More Edu

I think we’re getting close to answering the world’s questions about education, the universe, and everything, so I’ll throw some more random thoughts up at this juggernaut of an education post over at Ways to End the World. An excerpt:

…kids with annual incomes of 104,000 or 164,000 a year — including, I suppose, him if he is among them — simply don’t need much help

Well I did have this plan in high school to start a search engine business called El’goog that would have brought in some serious cash…but alas the idea was stolen… I agree completely that if would-be college students themselves have massive income, aid is redundant. However, problems arise when parent’s money is equated to kid’s money, and this gets at how class is experienced in this country. (Family Kindness Disclosure: Below, I am not primarily talking about my own situation.)

Being a ‘privileged’ kid implies several conditions. You have many material things. You go to a good/safe/white school. You have the financial and emotional space to pursue your own projects. Now, these are all great, but you also have little autonomy. Your many gifts are not really yours, but rather a privilege provided by your parents, and subject to their feelings. Now the paternalism one experiences can be benevolent or not, stifling or not, but it is there.

This is not to equate the oppression of the elevated and subaltern sectors of society — clearly, given the choice, everyone would choose the soft tyranny of privilege — but to point out that there are plenty of shitty power dynamics to go around, no matter how high up the food chain you are. Our society is more complicated than a rich/poor binary can convey.

I have a friend who studied structural engineering with me because her parents wouldn’t pay for culinary school. She could have disobeyed them, but then would have had to make it work without their help or financial aid. She would always bring cookies to the labs. Another friend only was able to leave home for school because a scholarship allowed her to buck her parent’s wishes. Merit scholarships can mean freedom to do what you actually want, can mean escape from a bad family environment. They are one of the few outs for people who would otherwise not be helped by either their parents or state aid. Yes, loans are an option here, but then the need for repayment drives one’s post-college employment. It’s not a great solution.

Looking at the stats in Dr. Heller’s study on merit aid, the situation doesn’t seem all that bad:

My study found that while 97 percent of all federal grant dollars and 75 percent of all state grant dollars awarded to these students went to those whose parents’ income was below the national median, only 47 percent of all institutional grants were targeted to this same population of students. Over half of the grants awarded by institutions, or $5.5 billion, was awarded to students without any consideration of their or their parents’ financial need.

Even if all the schools’ merit-based aid went to students who’s parents are above the national median income, schools are still splitting their aid right down the middle. Half to those below the median, half to those above. This isn’t my preferred division, but it’s not like schools are only giving merit aid. It’s true that upper-income folk already received the best of our pre-college education system, but making sure poor folk have plenty of money for college in no ways addresses this earlier disparity.

Of course, a lot of the merit aid conflict would go away if we began to look at students as independent entities from their parents, and awarded them aid based on their own finances. I gained independent status after getting married, and my school began to give me grants, even as my parent’s assistance remained the same. It was no longer a struggle to make everything work. I now tell everyone they should get married before they start college, though no one actually carries through. Of course, if every student was considered a financial independent, and the government actually funded the required levels of aid, this would be equivalent to free college for all.

I see this is an unqualified good, though, since I look at education as being inherently valuable, irrespective of scarcity. Besides, it’s unseemly for employment advantage to derive from one’s ease of access to college, better that you have to distinguish yourself there or in other pursuits.

So…onwards to free education.

2 comments to More Edu

  • I think we have some fundamental differences of philosophy that will prevent us from reaching a consensus on a lot of these issues, but here are two points:

    First of all, I wasn’t clear enough on the meaning of the material I cited. What I was talking about under the umbrella of “merit aid” was in fact, counter to what you stated above, all the aid schools gave from their own pockets. My assumption is that this is mostly merit aid — I haven’t seen it being distributed by any other method in my school — but that’s not necessarily the case, and I don’t have a breakdown on hand.

    I would also suggest that while considering kids separate from their parents would solve the relatively rare problem of affluent parents refusing to support their kids, it would create a much larger problem: need-based aid being equally available to those who need it…and those who don’t. Now, if you make school free for everybody and pay with taxes as you would advocate, that’s not a problem. BUT, I would point out that it’s possible to be declared independent without marrying — you have to go through court and it can be frustrating, but you can do it. I have a friend who is effectively independent at the moment.

    Maybe this should be easier to do, but that would be a much better solution than simply assuming, say, Bill Gates’ son needs help because he isn’t working a full time job yet.

  • All good points. Surprising that I ended up defending the silver-spoon crowd on this one; not usually the way I go. Hmmm.

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