Nassau Community College
AAUP Advocacy Chapter
December 7, 2015
The stark reality of higher education and white privilege really hit me recently when I stumbled across Campus Goose, a business that provides “CONCIERGE & ERRAND SERVICES FOR BROWN UNIVERSITY AND RISD* STUDENTS.” If you’re one of the lucky few who can plunk down say $2300 for 100 half-hour units of service (the best-value “Feathered Nest” package), you can select from a menu of services—including maid services, wake-up calls, room organization, parking spots, stock-up runs, morning muffins, chicken soup, and all manner of “missing mommy” pampering—curated specifically for the helpless, privileged classes attending college in Providence, Rhode Island. Meanwhile, down here in Nassau County, where median household income is $93,214 (we teach in the thirteenth richest county in the United States!), students at Nassau Community College show up to class so hungry that some wonderfully enterprising individuals (who deserve a TON of praise) have had to create a food pantry, the Nest, to help feed them.
These anecdotal images of economic and educational disparity aren’t anomalous: they reflect the reality of higher education in the United States in 2015. Higher education in the United States actively (almost brazenly) reproduces intergenerational white racial privilege. First a few facts: a recent study by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute states: “Since 1995, 82 percent of new white enrollments have gone to the 468 most selective colleges, while 72 percent of new Hispanic enrollment and 68 percent of new African-American enrollments have gone to the two-year and four-year open-access schools.” The same Georgetown study tells us that the 468 most selective four-year post-secondary schools have a graduation rate of 82%, compared to 49% for two- and four-year open access schools (and the rate is considerably worse for two-year colleges alone), a disparity that can be attributed directly to the overcrowding and underfunding of public higher education. The 468 most selective schools spend $13,400 per year for each full-time student versus $6000 per FTE at open access schools. Again, the Georgetown study: “Attending the top schools in the country gives students, regardless of their test scores, a much better chance of graduating from college compared to attending open- access schools.” These facts are wonderfully promising if you happen to be wealthy and white, but they are woefully dire if you are poor or African American or Hispanic: Whites graduating with bachelor’s degrees from elite schools have privileged access to graduate and professional schools and to the highest-paying white collar and managerial jobs.
A point to ponder: The defunding, or better yet, the impoverishment of public higher education during the past twenty years corresponds directly with the movement of well-off whites out of and people of color into open-access two-year and four-year colleges. One obvious conclusion follows from this point: since “white flight” from open-access institutions parallels a declining white racial majority status in the United States, the steady, deliberate impoverishment of two- and four-year public colleges can be seen as a way for whites to consolidate and maintain white privilege and control of the nation’s political and economic institutions (via higher education) in the face of an emerging non-white demographic majority. If we accept that education—elementary, secondary, and post-secondary—is the road to the American Dream, then that road for well-off whites is a beautifully paved super-highway, but for most non-whites (and all folks who are economically disadvantaged) that road might as well be marked “Dead End.”
Separate and unequal—that is the story of higher education in 2015. (And it makes me wonder why this isn’t one of the key civil rights issues of our time. But that is a topic for another issue of the Weekly Read.) In the meantime, I want to consider some ideas for leveling this higher education landscape proposed in a 2013 Century Foundation study, Bridging the Higher Education Divide: Strengthening Community Colleges and Restoring the American Dream. A first and very important point: none of the proposals for fixing public higher education offered in this study involve public-private partnerships, or business councils, or any of the typical neo-liberal, corporatizing pablum offered up by conservatives (or governors with large hedge-fund constituencies). Here we go: (1) To address racial and class inequities in funding: adopt state and federal “adequacy”-based funding similar to that used to fund primary and secondary schools (along with accountability standards). Additionally, lawsuits ought to be initiated to extend constitutional guarantees of education funding to open-access colleges. (2) Community colleges ought to be “magnetized” (like secondary “magnet” schools) to create a different demographic mix—attracting more middle class students, not just the economically disadvantaged. (3) Blend elements of two- and four-year colleges into one setting (offer upper-division classes in the two year setting; start offering baccalaureate degrees at the two-year college; etc.); create joint two-year and four-year college bachelors programs. (4) Encourage public investment in honors programs that are truly economically and racially diverse, rather than being tracking and segregating devices within the community college. (5) Create incentives for four-year colleges to “engage in affirmative action for low-income students of all races.” What these measures have in common is a re-investment in a vigorous and healthy balance between public and private sectors of higher education in the United States.
One last word: I think we need to decide if Nassau Community College exists to educate or train and think hard about what the class and racial implications of that decision might be. We’ve already seen pretty convincingly how P-Tech is premised on a fraud, on a made-up skill-gap crisis that will help ensure IBM (and other businesses) gets a publicly paid-for supply of cheap labor drawn from the very population I’ve been describing above. It’s dangerous and dumb to let a crisis—whether it’s the Great Recession or a downturn in enrollment that’s part of the normal counter-cyclical reality of being a community college—re-define our mission and make us even more complicit in the great engine of racial and social inequality that America has become in 2015.
Tim Strode, PhD
NCC AAUP, Executive Committee