Guest blog: We cannot allow higher education to be a luxury the poor and middle-class can no longer afford

Linda Stamato
Linda Stamato


By Linda Stamato

How can education be the great equalizer when students can’t afford it?  Or, to put it in the president’s words—to the nation’s governors: “We can’t allow higher education to be a luxury in this country.”

From recent research reports and analysis, three observations:

(1) The explosion of student loan debt, which has passed the trillion-dollar mark, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is now burdening a record one in five households. (Pew)  But, the debt distribution tells a story that the overall figure doesn’t.  According to a report last year by the Center for American Progress, African-American and Latino students are especially saddled with loan debt, with 81 percent of African-American students and 67 percent of Latino students–who earned bachelor’s degrees– leaving school with debt.  This compares to 64 percent of white students who graduate with debt.

(2) A report, from Georgetown University researchers, on education and workforce requirements projects 55 million job openings through 2020 but a shortage of five million workers with the education or training to fill these positions  report is here:

Nicole Smith, a senior economist at the center and co-author of the report, said lawmakers who want to help grow the economy should help ensure that students have what they need to get postsecondary education or training.

And they shouldn’t have to incur unconscionable debt to obtain it!


(3) A dispiriting account of how elite colleges aid poor students reveals some unexpected (to me) findings. Top colleges profess a growing commitment to recruiting poor students. But a comparison of low-income enrollment shows wide disparities among the most competitive private colleges. “It’s a question of how serious you are about it,” said Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar to the New York Times. She said to colleges with multibillion-dollar endowments and numerous tax exemptions that recruit few poor students, “Shame on you.”


The question of socioeconomic diversity has gained new urgency in recent years, as economists and sociologists debate whether social mobility is declining in the United States, and educators ask what role top colleges play in helping or hindering that movement.

Among the top private schools, the disparities are even greater.  Some private college administrators say they do not have the same moral obligation as public colleges to serve all strata of society, though they are loath to say so publicly.

Ms. Hill, of Vassar, disagrees.

“We receive public support through federal grants, state grants, our tax exemptions, so I think we have the same duty,” she said. “And if young people don’t have an equal shot at getting a great education, we’re going to create a society we’re not very happy with.”


It’s clear what we need to do to provide solid educational opportunities for students, the young people upon whom the future of our nation rests.  We know the way.  The question is, for state and federal government, and for public and private institutions of higher learning: Do we have the will?

Bob Braun’s Ledger welcomes insightful guest essays like this one.

  1. By way of a postscript, I note in a short essay by Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, “The Ambiguous Role of Money in Higher Education,” (Chronicle of Higher Education: August 16, 2013), his concerns about the influence of money in the governance and operations of universities, and, relevant here, in admissions. Bok would agree with the Vassar president, Catharine Hill, that private, especially elite, institutions do indeed have an obligation to try to give students of limited means a chance to enroll and earn a degree if their academic qualifications are sufficient to make them reasonably competitive with the rest of the entering class. “In this way,” Bok says, “the best-endowed universities can try to temper the effects of great disparities of wealth by helping to create opportunities for all talented students instead of becoming a means for perpetuating hereditary patterns of affluence and privilege. By doing so, they can move America closer toward achieving one of its noblest, most fundamental ideals.” AMEN!
    (Bok’s latest book, “HIgher Education in America,” to be published by Princeton University Press, will be available in September.)

  2. Thank you Linda for saying it all! And to Bob for discussing these issues in your Ledger. I am everything I have achieved because of the great public education I received at Sussex Ave. School, Webster Jr. HS, Barringer High School and Rutgers University, all in the City of Newark! I will continue to fight for our public schools and for public education teachers at all levels as a leader of AFT NJ at Montclair State University and Rutgers SPAA. We are losing the great equalizer of affordable public education that allowed poor and middle
    class kids like me to climb the ladder to success and achieve the American Dream!

  3. Great point linda, I think what linda stated is correct. The education system is set up for upper class to archive and progress, whereas the poor and middle class have to work harder than them in order to get to a stage where they get at without them even trying that hard.

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