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Students have it rough these days

The last day of school means five weeks of blissful rest from student concerns

Those poor kids. They took their final exam in my class today. Most of them were just glad to get it over with. “Done,” one kid said, “now I can sleep some.” It wasn’t that my class alone kept him from the rest he needed. My class, his other classes, and his two jobs prevented him from getting a good night’s rest.

I have to admire my students, even the ones that seem to fumble around, doing half-assed work. They labor too much, take on more than they can deal with, and still have the gleam of hope in their eyes.

When I was first in college in 1981, I needed the job for incidentals—drinking money, movies, gas and insurance for the car. My first semester’s tuition, I remember, cost $425, everything except books included. That first semester, I felt what I would feel every time I started school again—and I did many times over the course of 30 years. I possessed a sense of discovery. I knew no one. Everything was new.

Of course, tuition went up over the ten years of my undergraduate experience, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I often skipped a semester to make enough money to afford one more semester. I took too many classes sometimes, dropped too many other times. But after a decade of in-and-out I graduated with two degrees. I received an assistantship for graduate school. Eleven years later, I received fellowships and an assistantship for Ph.D. work.

I got by on pure luck. Born at the right time, I benefitted from strong state support for higher education. Educational institutions competed not on what they could offer in terms of amenities but by the quality of instruction they offered to undergraduates. When I worked for minimum wages, that money meant something in the economy. I was able to keep apartments on low-wage jobs. With a little saving—and at that time that meant drinking at home instead of bars—I could save the money I needed to pay college tuition.

My students today are unlucky. They arrived at college age during a time when the states have all but abandoned higher education. A student with a job can no longer work his or her way through school. It’s more possible at a community college, such as the one where I teach, but the kids I know who are actually working and paying for college have above-average incomes. They are professionals who skipped finishing college before but need it now to advance in their careers. Most of my students whose parents aren’t paying for school work hard at jobs that pay less than $8 an hour. They have to take student loans. They go to school part time or, if they go full time, they somehow juggle the jobs, families, and loans to make it happen.

I don’t know what happened to my generation or the people that came before us. We got ours and now we care little about those coming up behind us. Colleges and universities now have bigger marketing departments than they have history or English departments. They use their physical facilities as marketing tools. They sell themselves based on the luxury of their appointments, their gyms, and their athletic departments.

For Spring 2016, a semester at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, costs $3,918 with tuition and other fees, such as a technology fee, student facility fee, student union fee, and seven other fees. Tuition alone for 12 hours is $3,267. At the college where I teach, Johnson County Community College, which is heavily subsidized by Johnson County, Kansas, property taxes, a Spring 2016 semester costs $1,092.

Let me do a little calculation: In 2016, the $425 I spent in tuition in 1981 would be worth $1,156.37—about the cost of a semester at the community college. But I started at a major urban university with 12,000 students. As I said, I worked my way through school, most times at minimum-wage jobs. That wage was $3.35. In today’s money, that $3.35 is worth $9.11. Minimum wage is $7.25 these days. That means that a kid going to community college could only do what I did if they were making over $9 an hour.

Out of the 90 students I had this semester, of those who had jobs, only about four made more than minimum wage. I know. I asked them what their jobs were and how much they made. They were forthcoming. The shook their heads. Most of them hated their jobs.

Young adults aren’t supposed to like their jobs. Most hold little meaning in the big scheme of things. The service industry, the service economy, creates an endless number of low-wage, low-brain labors that students find boring and demeaning. It’s happened to all of us. They are just getting started in life, so things should be hard. Right?

If so, then not this hard. If education provides a path to greater things, that education should not set them up as slaves to the banks that holds their student loans. The education that politicians and business people speak of provides not a way up but the means to trap these kids. They say they want to prepare students for jobs. But that kind of education doesn’t allow them to live exceptional, authentic lives of their own choosing. It provides a way to conventional, pre-manufactured consumerism. The education we are giving them makes them ciphers into which we pour the things that create profit.

The educations they gain at such great expense promise only lives of endless labor in uncertain conditions. As a group, they will not be better off than we were. When we deny them education that’s cost-effective and that promotes the life of the mind, we refuse to see the good that came with our relatively cheap educations.

I sat at the front of the class while they scribbled away on their exams. I asked myself, did I encourage them to reach out for something other than the lives society wants them to lead? Did I require them to think for themselves, to become less bullshit-able?

I like to think I did. But I’d be a fool to think that I would be the teacher they’d remember in a decade. I just hope I’m the one that contributed to the doubt they may one day have that “this is all life has to offer.”

I have five weeks to think about the next batch of kids and how I can pry the lids off those young minds and pour in all kinds of poison.

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