I stumbled upon an unusually insightful piece of journalism in the New York Times today that's remarkable on two levels: it offers a sympathetic and non-mocking assessment of the experiences of students who don't happen to be children of CEOs and executives, and it explores the widening economic divide between rich and poor that both Republicans and Democrats have promised, over multiple elections, to address. And it mirrors my personal experience many years ago as a child of a working class parent from a rural community who ventured into the hostile territory of post-secondary education--with two critical differences. When I went, almost forty years ago, college was more affordable... And the income divide between rich and poor was not as extreme.
The first college where I landed was Middle Tennessee State University. I've written about this experience before; no need to rehash it, except to mention that my experience mirrored that of the students profiled in the Times article: a complete lack of preparation for confronting the bureaucratic incompetence of a large, state-run institution: important letters not sent; erroneous and conflicting directives from various functionaries and staffers; abysmal communication (or rather, perfect miscommunication) of essential information; and a blanket indifference by key school staffers to the needs of students. I attended MTSU twice: first, for my freshman year, and later, as a graduate student. My experience was the same, both times, then. Not sure how the school is now. From what I hear, the mantel of incompetence is now carried by a Nashville-based state university that I won't name, since I've never attended it.
Children of middle and upper class parents are prepared. The parents know the ropes and can guide their children and challenge the bureaucracy on their behalf. Children without this guidance are left to confront the beast alone. Many drop out and abandon college, as I almost did.
I pressed on, however, for a couple of reasons. As a teen in a rural community in a Southern state, there were few viable economic alternatives. There was simply nowhere else to go. But the main reason I continued was because I could. Back then, you could pay for college with money earned from part time jobs, which is what I did. You can't do that now.
The problems that discussed in the Times article, like many real-world economic and sociological problems that bedevil us today, have been allowed to fester, unnoticed, under the oversight of many Republican and Democratic politicians. Many enlightened observers have decided that our present political parties are incapable of addressing the essential problems of our society. Some vent their frustration of this by joining fringe political groups. The mainstream institutions have responded to this alienation by marketing candidates, like Barack Obama or [fill in the blank Tea Partier], as "alternatives" to the failures of the past. I predict that any real solution will have to emerge not only outside from the mainstream, but also from outside any of our current institutions. If, in fact, our society is approaching systemic failure, it is unlikely that any cure can come from anything within it.