Chuck Collins has a new long essay in The American Prospect on the wealth gap and its effects on young adults today. It’s a disquieting look into how the undercutting of state and federal funding for education, particularly early childhood education and higher education, has long term ramifications for American social mobility. It essentially tells a story we already know. The children of wealthy parents have access to unpaid internships, support networks, extended periods of study time, travel opportunities, and other soft skills that are necessary in today’s market, but students without financial support are not able to gain access to these opportunities, to take advantage of them (an unpaid internship for a working class kid is not viable), or to develop soft skills as easily. Even solidly middle class students do not have the kinds of access to all of these opportunities. Collins makes a number of policy proscriptions at the end, including funding commitments to early childhood education as well as calling on companies and foundations to do more to fund and to provide extracurricular camps and enrichment activities on the K-12 level that help close achievement gaps.
I wonder, however, what can be done for the current crop of 21 year old, soon to be college graduates. Collins’s policy solution are for the next generation, and I’d like to not write off the current one or consign them to be a new, new lost generation (Gen Xers have already been labeled the new lost generation). I’ve also just finished reading Mike Rose’s Back to School, and again, while he highlights many of the ways that exceptional community colleges are helping second chance students, his policy calls for action won’t help the students already in the system. I work for a regional state university, and all faculty meetings of late have been doomy and gloomy about budgetary issues. Our student population is solidly working class to lower middle class, and while we do a lot to professionalize our majors, I know there are many students who are fighting just to stay in school, much less develop all of these other skill sets that come from other areas within the university but aren’t on any curriculum because they’re not the kind of things that really get taught. A lot of times, the lower level courses are spent teaching students the skill sets needed to succeed in college because the local public schools don’t give students those skill sets. I’m not sure when we would teach networking, and it would almost still be within an unpaid internship or classroom visit not an extended paid or funded opportunity. We offer internships for class credit, we discuss professionalization in our capstone course, but I feel like we need to do more while still offering robust classes in literature. I’m just not sure what that more is just yet.