Students study in biology class at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York. /
Gates Foundation


It is early in the morning on a hazy Southern California day, and students are walking or riding old bicycles into the community college campus, headed for 7:00 a.m. classes in English or math, nursing or automotive technology. The college is packed into twenty-five acres on the economically depressed periphery of the city’s thriving financial core, and it draws on one of the poorest populations in the area. Men sleep under newspapers and blankets in doorways right outside the school. One block away a line is already forming along the wall of a social service agency. The short, bare walkway into the campus is for many a luminous road into another world.

This college could serve as ground zero for Suzanne Mettler’s important new book Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream, which analyzes diminishing postsecondary educational opportunity over the past thirty years, particularly for students in the lower half of the income distribution. If they are not deterred from attending college, students face soaring tuition, inadequate financial aid, and increased debt. To make matters worse, most states have been slashing higher education budgets, forcing colleges to offer fewer classes and services. That trend is beginning to reverse, though spending still is below what it was a decade ago.

Mettler explains how this came to be: how our extreme political partisanship and the increasing influence of big money have contributed to this mess. In essence, Mettler explains, policies need maintenance. Flaws in a policy’s originating legislation, for example, may result in inadequate mechanisms to deal with cost increases. Policies can also have unintended consequences. Financial aid in the United States, for example, is inordinately consumed by for-profit colleges, whose students often end up defaulting on their loans. With intense partisanship, legislators rarely come together across party lines to do the work of maintaining healthy policy. At the same time special interests with considerable money—such as for-profit colleges—can intervene effectively to shape or block changes on a particular issue, such as the institutional requirements for receiving financial aid.

Moreover, the elements of inequality that Mettler addresses—inadequate aid, diminished student services—have an awful synergy with the broader dynamics of social and economic inequality in our time: income disparities, unstable housing, food insecurity, cutbacks in social services. Each sphere of inequality intensifies the other, making it more and more difficult for low-income students to enter and succeed in college.

• • •

I spent two years on the campus I describe. Confidentiality agreements prevent me from revealing its identity, but it is similar to other urban community colleges serving low-income populations. I interviewed students, observed classes, talked with teachers and administrators, and the overall picture I got was one of profound possibility and profound need.

Few students can get by on their financial aid allocation, which often arrives well into the term, making it difficult to buy books and supplies. And their progress is often stalled because the classes they need are full, delaying the conferral of an occupational certificate or degree. Their tutoring centers and other services have been trimmed back; their counselors have student loads that can significantly exceed a thousand.

As would be expected in an open-access college, students exhibit a wide range of motivation and skills. Those who are drifting through with low skills and ill-defined goals don’t last long. But, strikingly, even committed students face a series of obstacles that limit the benefit of the college experience and interrupt their studies.

All the successful students I met receive financial aid, yet all but one have to work, in some cases a lot, to make basic expenses. Those who live with parents or relatives contribute to the household, and those who live on their own or with others are frequently on the edge, barely making it month to month. One of the students I followed ended up living out of his car for half of the school year. Transportation is also a big concern. Either students don’t own a car or theirs is old and unreliable, and often they are short on money for gas. Many students don’t have a computer or, if they do, lack dependable Internet access.

Community college students possess grit by the truckload. What is in short supply are academic, financial, and social supports.

Along with worries about money, obligations press on these students. The idyllic portrayal of college as a respite from the demands of the world, a time of exploration and growth, is as distant as a medieval fable. These students have jobs or childcare or family responsibilities—younger siblings to be picked up from school or ailing parents to assist. These constraints reduce the opportunity to be involved in extracurricular activities that could broaden their education and help them establish useful connections with faculty, staff, and other students. The bigger problem is that these constraints make it harder to see faculty outside of class or to regularly work with tutors and other student services personnel. And the students do need help. Those who are parents, particularly single parents, are sometimes faced with the terrible choice of continuing their own education or compromising the care of their children. “I want to succeed in life,” one woman wrote in an essay for her English class, “but I will sacrifice anything for my child.”

And then there is the burden of past education: those who attend two-year colleges serving a poor population tend to come from under-resourced, struggling schools. Almost all the students I worked with had to take remedial math and English, and some were still stuck in the math sequence, their progress toward a degree stalled. They put in the time, agonize over their textbooks at home, and try to get help from friends. But they need the kind of ongoing, systematic assistance that a faculty member or tutor can provide.

The school’s leadership and many of the faculty seem aware of the weight carried by their students and are committed to helping them. As one occupational instructor put it, “The fact that some of our students get here daily is a success.” But the college is being slammed by the political and economic forces Mettler describes. On a per-student basis, California’s allocations to its community colleges have fallen more than 20 percent over the past two decades. Meanwhile community college enrollment has been increasing, and it shot further upward during the recession. The college has had to cut courses and greatly reduce offerings in the summer, a time when many students pick up general education courses needed for an associate degree or to transfer. Tutoring and other services have been significantly reduced; the writing center staff has been cut in half over the past five years. Students wait in line two hours to see a financial aid counselor and sometimes have to leave without a meeting because of work or childcare responsibilities. Limited financial aid, combined with the shredded safety net, transportation problems, and low-wage jobs, form a vicious cycle that reduces time spent on campus. If students had more aid, they wouldn't have to work as much. If there were better social services—such as affordable childcare and transportation for ailing family members in need of medical treatment—students could stay on campus to get the academic assistance and counseling they need. I don’t know a single student who has completed a certificate or degree in two years. Most take much longer, accruing debt and forestalling occupational mobility.

• • •

One of the surprises I found as I got to know the students at the college was the degree to which they are driven by some version of the American Dream. Many are cynical about politics and politicians. And some hold strong grievances about race or the power dynamics of American society in general and the workplace in particular. Yet, they believe in the value of working hard in school and have faith that doing so will pay off. These students have lots of reasons to be skeptical about what education can do for them, since many have had awful experiences in the classroom. They might complain about a teacher or about the challenges of getting a class or handling the financial aid office. But, overall, they consider school a way out and up.

I’ve seen this same optimism in many similar students. In another part of the city and at a very different kind of institution, a prestigious research university, you will find far fewer of the kind enrolled at the community college. But there are some.

Roberto—whose name has been changed, again due to confidentiality agreements— knew little English when he came to the United States at the age of fifteen. He had grown up in a small rural town in Guatemala. Through extraordinary effort he learned his second language, excelled in his working-class high school, and was admitted with full financial aid to the university. Along with grants, his aid package included work-study support and loans. He was able to live on campus for his first two years, but for the last two he had to move back home, across town, to a two-bedroom apartment that, at the time, was home to between seven and eleven people. He worked in a restaurant during the morning, took classes in the afternoon, and stayed in the library until 10:30 at night. Somehow, amid his studies, he found time to run a program that tutored students in a low-income, predominantly Latino community. He graduated last year in political science with a 3.3 GPA and $27,000 debt, which is close to the national average.

Roberto’s goal is to work in education or some type of social service, helping people who are in need. He can’t afford to enroll in a teaching or social welfare graduate program right now, and he has not been able to find full-time employment outside of the restaurant he’s been working at for years. The double shifts on the restaurant floor are getting to him, and he feels the bite of disappointment when a job prospect falls through. But a deep hope sustains him. He shares with the students at the community college a resilient optimism that his education will yield a better life.

• • •

We have a longstanding belief in the United States that once access to opportunity is provided, the fuel of mobility is hard work and determination. This belief is central to the nineteenth-century Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories, and it runs through the current interest in helping underprivileged students develop “grit,” the ability to persist in the face of difficulty.

It is worth remembering, though, that even in the Alger novels, the hero’s mobility isn’t triggered solely by his own effort, but by a wealthy benefactor who assists and guides him. In our country’s preeminent myth of self-determination and success, opportunity for the poor is made possible through intervention. During the mid-twentieth century, we created a cluster of policies that facilitated educational opportunity. Those policies have been compromised. Our already limited social safety net has been compromised as well, further diminishing the educational experience of low-income students.

Roberto and those at the community college possess grit by the truckload. What is in short supply are the kinds of academic, financial, and social supports that would enable them to realize their aspirations. These students have made an educational compact with themselves and with society. What will we do to honor that compact?