American Dreamin'

American Dreamin'

Students protest tuition hikes. Source: CNN.
Students protest tuition hikes. Source: CNN.

My mother was the oldest of 5 children, raised in a small apartment in the Bronx. Her immigrant parents had no opportunity to go to college, and were very proud of her when she graduated near the top of her class and got a full scholarship to study math at Mercy College. One of her younger brothers, Peter Malone, was also intent on going to college, He wasn't so academically inclined as my mother; he wanted to be an artist. After four years at the prestigious School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, he owed a little over $8,000. "It wasn't much, but it felt like an awful lot of money at the time," he said.

After graduation, he got a bill from Chase bank, requesting the first of his loan repayments-- they wanted $350/ month. His rent at the time was $175/ month. He called the bank to ask for a loan reduction, and they told him to default on the loan. Although this made him nervous, he decided to listen. Soon after, he got a letter from the New York State Higher Education Commision. They now owned his loan, and had a system where students paid the interest off first, then the loan stopped accruing interest. He paid $70/ month, which he was able to earn easily working as a handyman for a hardware store four days a week. In fact, he was also able to pay for graduate school at Columbia University on that salary.

In the late 1970s, when the hard-won gains of civil rights and women’s liberation were being felt fully, the American Dream was within reach for some. Federal minimum wage was $2.30 which, when adjusted for inflation is $6.34/ hour. At that rate, someone working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks out of the year made $12,680 annually by our standards. the average cost of tuition, room and board at a four year college (averaging both public and private institutions), was $2,275.

by 2007, after 20+ years of union busting and re-segregation, and a few years without Glass Steagall, the minimum wage was only $5.85, or $4.41 when adjusted into current buying power. Someone working as many hours in 2007 earned a whopping $8,820 all year at the buying power of 2012. Meanwhile, tuition, room and board at a 4 year college cost them $15,434 in current dollars.

To put it plainly: in 1976, you could have worked a minimum wage job full time and earned enough to put your child, spouse, sibling, or self through a year of school with approximately ⅙th of your paycheck. In 2007, you would barely make ½ as much as you needed.

This is the reality many Baltimore City students find themselves in. They are told that if they work hard in school and go to college, they will succeed. Success, of course, means financial security and the ability to conspicuously consume. Many anti-capitalists sneer at this vision, but for people who grew up struggling for basic necessities while being placated with commercials depicting only the most lavish things, it can be hard to conceive of a comfortable life living within modest means.

In fact, I have never yet, in 6 years teaching high school in Baltimore, met a student who felt it was worthwhile to go to college just to learn for the sake of learning. And, at $10,000-$40,000/ year, it’s hard to blame them.

My first year teaching at Heritage, I was blessed with a fiery group of freshmen. Two years later, I was lucky enough to teach a few sections of juniors, and get to reconnect with those students in their more mature versions of themselves. Needless to say, I made some lasting connections.

That class, the class of 2010, had something I haven’t seen before or since: a decent-sized, tight knit group of scholastically-inclined young men.

There were at least ten of them, in a class of about 100. I’ve stayed in touch with at least five of those. As of right now, only one of those five is currently in college full time.

Brian Jackson is one of the best writers and most thoughtful students I've worked with in Baltimore. he went to Capitol College right out of high school, where he floundered. Expectations in Baltimore City schools were so low that he never learned to push himself as much as was necessary to do very well in college.

At the end of his sophomore year at Capital, Jackson’s financial aid was pulled, and he was forced to take time away from his studies. “My whole world sunk,” he told me, “but then they told me I could get it back if I wrote them a letter [explaining] how my last semester went. I agreed and came home, laid the news, and faces dropped to the floor...I was so disappointed in myself.

I feel like they shouldn't have taken [my funding away] because they only gave me one warning and didn't even tell me I was close to losing it until the last minute.”

Without the funding, it’s impossible for him to stay in school so, at 20 he’s desperately looking for a job in a city with a 9.7% unemployment rate, where his age, race, and current education level put him in a category quite unlikely to find one of those coveted jobs.

Jackson remains undaunted. “The school is going to give me another chance if I prove to them I can do it, which I know I can,” he told me recently.

One of Jackson’s high school friends, E'Van Brown, went to Frostburg State University right out of high school. He did fairly well, studying computer science, but quickly amassed over $10,000 in debt. After his Sophomore year he decided to take some time off to work for his aunt's cleaning company and start to pay off the debt. He would like to enroll at Morgan or Coppin State in Baltimore, where he could live at home and keep working. However, Frostburg is refusing to release his transcripts while he owes so much. Unlike my uncle's experience in the 70s, there is no state-run safety net to take over his debt; he has to deal with the banks. So E'van is stuck in limbo--one of a growing class of overqualified workers in low-level service industry jobs.

Another member of their circle, Michael McDaniel, is also out of school this semester looking for work. He feels that “education is the best way to go to have a brighter future to better yourself in this world that we live in, but some schools’ tuitions are way over board.”

He also made the interesting insight that “Maryland is like a medical state.” Majors in fields related to health and medicine, he posits, are abundant, and can be found at a variety of schools, while “students who don’t want to [study medicine] have to go out and pay extra for schools just to pursue their major.” It is not unrelated that he is currently seeking a job in medical billing at Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. Hopkins is the largest employer in the state of Maryland, with almost 38,000 employees (note that the linked website separates those employed by Hopkins’ medical systems and Hopkins University, thereby placing it in both the #2 and #4 spots).

McDaniel, who is studying computer network security, is not alone amongst his peers when he says that the primary purpose of education is “to find a good job to hold you over.” Yet most of the jobs offered at Johns Hopkins, as well as those offered by the majority of the 25 companies listed by The Baltimore Sun as the state’s top employers, do not require a college degree. Therefore, many young people who can't finish college for one reason or another get stuck working these dead end jobs, unable to make enough to return to school, but unable to leave because of the necessity of paying back loans.

McDaniel and Jackson share another distinguishing feature:they were victims of a senseless shooting, weeks before their graduation, which claimed the life of their neighbor and friend, Sean Johnson. Sitting on Johnson’s porch one evening, these good boys-- who were not involved in drugs, guns, gangs, or any of the dangerous things we tell our children to avoid-- these good boys were suddenly shot at, suddenly running for their lives. Both Brian and Michael were hit, though they survived with relatively minor injuries. Their young friend was not so lucky.

Students speculated that the shooters may have had the wrong house, or that they may have wanted to send a terrible message to other inhabitants of that house. Our message to them was: don’t let this turn you off. You’ve come this far, you’re so close to graduation...and don’t worry-- college will be your ticket out.

Renard Barton is a freshman at University of Baltimore. Last year, he graduated from Heritage High as our Salutatorian, yet was not able to find a single scholarship. He is receiving financial aid, but at least some portion of that is in loans which he will have to pay back in coming years.

Barton set himself apart in high school by openly identifying as a Republican. I recently asked him if he still feels a connection to that party, to which he said “I don’t know, Romney really let me down.” He does, however, hold the traditional views held by many in that party that hard work and sacrifice are the only honorable way to attain things, and that they pay off. Yet he told me of a friend he’d made at UB who has had to leave after only one semester of college for purely financial reasons. Barton said “I feel terrible. It’s sad that you have to have all this money even though you want to do well in school and are willing to put in the work.” He suggested making more scholarships available, and making them easier to find.

This is an interesting solution. Should we try to reduce the cost of college overall, or should we focus on ensuring that there are scholarships available for everyone who needs them?

When I was a freshman at Goucher College in 1999, almost half of the student body was receiving either a $10,000 scholarship for leaving high school with a 3.0 GPA and an 1100 minimum SAT score, or a $15,000 scholarship for a 3.3 GPA and 1200+ SAT scores. When I started there, tuition plus room and board came in around $25,000. So most of the students on campus were paying $10,000-15,000 per year, with some on much larger scholarships, and many with additional need-based financial aid.. That’s an awful lot of money, to be sure, but not more than large state schools were charging at the time.

So, while many of my friends sat in lecture halls of 50-300 students at SUNY colleges, I had small, intimate classes of 15-30 for close to the same cost. Although it was sometimes hard to interact with the incredibly wealthy students, it felt good to know they were paying what was reasonable for their family while I was paying what was reasonable for mine, and we were getting the same education. In this world where there are some who have so much, it seems good to let them pay a great deal to educate their children and to let those funds also go to enhance the educational experience of others.

This year, tuition and expenses at Goucher total a whopping $48,836, though the average student only pays $28,152. Goucher’s Vice President for Enrollment Management, Michael O’Leary, says that more than 80% of Goucher students are on some amount of financial aid. He explains a tricky balance between the need to attract and retain students and the need to stay financially fit.

O’Leary took the job in 2008, just as the country was really starting to feel the collapse of the housing bubble and the recession that came along with it. “Real median household income fell, people’s homes lost value,” he explained, “If we hadn’t responded to that, enrollment would have dropped significantly...Families more and more are less willing to pay.” He says the college is working to keep expenses down and “trying to find new sources of revenue other than tuition.”

While Brian, E'van and Michael scrounge for work in Baltimore, their friend Charles is taking a different route. I met Charles when he showed up as the only sophomore in my SAT prep class, a course designed for Juniors. The first day, when students were filling out surveys about who they are and what they want to be, he called me over and asked "how do you spell Anesthesiologist."

He got two scholarships to Towson University, though it's "not enough to cover" all of the expenses. For two years, he did quite well, taking classes over the summer and the winter to accelerate his credit acquisition. Now, with one year to go, he's sitting at home in East Baltimore awaiting a March fifth deployment into the Navy.

He insists that it's what he wants: to "see the world." When I asked if he was leaving for financial reasons, he said "no, but it's a benefit." Recruiters have told him that the Navy will help him pay back all of his loans if he goes in now.

So, we tell our students-do the right thing. Go to school, focus, do your homework, go to college, and your life will fall into place. But, increasingly, it's not the case. And students in Baltimore aren't alone. The New York Times ran an article in late December about three young women in texas having a similarly difficult time.

So, what's the answer? For students in much of the world, including, Europe, Canada, and much of Africa and Asia, college is an extension of public schooling, and is free or very low cost. Instead of following their lead, the squeeze of capitalism is causing them to follow ours. Fortunately, students in Canada believe strongly in their right to free education, so after months of protests, they held onto it. But the squeeze is still on.

Meanwhile, students in the States are left with confusing scholarship searches and a lot of run around. Some colleges, like Antioch in Ohio, are trying to respond not only by making more scholarships available, but by rethinking the structures of the school. Of course, Antioch has the opportunity to do this because it’s enrollment dropped so low a few years ago that it lost accreditation.

But should the future of our country be beholden to scholarships? Must we make our children compete for our favour? Why on earth isn’t it enough for these young people to work hard and meet our expectations? Why can’t we give them reasonable expectations up front, and then help them get there.

We can’t have it both ways, America. We can’t require hard work and sacrifice and simultaneously not accept hard work and sacrifice as tickets to the next level. As working people, and as students, aspiring to be workers, we have to stand up, as the students and workers in Montreal have done, and demand that tuition be lowered, scholarships be increased, and guarantees be made that students in good academic standing will be eligible for significant tuition reduction by sophomore or junior year.

I want to live in a world where people can grow and change. Let’s make that American Dream a reality.

Iris Kirsch

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"5290","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"300","style":"width: 400px; height: 300px; float: left; margin-right: 0.5em","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"400"}}]]Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.