When I first saw the online poll at Education Next, I said a lot of dirty words.
See, I’ve been here before. Rather, people like me have been here before. But, I get ahead of myself.
Thanks to a policy recommendation from the fine folks at the Brookings Institute there is an honest-to-God debate about requiring poor college-bound students to pass a “college readiness” test to get a Pell grant.
Pell is a need-based federal grant for college tuition. Students receive an amount based on a needs formula and issued on a sliding scale up to $5,785.
If you think that doesn’t sound like much relative to the cacophony of media accounts about the rising cost of college tuition, you are right.
But, like need, aid is relative.
$5,785 may not do much for you at Duke where tuition exceeds $50,000 a year. But, it can put a serious dent in the tuition at Durham Tech Community College (approx. $13,000). With some state aid, institutional aid, and some luck a student might be able to get some of that workforce training everyone from the President of the United States and all the captains of the private sector claim we need.
Pell grants help poor students overcome the consequences of choosing to be born to parents without means.
For almost the entire history of higher education in this country, college was for the sons (and much later the daughters) of wealthy families. The GI Bill created a national model for distributing aid to students without the benefit of inter-generational wealth to go to college.
But, the GI Bill was not evenly or fairly distributed. Despite the disproportionate number of black men and women who served in the military two decades after it was integrated, black folks had a hard time getting the aid they’d been promised.
Ira Katznelson calls the massive state building that created the white middle class after WWII, the era when affirmative action was white. A combination of sectionalism in national politics, disinterest in challenging the power of the Southern political block, and outright racism at the state level (who were given near unilateral discretion to distribute the money according to the embedded racial violence of the region) circumvented black income mobility during the nation’s greatest period of economic expansion.
When the Pell grant was created in the 1980s, it promised to reverse the racialized patterns of the GI Bill. There’s a reason it became the “cornerstone” of African American higher education aspirations and achievement. Slavery, apartheid and cultural redlining means black folks tend to not have a lot of that wealth that makes college-going much easier.
The Pell grant turned back a history of building mechanisms for statistical discrimination into a government aid program. Instead of relying on shady state middlemen or congressional dealmaking, individuals can get Pel regardless of ability or upfront means. That matters. If you know the history of poll taxes and literacy tests, you may realize that the social construction of “ability” has been a critical tool in structural violence against almost every group except wealthy white men. Poll taxes and literacy tests to “qualify” for the vote were a means of social control. Ability could mean whatever those in control of the process wanted it to mean, in accordance to whatever goals they wanted to achieve at the moment.
The idea of attaching ability to a program designed in the shadow of the history of racism, federal benefits, and educational access is to bathe in the post-racial kool-aid.
If you know the kind of racialized, gendered and classist segregation that defines who is and who is not “college ready” AND you concede by ideological imperative that knowledge is a type of capital, then what is a readiness test, exactly?
Well, when those who won’t need Pell grants to send their kids to college are defining all the terms and conditions, “college readiness” is just a poll tax by another name.
Perhaps you can see why the very idea of student aid paternalism doing what’s best for poor kids who “shouldn’t be forced to go to college” doesn’t sit right with me.
If you are concerned about the massive structural volatility that constrains the options of too many then talk about the constraints. I have. I don’t think everyone should HAVE to go to college to make a living wage, get healthcare and age with dignity. That’s why I support raising the minimum wage and instituting federal jobs programs so that those most likely to need a Pell can choose between college and work, like the sons and daughters of wealthy families.
There should be no debate about a college readiness poll tax for one of the few anti-poverty measures still available without a pee test or a moral marriage requirement.
So, I cussed.
I hope you do, too.
google tags: sectionalism, systemic racism, structural violence, poll taxes, literacy tests