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Making higher education accessible to all.

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Speaking at the UMass Boston convocation in early Sept., Chancellor J. Keith Motley called…for a return to “the idea of public education as an investment” to reduce social inequality by expanding college access for low-income students. [Source]

“All students who are qualified and committed to the demands of a university education should find our doors open to them,” Motley told an audience of more than 200 at the UMass Boston campus center. “And we must hold fast to the larger ends of education, which comprise nothing less than the development of human beings.”

“We can reinvest modestly in public higher education. But we are derelict in our duty as a society if we end up just limping along, protecting those who quietly fear a society of equals, and subvert the futures of our children and our children’s children,” he said to applause.

Paul Reville, MA education secretary, also spoke.

Reville said that while the state’s public schools made strong gains in the past decade, “profound achievement gaps” between white and minority students persist, and “income and educational achievement still closely correlate.”

State leaders are studying a range of ways to make sure low-income students arrive at school ready to learn, he said, including early intervention programs aimed at reducing language deficits, and improved communication with other public agencies that work with young children.

Access to public higher education is becoming a huge problem in Massachusetts. I know, I know, you’re thinking of the stereotype, ivy walls, full-dress balls (thank you, Eddie and the Cruisers) and you’re covering everything in Harvard crimson and Wellesley blue. So is the government and that’s part of the problem.

Massachusetts ranks either 49th or 46th in the nation on spending for higher education [Source], it invests less than 4 percent of its state budget on it [Source] and, nationally, state grant aid covers about 19 percent of college costs while here it covers less than 5 percent [Source]. That’s abhorrent. To make matters worse, in July of this year, MEFA announced they were unable to secure funding for 2008-2009 academic year education loans. That’s a tremendous blow to the students who depend on the low-cost loans available through them. (As of September 16, too late to finance Fall semester tuition, MEFA had raised $400 million in financing through the sale of bonds and would once again be able to offer student loans [Source].)

What the hell is going on here? Well, Massachusetts students are much more likely than their national peers to attend wealthier private universities, state lawmakers have long viewed financial aid as a secondary priority [Source]. That’s great, but what about the students who can’t get accepted to or when accepted can’t afford those private colleges?

Full Disclosure: I attend Wellesley College. I, like many of my peers, receive a grant. I also have federal loans and private loans–one through MEFA. I couldn’t afford it with a grant alone, and I couldn’t afford it without loans. This is me, and I’m lucky. I worked hard to get accepted to Wellesley, but it’s highly possible I had a better start than many . Even when I was older and returned to school–a Massachusetts Community College–I had advantages others did not.

I’m white, middle-aged, married, and come from a two-working-parent home. Growing up, I went to public school in a time before AP classes, but I still had the advantage of not having to work while attending high school, giving me more time to study. When I returned to college as an adult I was able to work only part-time and still pay my tuition without loans, once again giving me an advantage over my community college peers, many of whom worked full-time or had children. So, yes, I worked very hard academically, but I also had the time to do so.

As Secretary Reville said, there are “profound achievement gaps” between white and minority students in Massachusetts. Money is the great divider here. When money is necessary, both parents have to work. Children, when they are of age, have to work. After-school time is spent working, not studying, and the parents aren’t always home to help with homework no matter how much they want to be. Then there are those children who grow up in a home where English is a second language whose vocabularies lag behind those of their peers who grew up speaking the language of their teachers and whose parents possibly don’t speak English at all and can’t help with homework for that reason. Public schools, often not well-funded, can’t attract good teachers, buy the newest textbooks, or create special classes for those who need that bit of extra help. Even the smartest of the children can’t get the education they deserve because their families can’t afford private schooling.

Then these kids, our kids, graduate high school. Maybe they’ve done well, maybe they haven’t, and maybe that had little to do with their inherent intelligence and a lot to do with their school and their financial situation. We have a great many public higher education institutions here in this state, no matter your grades, college is an option. If you can afford it. And if you can’t, well, there are loans, right? Loans you’ll just have to pay back–after you graduate if you’re lucky, or as soon as they’re dispersed if all you can qualify for is a Federal Unsubsidized Stafford Loan. And maybe you can’t afford to pay even the interest on that loan right now.

Things need to change in this state, and everywhere in this country. As Chancellor Motley said “all students who are qualified and committed to the demands of a university education should find our doors open to them.” All students. Not just the upper and middle class primarily white students who have income-based advantages that the lower economic classes and many people of color do not have.

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Written by tldegray

November 3, 2008 at 12:04 pm

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