March 20. 2015
At age 16, I stood outside my local high school and extended my left arm, displaying my middle finger in salute — I was dropping out. That act of defiance, coupled with a history of petty crime, led to my being sentenced me to a juvenile prison.
After graduating high school at the prison, the state paroled me early. While I was working in the Twin Cities at a couple of mind-numbing jobs, someone suggested to me the harebrained scheme of going to college.
I called up my father and told him of my latest delusion of grandeur. He was unimpressed; college was not on my family’s radar screen. I asked if I could temporarily live at home to earn some tuition money. He was skeptical: “Do you remember how badly things went when you last lived with us?”
Eventually, he relented. When I arrived home, there was only one job opening, and I soon discovered why. The job was at the local turkey factory. My job was to pull the live turkeys out of the delivery truck, lift them upside down and hang them eye-high by their feet as they went in on the conveyor belt for the kill.
I persevered, and within a couple of months I landed at Austin Junior College. Even for a longshot like me, it was a bet worth taking. They had open admissions, and tuition was the semester equivalent of $7.50 per credit hour. I had enough of a bankroll to pay tuition, rent a $7-a-week room and find a part-time job.
It was, at best, a mediocre school with maybe 250-300 students and 15 faculty members. Perhaps appropriately, the college occupied the third floor of the local high school.
Nonetheless, it was a college — something that had seemed unattainable just six months before.
Even here, I was badly overmatched. I always had a textbook balanced on one knee and a college dictionary draped over the other, as I navigated a rudimentary understanding of American and European history, literature, psychology, and humanities. At the end of my first term, I received a B- and two Cs. Truth be told, it was close to Christmas and those two C grades were gifts.
Despite that early lack of promise, I soon became the reclamation project of Rod Keller, an erudite sage with contrarian impulses. He saw in me a potential that had escaped the notice of my parents, my K-12 teachers and, most importantly, myself.
He prodded, he cajoled, and he flattered: after a couple of years, the liberal arts awoke me from my slumber. I came to realize that for my first 18 years, I had been little more than a sleepwalker: The lights had been on, but nobody was home.
Looking back, that junior college experience reminds me of the cataract surgery I had at age 60. Suddenly the gray, speckled fog that hung over the world metamorphosed into a brilliant, and almost blinding, array of vivid color.
After a long circuitous journey, I eventually became a professor at a public university. Today my students work far too many hours, usually at low wages, face conflicting family obligations, take more credits than they can handle and, given the hyper-inflation of tuition, end up with debt that seems as insurmountable as that of Greece.
A good share of these students fit Saul Alinsky’s social category of the “Have-a-Little, Want Mores.” Even though the odds are against them, most will get through and some will flourish. However, America also has millions of “Have-Nots.” Many in this lowest stratum will never get the chance for a post-secondary education.
Income inequality in the United States today is the greatest since 1928. Given that the “haves” dominate policy debates, legislation redistributing income is hardly possible today. The only politically feasible means of reducing inequality is making higher education more accessible and affordable. That said, the have-nots need skin in the game as well. Increased educational opportunity is meaningless unless the students are also all in.
Fifty years ago, I was hardly college material. Rock-bottom tuition rates gave me a chance to develop my aptitude. That was true for many in my generation. We made it because our government made an investment in us. In turn, we made significant personal investments in our own education. The dividends of that joint venture were substantial — both for ourselves and our communities.
We should do no less for our children and our children’s children. In America, higher education should not be limited to the more fortunate. We need to believe, once again, in the redemptive power of community colleges.
Monte Bute teaches sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University