Friday, August 29, 2008

Community College Students Need Not Apply: Our Reward for Bailing Out the Banks

Community College Students Need Not Apply: Our Reward for Bailing Out the Banks

by Kesi Foster

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The American Dream deferred - that's what national lenders announced recently when they told Americans they were significantly reducing their lending to students who attend community college. Education is the great equalizer, but there was no equality in their decision: they targeted community colleges for cuts while extending their lending programs at distinguished 4-year schools.

According to the New York Times (6/2/08), the following lenders have started turning away from community college students: Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, SunTrust, and PNC. In the case of Citibank, it has stopped offering loans to all community college students in the state of California. The banks' reasoning is that community college students are more likely to default and are taking out smaller loans, while the students at elite universities are more likely to take out bigger loans and to re-pay them, since they are expected to earn more in the job market. This might sound like solid reasoning were it not for the fact (duly pointed out in the article) that the government ensures all student loans up to 95%. Thus there is essentially no risk involved for the lending companies.

We've been told that a college degree will set a person on the path for success. Not everyone takes the same path, however. People enroll in community college for many different reasons. Some didn't get the grades in high school to qualify for a 4-year school, while others have to work full-time and need the flexibility that community colleges offer. Most simply cannot afford to enroll in a 4-year school. I am one of them.

After high school, I enrolled in St. John's University because I got decent grades in high school and I was expected to go to college. I had no understanding of what I wanted to be in life and didn't grasp the importance of the college experience and a higher education. I pretty much picked a major out of a hat and then spent my first two semesters skipping one too many a class. By the summer I decided not to enroll for the fall, and took a full-time job instead. It wasn't anyone's fault - in truth, I was not ready to attend college and made my decision accordingly.

Yet, in my household education has always been stressed, and so I knew in the front of my mind that I would return to college. After a few years of working, I matured a great deal and had a better sense of where I wanted to go in life. So I reapplied to St. Johns and was accepted once again. I quickly realized, though, that my situation had changed dramatically. The tuition was now double what it was when I had left, and I did not qualify for financial aid since I was no longer a dependent but the sole taxpayer. With basically no other choice, I turned to the best alternative available: community college.

At first I was discouraged. There is a stark difference between the administration of St. John's and that of my new school, Bronx Community College. Whereas it took only about 30 minutes to sign up for classes at St. John's, it can take a whole day at BCC. And they may even ask you to come back due to of some mysterious hold on your record that can be taken care of only by an obscure faculty member who is often never on campus when you are. In my admission process, I asked three different faculty members the same question and I got back three completely different answers. There was also this stigma I was carrying around that somehow an education at a community college is inferior - some people refer to it as the 13th grade.

After attending for more than three semesters now, I would say the administration process has improved some, but it is still in disarray. Moreover, basic resources are badly lacking, such as water fountains. Oddly, not a single functioning water fountain can be found on the entire campus, though there are soda machines in every building. The heating and AC systems are hit and miss and the menu at the food hall is less than appealing. As for the education, I couldn't have been more wrong. It has been rigorous and very well rounded-great preparation for any baccalaureate program.

I was embarrassed to qualify only as a freshman even though I was legally old enough to drink, that is, until I got to class and met my classmates. This is the beauty of community college, the student body. Many of us have returned to community college as a second chance to help us achieve our goals. I met single mothers, fathers, grandmothers, first generation immigrants, people of all nationalities, the majority clearly focused and very eager to learn - all of us striving equally to get a piece of the American Dream, using community college as the springboard. When people would raise their hands to answer questions, you would hear West Indian accents, Eastern European accents, East Indian accents, Latino accents, and some I just couldn't place. Since I was still working, the flexible schedule was a necessity for me. Like me, many of my classmates came to class right after their full-time job. I don't think most of us could afford to leave our jobs and without community college we couldn't continue our higher education.

The student body at community colleges should be an inspiration to America. When I see a single mother who takes care of her children, works a full-time job, and finds time on the nights and weekends to attend school, I am inspired to continue despite at times feeling overwhelmed. Yet when it was discovered that lenders were turning their backs on these hardworking students, America didn't blink an eye. Since the credit companies are now turning their backs on us, does that not mean we should have no problem turning our backs on the banks when they want the government to bail them out?

Perhaps we should do as economist Dean Baker has recently suggested and put into law as one of the terms of the bailout that Congress impose a strict cap on management compensation of $2m a year, including salary, bonuses, stock options, and personal use of company jets. As Baker says, "This can be a good first step toward reining in the outrageous salaries at financial institutions that have come at the expense of ordinary workers. We can apply the same salary caps for managers at other financial institutions that feed at the government trough." He notes that under the current bailout, which naturally was written by the banks themselves, "the government is explicitly subsidizing the pay of incompetent bank managers. It is the effective use of lobbyists that ensures the pay of the executives of Fannie and Freddie, not their skill and hard work."

In terms of college loans, why not downsize lending at the distinguished 4-year schools? After all, students at the wealthy 4-year schools have far more net worth than those attending community college. Also, since so many students at community college work full-time, I bet we're actually paying a great deal more in taxes than students at 4-year universities.

When it was discovered that a local congressman, my local congressman, was hoarding rent-stabilized apartments it became a weeklong media circus, with news conferences and special features on the 6 and 11 o'clock news. It seems like you can't turn on the news without a politician convening a press conference to defend their indefensibly corrupt behavior. Yet when it comes to the corruptions of the big banks the government rushes in to save their skin, that is, their hugely bloated salaries, and the media looks the other way.

As it is, in many inner cities and low-income communities too many students fall through the cracks before they even get a chance to attend community college. As a society, we can't allow even more holes for them to fall through. What happens to people when more unnecessary obstacles are placed in front of them on their path to success?

The big banks want us to help them out in tough times, after having made extremely irrational lending decisions, but when we need help to purse a very sound and rational course, the attainment of a college degree, America's politicians sit in the back of the classroom and nod off to sleep, squandering yet another chance for us to improve ourselves.

It makes one wonder if that is not the whole plan.

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