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Priced Out of the American Dream?

from EJ Dionne's piece in the Strib:

It's the silent education crisis, the one we don't talk about much because its existence undermines the story we like to tell about our country.

...we rarely confront how badly we're faring when it comes to educating our people after high school. That silent education crisis belies our claim that no nation comes close to us in guaranteeing that anyone can work hard, get a great education, and soar.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor honored this national article of faith in a lovely tribute to her mother at her confirmation hearings. "She taught us that the key to success in America is a good education," Sotomayor said.

"And she set the example, studying alongside my brother and me at our kitchen table so that she could become a registered nurse."

In 1976, the year Sotomayor graduated from Princeton, federal Pell Grants for low-income students covered 72 percent of the average cost of a four-year state institution. An excellent education (if not necessarily at Princeton) was, in principle, within reach of most Americans. But by 2003, Pell Grants covered only 38 percent of the cost of attending a state university.

Today, the United States stands 10th in the percentage of 25- to-34-year-olds who have earned a postsecondary degree.

The information I've just offered comes from an important article by Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia University, published this spring in the New York Review of Books. Delbanco concludes that "a great many gifted and motivated young people are excluded from college for no other reason than their inability to pay."

...remarkable finding of Donald E. Heller, the director of Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education, that "the college-going rates of the highest-socioeconomic-status students with the lowest achievement levels is the same level as the poorest students with the highest achievement levels." I added the italics to underscore the not-so-hidden injuries of class.

All this is why President Obama went to Michigan on Tuesday to announce a plan to spend $12 billion over 10 years to strengthen our community colleges and "help an additional 5 million Americans earn degrees and certificates in the next decade."

But his proposal should be seen only as a first step. The community colleges are in crisis because they are being flooded with students who cannot afford four-year schools, and also with unemployed workers seeking training for new jobs.

Obama is on the right track. But we'll need to do much more than he's proposing if we want the story of Sonia Sotomayor and her mom to define a realistic aspiration for the next American generation.

Ah, the a-word. Everyone is using it... To some, it means something. To others, is it just empty sloganeering?

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