Day 47 – Remembering Higher Education’s Middle Kids – #100DaysofHigherEd

I am not very private about my upbringing. If you are a friend of mine, you know that I grew up in some desperate circumstances. The child of teenaged parents, I grew up mainly lower income. For a few years there we were outright poor. Neither of my parents went to college and they both worked hard at labor intensive jobs. My mother was a waitress, managed a bingo hall, and found career success at Costco where she worked from an hourly employee to a warehouse manager. My father worked at a gas station before enlisting in the Air Force. He struggled in the service and had many bouts with substance abuse. He was discharged and was homeless while working odd jobs. My brother and I lived with him for a time in a camper trailer in Pinetops, North Carolina. We have enjoyed the world of social services, the free lunch program, and I spent most of my childhood being a caregiver to my brothers. My dad drifted for most of his life but managed to keep the lights on and rent paid.

But through all this the promise of higher education was floated to me. My father idolized his brother, who was ten years older and earned a doctorate from Harvard. During my lifetime as a kid, I rarely saw my uncle, he lived in Atlanta and we lived just about anywhere else. But when I would get to visit it was like visiting the Rockefellers. They lived in a real house and my cousins had their own bedrooms. They ate dinner at night as a family and they talked to each other. Their house had a yard, and it was the first time I saw a home computer. It was such a contrast to my existence I often wonder if I have constructed this utopia in my mind over the years.

But for me it was a shining example of what was possible with a college degree. One day, I was going to be there. And to their credit my mom and dad encouraged this path. From an early age our apartment or trailer was full of books and music and my dad watched a lot of PBS (Nova was his favorite). So, it is important I acknowledge some of the good things my family did. But regardless we were raised on the idea of sustainability as a lifestyle. There was rarely anything extra and vacations usually were what happened as we were moving somewhere. We would stop and visit family members as we moved, yet again, across the country. Overall, it was not a terrible existence, but I was always aware at how hard my parents worked and how little they got in return.

I was also aware of the struggles my dad had. Drugs and alcohol took both a physical and economic toll. My parents divorced when I was 8 and my mom and dad remarried. In many ways this helped us find better times economically if not as a family. As a family we endured several really traumatic times, and I was never sure how everything would turn out. The norm was that nothing ever felt normal. Add to it I was the oldest and had to be the hero child I often did not have much of a childhood. I began working as a paperboy at age 10 and have never been without a job since then. For 38 years I have worked. And when I was not working, I was watching my brothers, changing diapers, making dinner, and often “loaning” my mom money to help pay the bills.

In the fall of 1991, I finally got to leave home and go off to college. To their credit my parents had worked hard to provide most of what I needed to go off to college and made sure I got there. It was an escape, but it was also a new trauma for me. Afterall, most of my fellow students had come from a homogenous upbringing. They had stable families, seemed to always have money, and could just enjoy college with few limitations.  I know this was not the case for all my peers but for many of them it was. Me, the FRIST thing I did when I got to East Carolina is applied for a job at McDonald’s. It was already seen as the most important thing I could do. Afterall, in my family, to lose a job is to be a week or so from losing the apartment or not being able to pay the bills. At that point I had like $3,000 in graduation money and from my summer job. I had a meal plan and dorm; I really didn’t NEED the money, but I needed the work. It was an anchor.

Recently I have been reading Enrico Moretti’s book, The New Geography of Jobs and his research has put into perspective the need that we all have to think about what college and higher education really means and why it is so often hard to accomplish. It should come as no surprise that we live in two Americas. There is one where the American dream is alive and well. Cities like Boston, Austin, and Denver where there are lots of high paying jobs, full of college educated folks who create great communities. And then there are places like Pinetops, North Carolina, Homestead, Florida, or Spokane, Washington where I grew up. There are still college educated folks, people who have fat bank accounts but most of the people there are hourly workers, work in manufacturing, corporate farming, or a myriad of other perfectly fine but lower income jobs and usually staffed by people with a high school diploma. He posits that along with the economic advantage of a better educated and employed city, there is also a set of heightened expectations for the kids who grow up in these cities. They grow up getting to observe what a well-educated worker does and understands and this provides indirect mentorship and an onramp to college. They are also more likely to visit a college campus and see how college looks and feels.

The cities where I grew up, most of the people there can work enough to keep the lights on, go fishing on the weekend, and afford cable. It is not their lives are terrible, but they are based on paycheck to paycheck. For the neighborhoods I grew up in there was no rainy-day fund, no summer camps, no travel baseball. The neighborhoods were tough, and you needed to know how to fight a little bit, you got your first car at the Police auction, and Prom was maybe the fanciest dinner you had ever had.  We were well enough off to dream about college, we were just poor enough to find it hard to get to.

This is where higher education misses the mark. We often use big data to explain why many students fail to matriculate and we tend to think about the plight of the very poor and the experience of the traditional 18–24-year-old who pays full freight. Often, we forget about the middle child of higher education. The kid from our working-class families who are usually the first in their family to go to college but who also have a few choices. They can go and work for their uncle’s junk yard, or drive a truck like their old man, or get a job at the factory with mom. And they are often calibrated that at the first sign of trouble, they will run home and help take care of business. These are the kids who do not qualify for a Pell Grant and need to know more about budgeting. They are the kids who are smart enough to become a doctor or an engineer but often settle for other professions because they can get to work quicker and when your dad makes $35,000 a year, $50,000 seems like a fortune.

I often consider how many times I could have left college. I was offered full time jobs, I often found figuring out what I wanted to major in a huge task I did not understand, I was often torn between my studies and paying attention to my dad who was going deeper and deeper into addiction. None of these things were homelessness, food insecurity, or lack of ability, but they were adjacent to these things. This is where I think coaching can be such a big impact. For many of us, we needed a role model, a guide, to help us understand the nuance of college and to balance the pull of home. I have little evidence of this, but my guess is 50% of college attrition can be found with this very population. The almost there but not quites. The population that we miss in our efforts to help students. Mainly because the route of exit is often unseen and hard to track. It comes off as statistical noise and is so localized to the student it is hard to see. It is going to be when we figure out that algorithm that we really accelerate higher education attainment.

As you can figure, I turned out okay, but my brother did not, he dropped out when he and his girlfriend got pregnant, and he tried but never returned. Now he has student loans and no degree. My other brother graduated but is currently jobless because he had no idea how to use the skills, he learned in college to find a job and never found a good fit. They have become the stories we see all too often. So, here is to higher education’s middle kids. To this day I still worry about losing my job less in a career sense but because I worry if I will be out on the streets or worse. I still tend to work for sustenance and not growth and this will likely stick with me my whole life. Its time we paid them some attention.  

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