What they can’t see, but what I know, is how hard college was for me. Having attended 12 schools in two states between the ages of 6 and 14, none of them very good, I was woefully unprepared for science, math and foreign languages. I did fine in English and history, but unfortunately colleges demanded more than that. Had the college I attended required an SAT score, admission officials would have laughed all the way through my rejection letter. It didn’t help that I was essentially a first-generation college student. (My paternal sharecropper grandfather could not read or write until late in life; my father did not complete high school; my mother began college while I was working on my Ph.D.) Furthermore, there were money problems. My mother was a homemaker, my father a salesman.
As much as middle- and upper-class Alabamians may not know it, there are hundreds of thousands of children in Alabama like I was in the mid-1950s: full of dreams, poorly prepared academically, few financial resources. But I had two enormous advantages: I won a debate scholarship (not based on academics, I emphasize, but upon a Baptist ministerial student’s gift for gab, which is legendary), and tuition at Samford University was only $150 per semester (which was within the range of my scholarships, savings from multiple jobs, and my father’s modest salary). There were also plenty of other first-generation college students just as poor and frightened as I was.
Here are some of the reasons that what was possible for me a half-century ago is impossible for many teenagers in this generation.
Alabama doesn’t invest much in the future of its children. Our total tax burden consistently ranks last of the 50 states or close to it. That starves public schools, resulting in students as poorly prepared for college as I was (some 40 percent have to take remedial courses to make up their deficiency). Fellow Alabamians: Rejoice about your low taxes, but worry about the future of your children.
Some colleges and universities engage in a recruiting arms race for the declining pool of traditional students (18-to-25-year-olds from upper-middle and upper classes who attend university full time, mainly in the daytime, and live on campus or adjacent to it). Many of these relatively affluent students and their parents demand fancy condo-like dorms, opulent student centers and other amenities. Furthermore, some universities fund the extras (new student centers, sports facilities, athletic teams) by increased student fees. Sometimes they ask students to vote on such perks. Most students who vote for them seldom understand that every student-fee increase causes a certain percentage of working students to drop out of college.
Universities compete fiercely for a small number of elite students. They discount tuition by awarding merit-based scholarships funded by increased tuition on everyone else. High SAT scores and the number of National Merit finalists have become bragging points for colleges and universities. Meanwhile, federal Pell grants, available to poor and working-class students based on need, cover a smaller and smaller percentage of total expenses.
Administrative bureaucracies increase at a rate faster than student enrollment. Alabama should require every state institution to compare the number of staff and administrators in 1990 with 2010. If the percentage increase is higher than the percentage of increased enrollment, the school should explain why this happened. There may be good reasons, such as increased federal reporting requirements. But poor and working-class kids are often the casualties of this administrative bloating.
We don’t value non-traditional students (older adults returning to college; students who have to work full- or part-time to pay tuition; students with families to support; students who have to attend at night). These students may not dominate deans’ lists, but their lives depend just as surely on a college degree as do those of National Merit finalists. I’m not against more National Merit finalists or NCAA football championships.
But here is my challenge to higher education in Alabama: Evaluate the success of colleges and universities not only by the number of National Merit finalists in the student body or the number of national football championships won, but also by the number of first-generation college students graduated.
Wayne Flynt is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Auburn University.