"Why Making College Free Isn’t Enough for First-Generation Students", Assumptions, Class-Based Assumptions, Comments, First-Generation Students, Higher Education, Hillary Clinton, Intentions, Nitpicking, Racial Assumptions, Responses, Stories, The Atlantic
On Labor Day last week, The Atlantic ran my piece “Why Making College Free Isn’t Enough for First-Generation Students.” It was a culmination of thoughts I had gleaned from the latest, research, from working on education issues in the nonprofit world, from my time as a professor at various universities, from my own college journey, and is in some ways, a summary of Boy @ The Window.
The response over the past week has been much more than I expected. It was definitely overwhelming in terms of the number of people who shared their own first-generation stories. I found myself wading through emails, nodding my head in agreement or shaking my head at the crap that some of my readers had to put up with to attend and graduate from college. These emails — as well as comments on the article on The Atlantic website — made all of the work putting the article together worth it.
A couple of stories stuck out for me. One was from a first-generation student who attended college a few years before my own 1987-91 run at the bachelor’s.
I read your article in the Atlantic, I was shocked at the similarity of our college experience. I like the Columbia investigation tale, they told me they didn’t believe me that my family income was so modest…Georgetown offered me the most money. I went to Georgetown in 1982, graduated in 1987, was homeless for a time, embarrassed about my modest financial background, grew up very fast in all areas, to enable completion of my studies.
Among the things that struck me was the shame of poverty the person felt then and years later. Living in a country like the US, with the constant mantra of hard work, faith, and ability all lead to prosperity, means that anyone not doing well might as well be a laughingstock standing naked in front of their high school graduating class. Or should contemplate committing suicide. It shouldn’t be purely on first-generation students to open up about their experiences before universities and states put resources into leadership and youth development organizations, mental health services, and fully-funded, need-based aid beyond tuition (covering food, housing, and books) to maximize opportunities for this increasingly larger group of college students.
I know the unofficial rule about not reading comments sections for articles, especially if the article happens to be your own. But given the personal nature of “Why Making College Free Isn’t Enough for First-Generation Students,” I wanted to see what folks had to say. Some accused me of self-aggrandizement, of “patting myself on the back” for having graduated with a degree from Pitt in four years. Another went on to call me “exceptional,” that most “sixth-generation” students couldn’t have done what I did. Both comments seemed vaguely envious. I took no joy in writing about being homeless for five days. Especially since I knew so many others under similar circumstances haven’t completed their degrees.
Some of the comments I received on Twitter were of the nitpicking variety. One was from an education professor whom told me to “read her book” because I didn’t nuance the fact that non-financial aid programs for first-generation students cost money and other resources. Really? No kidding! Another pointed out there were more aspects to Hillary Clinton’s higher education plan than free college tuition, while a third commented that I didn’t discuss Pell Grants as part of my financial aid packages. All true, but given the comprehensive nature of the piece, I didn’t think it necessary to write a magnum opus or someone else’s version of combining my experiences with today’s data on first-generation students.
Many of the comments in The Atlantic’s Comments section, though, were of the more stereotyping variety. Comments about my Mom as undeserving of welfare because of the number of kids she had. Comments about my father’s alcoholism. Assumptions that because my father wasn’t in the household, that I lived in a “broken home.” Stereotypes about affirmative action, about “big government,” about “welfare cheats” versus law-abiding “tax payers.” I could address all of these well-meaning race-baiters one-by-one, but I’ve challenged these assumptions in the piece and even in my blog, anyway.
One of my readers emailed me in expressing their assumptions about me and about first-generation students in general.
What makes sense is for first-generation students to go to colleges more oriented toward their needs, even if those colleges are less ‘competitive.’
Navigating a huge bureaucracy isn’t easy for anyone. What it takes is the emotional strength that comes from being raised in a functional, intact home…But rising up the ladder has to be seen as, for most, a gradual process, not a “rags to riches” one.
I guess this person missed the part where I noted that 50 percent of all first-generation students are White, and that technically, I did live in a home with either my father and my Mom or my idiot stepfather and my Mom growing up. Part of the problem in understanding the needs of first-generations students, though, are people like this reader, many of whom are college administrators who also make sweeping assumptions about students who aren’t middle class and White. Heck, the main indicator of success for students is parent’s income and wealth, not hard work, ability, or whether their parents live together or face substance abuse issues.
And that’s kind of the point another emailer made about her own college journey as a first-generation student.
I went off to a private college — which I picked without any idea about getting a job or learning a profession. My mother…naively believed that a degree would guarantee I would be more employable. I was one of maybe 2 scholarship students on my small campus and I was miserable. None of my friends there worked and for them, living “poor” was hip. I was the only one desperate not to be broke (because mom and dad couldn’t bail me out). I stayed there for 2 years even though I did poorly academically because I didn’t even know I could transfer schools. I thought if I left, I was giving up on college altogether. In reality, it took me almost 10 years to finish college (finally, at a state school) and I lived in poverty in the meantime…I still can’t eat ramen noodles because I grew so ever-loving sick of having them all the time.
In her case, I would eat ramen noodles any day over canned tuna fish. Twenty-eight years later, the smell of it still makes me queasy.
So, thanks to all of you who read the piece, disagreed with some or all that I said, shared your stories, commiserated with me, and/or misinterpreted my article and why I wrote it. Much appreciated!