Poverty threatens college pipeline

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Our opinion columns today include a local college president examining the crushing influence of poverty on  students, and an English professor sharing insight on his syllabus and his students’ engagement.

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Sponsoring college students in need

By Beverly Daniel Tatum

When people ask me what my favorite moments have been as president of Spelman College, “graduation” is always my reply. It is a great feeling to watch young Spelman women graduate, knowing the obstacles they have surmounted and the talent they represent. They are the return on my investment as president, and I cannot think of a better way to impact society than to invest in our talent pipeline.

The pipeline needs our attention, because today, it is threatened by poverty. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010-2011, the poverty rate reached its highest level since 1933 even as the wealth of the Forbes 400 grew from $507 billion in 1995 to over $2 trillion in 2011. Most black and Hispanic families are concentrated at the lowest end of this continuum; for example, 50 percent of all black and Latino families had annual incomes below $40,000. Less than 1 percent of black and Hispanic families have incomes over $200,000.

Income and educational attainment are highly correlated. Only 30 percent of all U.S. adults, 25 years of age or older, have earned a college degree. Among black adults, 20 percent hold college degrees. Among Latino adults, the percentage is 14 percent.

These statistics are especially significant when we realize that in 2050, these two groups — along with Asians and Native Americans — will be the majority population in the U.S. All of us need to be well-educated and able to contribute meaningfully to our economy. A good education is one of the most effective routes out of poverty. The economic benefits of a college education are undeniable, despite recent rhetoric to the contrary. A four-year college degree is worth at least a million more dollars in your lifetime.

According to a recent analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. The study also pointed out that the big economic returns go to people who completed their degrees. Those with some college and no degree are not much better off economically than the high school graduate, and indeed, if they have student loan debt, they may be in a worse situation. Those who start need to finish.

But it’s not just about individual economic opportunity; it’s also about our democracy. We need an educated citizenry prepared to join an increasingly interdependent world. As the gridlock in Washington worsens, we can see our democracy is challenged. We can’t write off any of our future citizens without imperiling our own future.

At Spelman, we take great pride in our graduation rate. Over the last six years, it has averaged 77 percent, well above the national average of 45 percent for black students. Yet we are not fully satisfied with our results. I wish it was closer to 100 percent, such as it is with a cohort of our students who come to us with four-year scholarships like the Gates Millennium Scholars.

Spelman has the highest population of black female GMS scholars, 57, in the nation. The GMS program identifies low-income, high-achieving students, most of whom are the first in their families to attend college. With the financial burden of college attendance lifted from their shoulders, they are able to focus on school, graduate on time, and reap the full benefits of that pathway to graduate and professional schools or onto career opportunities.

In higher education, we hear a lot about the importance of “grit,” that ability to be resilient in the face of obstacles and persist toward a goal. The students who will be our most valuable players in the future are those who have the grit to persist and complete their college education in the face of difficult odds. But they cannot do it alone. They need investors. Often, the difference between college completion and becoming a debt-ridden dropout is less than $10,000 — an insurmountable gap for a family living below the poverty line, but an easy contribution for those college-educated professionals who live well above it.

I discovered this myself when I began sponsoring students on the path to completion. There is no better return on investment than to see a young person snatch graduation victory from the jaws of financial defeat, headed for a lifetime of personal and professional success. We need a better national policy of talent investment. While Washington waits, the time is now for individual investors to make a difference. That is the message I will be championing in this final year of my presidency at Spelman. It is the most important message of all.

Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College.

Once more unto the breach

By Randy Malamud

For my students at Georgia State University, the first week of school means looking forward and thinking about how much reading, writing and research they can expect over the coming semester.

For faculty, the process is reversed. We already have a pretty good idea of where we’re going to end up, so we’ve crafted and crammed our lesson plans to make sure we can do justice to roughly 1/28th of that material every class.

Things don’t always go as planned; there will be fortuitous diversions and necessary retrenchments, which I embrace gratefully as they guarantee I’m not yet replaceable by a computer.

The texts in my Modern British Novels seminar remain perennially fresh and relevant despite the fact some of the books we read are over a century old (“modern” is relative). Joseph Conrad’s 1899 “Heart of Darkness” will have us thinking about modern-day globalism and the commercial, ecological and ethical networks that link poorer and oppressed cultures with those that are more powerful. “Howards End,” E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel about class and the English manor home, will inevitably evoke comparisons with “Downton Abbey” and the nostalgic (anti-egalitarian?) phenomenon it has fostered.

Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness narrative in her 1925 work “Mrs. Dalloway” will remind students of the maddening-but-fascinating structures of such films as “Inception,” “Memento” and “The Matrix.” We will examine an author’s decision not to be as straightforward as she could be; why “less” (objective precision) might be “more” (authentic insight into what it is like to be a human being).

Students will chuckle at the odd mannerly foibles of the English on display in Barbara Pym’s mid-20th century novel “Excellent Women” and Ian McEwan’s recent “On Chesil Beach.” And then we will turn the mirror on ourselves and think about how a British reading audience might appraise our own peccadilloes.

We will “read between the lines,” in colloquial terms (and believe me, we have fancier literary jargon for this), as we tease out the resonances of psychological, social, political and aesthetic commentaries lurking beneath the surfaces. And while these commentaries may be just some dead writer’s opinions, they also not infrequently affirm Albert Camus’ contention that “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” We will encounter many more truths by the end of the course than we’d known at the beginning, which is a pretty satisfying accomplishment.

The braver students may try to posit what the novels “mean,” which will certainly (if past experience holds true) provoke others to try to take them down and offer up their own competing interpretations. There are not necessarily always right answers, but there are lots of interesting ones. A good class is a contentious class: Our arguments brim over with the rampantly unfettered exercise of critical inquiry and intellectual analysis that prepares our students for any one of a thousand possible productive pathways once we’re done with them.

And that is what one college class will be doing between August and December. I want the good citizens of Georgia, whose taxes help pay for all this, to know what they’re getting for their investment. My students are amazingly dedicated to what they do; they come in smart, and they leave, I’m pretty sure, a good bit smarter. I hope that I’ve had something to do with that value added, though I think they really do a good deal of the heavy lifting themselves.

Randy Malamud is chairman of the English Department at Georgia State University.


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