In 10 years teaching at the City College of New York, I have seen our students, many of whom are from low-income and working-class families, struggle with the financial burden of college, even as they attend one of the country’s most affordable public universities. Many contend with food insecurity, homelessness and suffocating debt.
But beyond these financial burdens, our students must cope with deeper ethical conflicts that result from straddling two worlds — home, and the one where opportunities reside.
Students often miss class because they have to take a niece to her first day of preschool, accompany a sick grandparent to the hospital or work full-time to support a disabled parent. Those with similar dilemmas may come to class instead, but remain burdened with guilt. A former student told me about the guilt he felt when his mentally ill brother went back to prison. Not because he couldn’t help him, but because trying to do so had started to derail his own college plans.
And the tragedy for students confronting these dilemmas is that whether they decide to focus on their education or to support loved ones, they end up sacrificing one of their core values.
This situation is not unique to CCNY students; it’s a consequence of the ways in which opportunities are structured in our society. While upper-middle-class children are living in neighborhoods rich in opportunity, children growing up in working-class communities are all too familiar with what lack of opportunity entails for loved ones — the absence of well-paying jobs, unaffordable housing, inadequate medical care and a lack of affordable childcare and eldercare.
A young person growing up in a community in which poverty is concentrated will need to find opportunities for advancement elsewhere. But doing so also means that she is leaving behind family and friends who are in dire need of support. Even if a student stays near home, as many CCNY students do, she is constrained by how much she can support her family if she is to succeed in college.
The experience of low-income and working-class students who are seeking better communities, or “strivers,” is not unlike that of immigrants (of course, many people are both). When I left my working-class grandmother, who raised me, to attend college, the distance between her world and mine was much more than the 3,622 miles that separated Lima, Peru, from Princeton, N.J.
I was entering a community rich in opportunity that I had no idea how to even start explaining it to her. I felt lucky but also sad about the distance that I knew would only continue to grow between us. Yet I was far luckier than many of my students — and many immigrants — because I didn’t have to worry about whether my grandmother would be homeless or hungry.
It’s easy to argue that a college degree is an investment that will pay off when strivers reap the financial benefits of their success down the line, but we have no means of accounting for the deeply personal costs. When an important and meaningful relationship to a parent, cousin or friend is lost or weakened, it undermines aspects of a life that are central to our flourishing. The financial rewards one reaps — which are sometimes shared with family — still do not make whole the sacrifices made in those bonds to family, friendship and community.
And these losses are not confined to the striver. Family, friends and neighbors lose something of value when a striver leaves in search of better opportunities. A striver might come back home to visit, but if her life has become established in her new community, she is but a visitor in her old one, and not just in the geographic sense.
Addressing the full price of higher education will require that we move our focus beyond tuition to the many other values that strivers and those they love risk for a shot at the middle-class.
Morton, an associate professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, is author of “Moving Up Without Losing Your Way.”