obama’s Two-Year College Proposal” discusses how the Obama administration’s plan, to provide two years of free community college for American students who are “willing to work for it,” is effectively promoting socioeconomic and racial integration in higher education in the United States. I for one am thrilled with Obama’s new plan, especially considering the appallingly low numbers of racial and ethnic minorities at my own undergraduate institution (for example, only 3.3% of UCLA’s student body is black). If we can reduce the colelge access gap between white Americans and racial minorities (though in California this is an erroneous classification since the Latino population has surpassed the number of non-Hispanic whites), we will be on our way to a sorely needed level of diversity in our higher education system. With this diversity will come a diversity of opinions, viewpoints, belief systems, cultural perspectives, and ideas that will undoubtedly make American academia more representative of the nation’s increasingly diverse population.

But let’s not forget about the American students who are not a part of a ‘racial or ethnic minority’ who are just flat out poor. I was very lucky in my late teens – I was blessed with a mind that functioned quite well in an academic setting, and a textbook-fed curiosity that kept me enthusiastic about time spent in classrooms, paired with a relatively dirt poor upbringing. The FAFSA and I became well acquainted, and due to my academic merits and low-income family, I was able to get through undergrad at UCLA with surprisingly little loans to my name. Many are not so lucky. The cost of higher education in America is staggering, and is increasing all the time. For those that cannot afford to study at a 4-year university, community college is a highly attractive alternative to satisfy one’s GE requirements or to pursue an AA that will make them more competitive in the job market then those without any college education. But even the costs of community college can be far too demanding for those who need to work to earn the money to pay for it. Obama’s new plan seeks to address this long-problematic issue.

On my first read through Kahlenberg’s article, as a result of my low socioeconomic status growing up, I didn’t agree with the merits of the comprehensive universality of this plan, namely the ability of wealthier students whose families CAN afford to pay for their education to receive the same free services as those whose families cannot. Gut reaction: government spending can be better utilized if low-income students receive free schooling through the 2-year proposal and the remaining budget that would be allocated to middle and high-income students would be better spent increasing grant and scholarship opportunities for the low-income students that do well throughout the 2 years of community college.

Then I think about all the students I have known whose parents’ income disqualifies them for financial aid, but who are no longer financially supported by their parents once they turn 18. Many of these students are left juggling several jobs to get through school and get burnt out quickly in the process. Too many friends and family have faced this wall of “I want to go back to school but my parents make too much money for financial aid, but not ENOUGH to put me through school.” The proposed plan will address this demographic in addition to those who flat out cannot afford higher education. It will also effectively create absolutely NO excuse for students graduating high school to not pursue at least some college, which I personally believe is a critical opportunity for new adults to learn more about themselves and the world around them.

After months of headlines about racial tensions, mass rallies in defense of racial equality, senseless deaths and an American political system ostensibly spiraling in the wrong direction, it’s nice to receive some good news coming out of America for a change. I applaud the Obama administration for its efforts to improve equality and equity in higher education. Let’s see if it makes it through to implementation. And on that note, I do applaud Obama for the attempts he has made at creating a more equitable America. Major steps in the right direction. The American Dream argument of “Earn the money you need and keep it all for yourself” is archaic, limits progress, and is just plain selfish. If I ever get around to working in the USA again, I’ll be proud to put my (hopefully much higher) taxes towards programs like this one.