Fighting Inequality: Is Higher Ed Creating a New Class of Highly Educated Poor?

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You’ll hear a lot these days about income inequality. But does higher ed only make matters worse?

Here’s a typical middle-class situation in which both husband and wife work and the family still struggles to get by. Both are lucky to have jobs and make a combined average of $120,000. Good? Not by today’s corporate level standards. Add to our hypothetical family a kid who gets into a great college. But that’s no cause for celebration.

In this era where college tuition is pretty much an automatic $40,000 a year, even with scholarships, the average middle-class family still struggles. College living expenses range from $10,000 to $15,000 a year. How to pay? Loans.

If the parents — who’ve maxed out their credit — can get a loan, the expenses are shared by student and parent. Not so great for the parents’ retirement picture. If parents can’t get a loan, then the student shoulders it all, which, upon graduation, may equate to $60,000 in debt.

Welcome to the fellowship of educated men and women. Make that educated and indebted. And more often than not, unemployed, and maybe even unemployable.

Though numbers will vary, the story sounds all too familiar, and all roads still lead to the same answer. Borrow now, pay later. Live off the dream. Higher ed will lift us all.

And as we all know, sometimes it does. And sometimes it doesn’t.

President Obama calls the growing inequality in our society, “the defining challenge of our time.” But the talk tends to give short shrift to how society routinely creates this new class of highly educated debtors.

Even when there’s discussion about income inequality, it tends to avoid discussing root causes. The talk rightly focuses on existing safety nets, or raising the minimum wage and increasing funding to programs.

Diversity advocates know how hard are communities are hit.

From a recent New York Times article on the war on poverty:

“About four in 10 black children live in poverty; for Hispanic children, that figure is about three in 10. According to one recent study, as of mid-2011, in any given month, 1.7 million households were living on cash income of less than $2 a person a day, with the prevalence of the kind of deep poverty commonly associated with developing nations increasing since the mid-1990s.

Both economic and sociological trends help explain why so many children and adults remain poor, even putting the effects of the recession aside. More parents are raising a child alone, with more infants born out of wedlock. High incarceration rates, especially among Black men, keep many families apart. About 30 percent of single mothers live in poverty.”

The statistics seem staggering. Yet no one seems willing to talk about serious “wealth redistribution,” which means any effort toward ending income inequality is doomed from the start.

If politicians can’t seem to muster up the heart to help the existing poor, maybe they can find the enthusiasm to help the youthful new class of emerging poor — the college graduates who end up majoring in debt.

Now if the students only had lobbyists as loud and effective as those that banks and automakers had, and if students voted regularly and in earnest, who knows, they might even be able to demand a bailout.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog) Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media or follow him on Twitter @emilamok.

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