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Priced Out of Education

by RODOLFO ACUNA

When I told my father that we were going to call ourselves “Chicanos”, he responded “Chicano, Chicano, those are the people that hang around the parks on Sundays.” I thought to myself, “that is exactly why we want the name.” My generation did not have dreams of returning to Mexico and buying a small ranchito, we weren’t going back. So if I did not want to change my name from Acuña to Acne, I better do something about discrimination and a lack of progress for Mexican Americans here.

In the 1950s and 1960s it was evident to most Mexican American educators that the major barrier to the betterment of Mexican Americans was the high dropout problem. The community lost billions of dollars in GI Bill benefits because Chicana/o veterans did not have the necessary educational skills to qualify for college or employment opportunities.

In 1963 Dr. Paul Sheldon’s College’s Laboratory in Urban Culture at Occidental College sponsored a conference attended by 150 Southwestern leaders in Mexican American affairs. The conference reported that “The (education) level of the Spanish-speaking has increased only about one grade in the past 10 years, while other populations have increased in relatively the same proportions, the level of the Spanish-speaking is so much lower that they remain terribly disadvantaged and the gap between them and even the non-whites is fairly large. A large proportion of the population, then, is really functionally illiterate.”

Notre Dame University professor Julian Samora reported that 52 percent of the Mexicans in Texas had less than fourth-grade education, 35 percent in Arizona, 24 percent in California and in New Mexico 30 percent. The lack of education had a ripple effect, and the level of education among Mexican American was hereditary, depending on the father’s education.

Gains were made in the 1970s– not so much in cutting the dropout rate – but in increasing the number of Chicanas/os attending college. Unbeknown to us the ground was being laid to end access to higher education. The corporate elite along with property owners pressured the state to shift the costs of social production to the working and middle classes. By 2012 students were paying as much as eighty percent of the cost of instruction – pricing the poor out of higher ed.

This rise in the cost of higher ed will have a disastrous impact on the lower half (income wise) of the Mexican American and Latino community. This is where the dropout numbers are concentrated. Overtime this trend will destroy all hope that si se puede, it can be done.

The lack of access to non-profit colleges is a boon to for-profit institutions. In 2010 the enrollment of low-income students comprised half of the students of the for-profits with minorities 37 percent In the Post-9/11 era for-profit colleges cornered one-third of GI Bill benefits ($1.6 billion). A bachelor’s degree from a state university cost over a third of what for-profit schools charge. Just in the 2008-2009 academic year for-profits received “$4.3 billion in federal Pell grants, which help low-income students pay for college, quadruple the amount they received 10 years earlier.”

An army of lobbyists insure that the flow of federal dollars continues, and members of Congress protect the for-profits.

Most courses in for-profit schools can be found in community colleges. It would seem a reasonable alternative since ninety-six percent of students starting for-profit colleges take out federal student loans compared to 13 percent at community colleges. However, community colleges have been impacted by the overflow of refugees from the four year schools.

For-profit schools spend only 17.2 percent of their revenues on instruction. In 2009 the CEOs of major for-profit education companies took home, on average, $7.3 million.

The truth be told, access is not the main barrier to minorities getting a higher education – it is tuition. Students stagger through for-profit and non-profit schools amassing huge debts.

As in the case of universal medical care, part of the solution would be to cut the middleman out of the equation. Medical costs in the U.S. of A are the highest of any industrialized nation. The same goes for education. If we want a healthy and prosperous society, health care and quality education are essential.

For some time, I have advocated the cutting out of the middlemen for for-profits and then offering competing models to the non-profits – public and private – so the cost to students comes down.

Quality low cost education for working class students is within our reach. A preliminary study suggests that the cost of tuition for an alternative non-profit could be as low as $1,000 per year for undergraduate students.

We have precedents: the Open University movement began in Britain and Spain some forty years ago to give working class students affordable quality education. Spain established the National University of Education at Distance Learning (UNED), in 1972. Today it enrolls 186,000 students and enjoys an excellent national and international reputation. It maintains its reputation through rigorous supervision and the monitoring of exams and classes.

The key to a not for profit strategy is to build a reputation for excellence in order to pressure the others to bring their costs down. The cost of public and private universities is driven by lush campuses, and administrator and faculty salaries.

UNED does not have a central campus. It has a central headquarters that supports sixty storefront study centers in Spain and 20 abroad. The study centers cooperate with local institutions and provide face-to-face sessions between professors and tutors.

The course of study centers around home study and tutorial strategies. It integrates communication technologies (interactive video, electronic classrooms, satellite communications), and Online Internet classes.

I propose using adjunct faculty members from prestigious universities as well as retired college and high school faculty members — who in their majority will be Latinos.

The structure is simple: academic centers would be run out of store fronts and rented space in colleges and universities and would cater primarily to undergraduate students. The centers would also manage classes from foreign institutions leading to advanced degrees.

Home study courses are not new. At one time, correspondence courses were popular especially in rural areas where access to college campuses was limited. At Princeton University there are courses “where the student receives a course booklet, readings, lectures on tape and access to an e-mail discussion group.” Students supplement their studies and attend optional lectures, and films.

During World War II and the Korean War, the military offered correspondence courses as a way to allow military personnel to continue their education. This tradition goes back even further. Correspondence Law school study has existed in the United States since at least 1893.

Tutorial classes are still very popular in England where a tutorial is a small class of one, or a few students. The tutor gives individual attention to the students. It is used extensively at Oxford and Cambridge.

Never in history has technology been so affordable. Almost every new computer is capable of running Skype through which you can lecture to a group of students and communicate. The storefront could serve as a classroom.

The system reduces the demand for buildings and other properties. The cost of a normal classroom runs $6,000 to $10,000 a semester.

Distance learning is part of a solution. UNESCO views it as a strategy to dramatically expand education. What makes this proposal different is that it sets up a mechanism for low income students and makes education affordable.

The bottom-line is that working class and middle-class students are being priced out of higher education— no doubt universities such as Phoenix meet a need but at a heavy price.

Our prison population is zooming and our lumpen population is expanding. Male Latino and Black college students are becoming endanger species. Can we afford the consequences of the high cost of doing nothing? If for-profit schools are government funded, why not low cost non-profits?

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.

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