Biology Below The Gnat Line

Biy'allogy - (n) the scientific discipline otherwise known as biology, as taught below the Gnat Line. This blog is for educators who teach science in the deep south, where social and political conservatism reign supreme and "evolution" is a cuss word.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Educations Costs and Student "Brokeness"

At a recent departmental meeting, a math professor mentioned that several of his students would not be able to buy the graphing calculator usually required for Algebra and/or Calculus. He said they were too poor. Our department chair countered with his own observation that they all have smart phones and fancy shoes, and therefore should be able to buy a graphing calculator.

I agreed loudly, "Yeah," because I tend to be a bit unsympathetic.

The other professor got a bit agitated (not really, he's not an aggressive guy, but he was trying to make a point) and explained that many of his students are really, honest to goodness poor, and they can't afford anything. Another professor corroborated with her own account of purchasing online access for students who don't have credit cards. She is reimbursed in cash. This started a moderate debate (it was mostly a discussion, we're not a debate crowd) about the cost of education and the slow turnaround time of the financial aid packages.

Education costs money. So I guess the sticking point would be, "Is education a privilege or a right?" I tend to think it's a privilege, and therefore it's the student's responsibility to get the materials. But if you believe that all people have a right to a college education, our financial aid strategy may need a complete overhaul. The current financial aid packages are insufficient to provide everyone with everything that they need when they need it. Is it unfair to ask a biology student to purchase access to a website? Is requiring a calculator for math going too far? Where do you draw the line?

The conversation (as I said, all my colleagues are incredibly polite and kind and therefore would never actually yell or argue) got me to thinking about WHY I feel the way I do about college being a privilege. It's probably because I am not a child of privilege, and every penny I scraped together was used to buy books and calculators and lab materials. Many sacrifices were made in the name of my education, sacrifices that would not be necessary if college were a fundamental right.

My father was unemployed for all of the nineties and for some of the decades on either side. My mother is a teacher's aide. My younger brother was still at home when I left for college, and my parents took in a friend of his who was homeless at the time. So, it was a 1:1 exchange of mouths to feed. We had a house, and we had food, so I wasn't going to squabble over tuition or books. I paid my own way through college - I chose the college that gave me the most financial aid. It happened to be a small private college in Michigan that I could never have afforded otherwise. I took a full load and had up to 4 jobs per semester. I didn't have a car. I didn't have an apartment. There was one year when I didn't even have a winter coat. But I had my damn calculator.

What I fail to appreciate, I suppose, is that my family was supportive. They couldn't give me money, but they were behind me, 100%. There are four college degrees in my family, and I have three of them. I didn't have to pay for daycare or take care of an ailing grandmother. I didn't have a husband or a mortgage payment. I lived on campus to reduce costs, but if I'd had children I wouldn't have been eligible for student housing. My situation, while pathetic at times, was my own. And I need to start realizing that these students have their own real problems, too. And many of them are trying, really really hard.

Is education a right, or a privilege?

ETA: I just discovered that The Chronicle of Higher Education is debating this very same thing.


  1. I think it's a privilege.

    I worked 2-3 jobs the whole time I was in college. I took the max (18 hrs) credits every semester so I could graduate a year early (5 year program in 4 years). My parents never gave me a dime and even screwed me out of my Pell grant because my mom is an idiot.

    The people that pissed me off the most when I was in school were the people that were on a free ride-- not the scholarships, etc. but the ones that mom & dad were paying for. They had the fancy cars, no jobs, and credit cards paid off each month by the 'rents. They skipped classes or showed up drunk/hungover. They didn't pull their weight on group projects. They flaked on lab days and tried to copy other people's work. There were a LOT of these folks at my university. (BGSU)

    I have a hard time wrapping my brain around people who don't do whatever it takes to succeed at school. No money for a calculator? Get a job. Sell some books. Sell some of your clothes at a resale shop. DO WHAT IT TAKES.

    Alternatively-- does your library offer the use of calculators? Is it something the student can check out? I know our library offered laptops you could check out. Maybe that is a solution your school could consider. (And I understand your school is small, but are there grants and such available for that sort of thing?)

    I understand that every person's situation is different, but there are always options. Always. They may not be the easiest road to take, but they are there. I am definitely a cup half full kind of person, and always believe there is SOMETHING that can be done.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I think it is a privilege. The hard work, mistakes, lessons learned, sacrifices, and successes were as educational as the classes. Those experiences prepared me to motivate myself and they prepared me for life. I had to want it to get the most out of it.

    Financial aid should be there for those who choose to pursue college. But I think it is the hard work and sacrifices we make help us to appreciate and value the opportunity. Therefore, they should choose the calculator over the latest and greatest cell phone. If the choice is calculator or nothing, then help should be there.

    I think we all should have an opportunity to pursue our dreams. But I ask, is college the only way to pursue a dream? Is help available to the people who want to learn a skill or trade that enjoy and will provide a living?