#Blessed: Recognizing The Privilege of Your Higher Education


Photo by Chaz Delgado As I stare my final days of higher education dead in the face, I have stopped in my tracks numerous times realizing, “Holy shit, I love to learn.” I’ve come a long way since throwing teenage hissy fits because math and biology were essentially Vietnamese to me, a melodramatic student at a middle-of-the-road public school.

Arguably unaware of large socioeconomic inequalities and the way they intertwine into the fabric and opportunities of an individual’s life, I came to realize that college was more than the media-depiction of binge-drinking, friend-making and experimenting, but a place where I could focus on my interests and for the first time in my life learn something beyond the watered down public high school curriculum.

Undoubtedly, college functions as a pivotal social rite of passage for many young adults, teaching students to understand on a deeper level their personal values, opinions and goals. But if we’re lucky enough, a college education will introduce new ways of thought that will get them ready for their next steps in life—be that a career or further education. That is the idea behind this four-year (give or take) process.

For some it will assure a continuance of a life of comfort, and for others it acts as the great equalizer. University is sold to us as the supposed stepping stone for upward mobility. While there are success stories that can be found at nearly every college or university, one of the most common and strongest determiners for a student’s success stems from the family’s income.

While hardly earth-shattering, the current trajectory of the higher education system helps to perpetuate a growing wealth gap in which the rich continue to get richer, but often of helping students from lower income families move up in the social class ladder. One of the reasons behind it is the competitive nature of the nation’s top schools. Higher income families have the enrichment expenditures set aside to ensure their child(ren) have resources such as standardized testing preparation, private tutors, access to computers, music lessons and even quite, calm spaces to study. All the way, the odds are stacked in favor of students whose parents obtained college degrees.

Though these investments in a child’s future are nothing to condemn, the advantage of having a support system at home who will encourage higher education can play an important role in the development of a student from elementary school to college. It has been found that children at the age of three who have parents in the professional workforce have a vocabulary that is 50 percent larger than children who comes from working-class families and a whopping 100 percent from children whose families receive welfare.

Fortunately, these inequalities and many others have been recognized and taken into account by admissions departments. While loans, grants and scholarships can help students who need assistance to obtain an education they are often required to put in extra work, both academically and financially. Though only six percent of undergraduate students utilize work-study, parents’ financial availability to contribute to their child’s tuition shrank from 37 to 27 percent in only a matter of three years, nearly 80 percent of students work while they’re in college—some working an average of 19 hours, many working more than 20 hours and some holding full-time positions on top of obtaining a degree.

But we’re living in a capitalist society, right? We are bred socially and culturally to go after the American Dream, and if that means forgoing extra hours of studying or campus involvement to make sure you can eat that week, so be it. Hard work and determination are key factors we are taught to ensure for a better tomorrow. However, a little bit of elbow grease and dream are no longer enough to ensure a job. In recent years the need for a college degree has become resounding, practically requiring individuals to seek higher education to assure employment.

Yet still, the access to higher education is a privilege that is often overlooked due to the belief that more students are enrolling in college. Since 2010 attendance of colleges have dropped 812,069 in only a matter of four years. Even efforts to make community college free for the first two years has not lead to more students enrolling, as attendance of community has fallen by 820,000 people in it’s four-year span.

Director of Middle College National Consortium, Dr. Cecilia Cunningham told CNN Money that she believes that college is “a very white, middle class value that you’re going to learn so much if you go away to college and live on campus.” She correctly points out the disadvantage of students who do not have support at home to seek higher education degrees. Cunningham’s view clearly resonates with the ethos of low income students, in a pipeline that extends from childhood familial and financial support to job choice and, ultimately, salary.

Though education can open up a new world to access of knowledge, opportunities and cultural understanding there are still discourses and institutions such as expectations of unpaid internships and social commitments that pander to high-income students, helping to ensure future success and socioeconomic stability. Nonetheless, higher education provides a space for learning and the opportunity for those who crave it to strive for a new potential future.