College & The Dream

Some years ago, in a city I never thought I would be in–Ashgabat, Turkmenistan–I gave away one of my small number of college pennants, literally from the wall of my school booth, to a young woman who burst into tears and hugged the stiff piece of felt as tight as one would a most precious possession.  That is a country where most students, especially women, will not likely have the opportunity to study in the U.S. A living wage in Turkmenistan cannot begin to support the full cost of a year of undergraduate study here.

But this same issue is what we talk about when we talk about domestic students affording college.  How much loan debt is acceptable?  For what major and eventual planned career?  What is driving the high cost?  Those questions are parent and student questions, but those of us who work in higher education have our own versions: What are we spending all of this money on?  Which students are we “pricing out” of study at our school?  Why are we always doing more with less?

I wrote about the business of higher education in my last post, so I will not extend that conversation in the same way here.  Instead, what I do want to explore is the spirit of that young woman crying in Ashgabat, holding the pennant of a school she had never heard of or thought of before that moment.  Instead, what she had dreamed of was a life different from the one set before her as the path marked ahead, and that is just what our most vulnerable students in the U.S. are experiencing as they dream big, take advantage of the many ways they have to find the funds to pay for college, stretch themselves in every way to make that dream come true.  Unlike that student overseas, domestic students have access to federal aid of various kinds, private loans, grants, and scholarships.  So, first generation students, young people from immigrant communities, and those with less wealth or knowledge of the system may accrue huge debt without really understanding the possible financial consequences.

But what happens when the dream won’t come true?  Those same groups of students are our most vulnerable in the classroom as well, often lacking the same context and background knowledge about the academic enterprise of college as they do in respect to the financial realities.  I think about that between semesters, as lists of students on probation or being dismissed arrive in my email and as bills go unpaid or students inquire about extra work because of unexpected costs.  I wonder if we, as educators, could have done something differently to help those students understand what could happen, what was happening.  I know that we, regardless of whether we are faculty or administrators or staff, cannot solve all the problems, even for the students we would want to.  How prepared are we and were we for the ways that these students were unprepared?

As we look ahead to the next administration and the tough times it portends for those of us in academe, we need to keep our sights on the reason we do this every day: students.  That means we need to make ourselves more prepared to catch them as they stumble or fall in new or known ways.  And as systems and rules change, they will stumble and fall more.  How do we do that, exactly?  I’ll share my answer to that question here next time.

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