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Fulfilling Her Mother's Dream

Why is it that even as new populations of low-income African-American and Hispanic students enter higher education in even greater numbers, the new mantra of the elite commentariat is that maybe we need more job training, less Shakespeare and more socket wrenches?
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Her mother never made it past the second grade in her native Guatemala. But education was a relentless theme in her mother's daily lessons, a big dream for her children. This week, as Leticia (not her real name) enrolls as a Trinity freshwoman, she fulfills her mother's lifelong dream for her daughter to go to college. Leticia now bears the hopes and dreams of her entire family for social advancement and economic progress.

Leticia's story is one of hundreds of similarly compelling life journeys among the women starting college at Trinity this fall, where we enroll a distinctively ambitious population of young women with serious life challenges, as well as older women and men who are resuming long-deferred dreams to finish college degrees. Our students are just like hundreds of thousands more women and men of all ages from challenging backgrounds who will start college all over the country this year. Some, like Leticia, are immigrants who have overcome unfathomable barriers of language, money, culture, violence, illness, discrimination and sheer fear to make it to opening day. Others, like my student Renee (also not her real name), grew up on the mean streets of far southeast D.C., coping with parental incarceration, drug use, hunger and homelessness while helping to raise siblings even while finishing high school and gaining acceptance to college.

But now, just as Leticia, Renee and so many students like them are celebrating the triumph of starting college this fall, in other quarters some very well-educated, well-off, elite pundits, tech savants and politicos are denouncing the whole idea of college as possibly not worth the time, effort and money. These are people who already received their college degrees but now seem hell-bent on discouraging others from doing the same.

A relentless drumbeat of negativity about college right now, loosely grouped under headlines screaming,"Is College Worth It?" is a pernicious discouragement to the ambitions of rising generations of college students from the very populations that soon will be the majority in America.

Why is it that even as new populations of low-income African-American and Hispanic students enter higher education in even greater numbers, the new mantra of the elite commentariat is that maybe we need more job training, less Shakespeare and more socket wrenches?

To be sure, higher education has significant challenges that we must address quickly and with a genuine commitment to innovation. Some colleges and universities do cost too much, and some spend entirely too much time and money on the wrong things --- immensely expensive athletics programs, defense of scandals, feathering executive nests on the student dollar. We certainly should be accountable for our outcomes, and should not blink in the face of thoughtful scrutiny, which is not the same as broad-brush bashing.

Scandals grab headlines and make for juicy exposes about colleges and universities. But those stories, however many newspapers they might sell (and I won't mention the fact that many of the critics hail from the print media industry, which has its own considerable challenges), must not be used as some kind of bizarre proof that all of higher education is a disreputable enterprise.

Some critics of higher education today advocate for replacement of classroom-based instruction with online learning, with the phenomenon known as the "MOOC" urged on us as a more cost effective (meaning "cheaper") solution to rising costs. The MOOC --- massive open online course --- is a concept that has been with education for many years in other forms, e.g., books on tape, cassette recordings of famous lectures, etc. Libraries as old as the Royal Library of Alexandria were probably the original MOOC. Broad access to learned lectures and treatises is a concept as old as Socrates arguing with his students under the proverbial tree about the need to liberate humanity from the caves of ignorance.

Like libraries, CD-Roms and other learning aids, MOOCs certainly have their place in the large reservoir of knowledge and learning tools. But unless we are willing to concede that all learning can be reduced to video illustrations --- much as I turn to You Tube to learn how to fix my clogged bathroom drain (honestly, don't you want to be sure that your plumber or your brain surgeon received "live" instruction before performing their procedures?) --- they are no substitute for the significantly transformative interpersonal experience of teaching and learning in classrooms and in co-curricular programming and personal exploration that colleges and universities provide every day.

Leticia, Renee and all of my students deserve better than MOOCs for their primary collegiate experience. They need and deserve the same kind of robust teaching, "live" faculty dialogue and richly supportive campus-based experience as my classmates in the Baby Boomer and subsequent generations have enjoyed.

For many if not most of us in the Boomer generation, college made us the success stories we are today --- I would certainly not be Trinity's president today were it not for my own great education here and at Georgetown Law School. My parents did not go to college, but despite constant money worries, they set attending college as a high bar for their children, and the federal student loan program helped us along the way. In this small way, I can well understand and empathize with the great hunger of Leticia and Renee to prove that their families, too, can be part of the great American success story that includes earning college degrees as the ticket to economic and social success.

The earning power of a college degree is clear. College graduates earn more than twice the lifetime earnings of high school graduates, more than a million dollars and even more in many cases. At Trinity, where the median family income of our entering students is just about $30,000 in any given year, ten years after graduation more than 90% are employed with average salaries of about $65,000. Those who are not employed are in graduate school, caring for families or retired.

My students need and deserve more than a socket wrench approach to collegiate learning as job training. College graduates must know and be able to do far more than what the specific skill sets of any particular jobs require today. Who among us in the Class of 1974 learned the advanced technological skills we need for executive success today? We learned almost nothing about computers back then, but we did learn how to keep on learning, which may be the most important skill a good college will impart.

A great college education does not simply equip Leticia, Renee and others for success in this moment and to get first jobs, but rather, if we do it right, we will ensure their ability to be lifelong self-driven learners, to have the ability to keep learning, to discover new knowledge independently, to analyze and synthesize new material continuously, to write clearly and persuasively, to know how to use quantitative analysis effectively, even to create new knowledge through their own advanced intellectual powers. There's no "college scorecard" that can measure these kinds of outcomes with any justice to this kind of learning.

And certainly no set of metrics can measure the way in which a great college education also engenders deep personal satisfaction by illuminating the joys of the aesthetic life in the humanities in particular, the place where knowledge and appreciation of great philosophy, art and literature are not mere sideshows but essential components of the intellectual and even spiritual fulfillment of truly learned people.

Leticia, Renee and all of my students entering Trinity this year have the right to make their families proud by earning that degree, even as I did so long ago. They will change the fortunes of their families by acquiring the learning and credentials that will ensure lifelong economic security. Their achievements will propel the achievements of their children. No evidence makes college more "worth it" than the improved conditions of families that results from making advanced education a priority across the generations.

By fulfilling the dream of her mother, Leticia is the hope of her family and should be the pride of our nation.