Entered Emory, Fell Out of Emory, $60,000 in Debt

A cautionary tale of students from lumpen proletariat American families (families that sell their labor but have no assets to speak of) in the New York Times recently:

Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but […] vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“I don’t want to work at Walmart” like her mother, she wrote to a school counselor.

Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston.

That was four years ago. What happened and where are they now?

Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.

“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”

Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

In other words, the promise of college is also the threat of college: leap the bar or lose access–for life!–to most of the better jobs in the United States. And the potholes along the college road are numerous:

  • Mounting college debt.
  • Distractions from the pop culture (Angelica’s “Goth armor,” television, no value placed on book reading, etc.).
  • Distractions from side jobs to try to earn extra money.
  • Campus alienation.
  • Loser boyfriends not in college.
  • No college educated mentors within families.
  • No college educated mentors (a teacher, a councilor, a graduate student, etc.) on the college campus.

Who’s at fault here?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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18 Responses to Entered Emory, Fell Out of Emory, $60,000 in Debt

  1. pauladkin says:

    Answer: The System

  2. Natasha says:

    Reblogged this on Natasha's Memory Garden and commented:
    Angelica’s life will be hard without a college degree and $60,000 in college debt, but a college degree does not bring with it a guarantee of employment in our current economy. Many years from now, a college educated and unemployed Angelica would be happy to have that job at Walmart.

  3. dust850 says:

    Great post. Even with this information becoming common knowledge students are still applying in droves to colleges every fall. It amazes me the power of conformity. You would think parents would critically analyze the situation and tell their kids “maybe college might be a debt trap, lets look at other options.” But nope. It is still taboo to question the almighty diploma.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I wouldn’t draw the conclusion you do. College graduates have an unemployment rate half that of non-college graduates, and the college graduate makes more money–a lot more–on average than the non-college graduate. (Far more over a lifetime than the average student debt on leaving college.)

      But there are a lot of ill-prepared students, culturally and intellectually, taking out loans and never finishing college, leaving them with the loans and no degree. That’s the problem.

      • dust850 says:

        Yeh you are right, that is true. My conclusion was simplistic. The problem is ill prepared students.
        What i am interested in is why employers started thinking that college was some sort of metric of competence. When did employers start requiring a degree? Did this happen in the 80’s? And what evidence did they have that college degrees create more competent employees than say vocational schools or on the job training. Why is the employment rate half that of non college graduates and is it justified? I learned more from the internet and the library than watered down college classes.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I have a theory about this. It has to do with the American economy functioning increasingly like a zero-sum game. When even the halfway decent paying jobs are limited, employers treat the years of formal education as a bar of entry. It’s like the test that the “best and brightest” took in Confucian China hundreds of years ago (when its economy was essentially stagnant and there were hundred of applicants for every non-farm labor job). Running the gauntlet of college to become, say, a tour guide at an urban art museum (because you have an art degree) is the new American Confucianism.

  4. syrbal says:

    Even though I agree the “System” is well busted, the unfortunate truth is that without that college education, in many places…you cannot get ANY job other than working in a fast food joint. As my veteran son said about his former military job in logistics, “A trained monkey could do 90% of it, but to do it in the civilian world…they wanted a 4 year degree on the resume.”

  5. Staffan says:

    I don’t know about this particular case, but Mexican immigrants have an average IQ of around 85 and so do their children and grandchildren. So generally speaking, this upward mobility is not going to happen. Encouraging it is both unrealistic and cruel.

    And why is her boyfriend a loser just because he isn’t in college? Is the entire working class just a bunch of losers? If you look at the performing arts you will find loads of people from the working class, like this grasshopper,

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      To get into Emory suggests a higher IQ than 85. You seem to be assuming that the dropouts from college are from a below average (100) cohort. This almost certainly is not the case because few students at a four year college are likely falling below 100 in IQ. So in the instances of these young women, other factors are playing big roles.

      As for the non-college educated, I was being a bit dismissive. Sorry. But it’s also true that in the contemporary global competition, an American is likely consigning herself to serious and lifelong economic struggle if she doesn’t make a go of college at age 18.

  6. Staffan says:

    Yes, maybe she’s smart but maybe she got in on some affirmative action.

    But I assume she is just an example here. The fact is that IQ predicts education level and work performance better than any other single measure on the individual level. And on the group level, intelligence rank order is the same as that of education and income – Jews, East Asians, Whites, Hispanics, Blacks. Note that the two on top are minorities who have faced discrimination and had the system working against them.

    But do we need global capitalism that amasses wealth on the One Percent and has everyone else worried about how to make ends meet? I grew up under democratic socialism which was very competitive. People invented stuff, started businesses that exported and so on – our system did everything that supposedly only capitalism can accomplish.

  7. dcyates says:

    But Staffan, those businesses and innovation were created by the entrepreneurs, not democratic socialism. And capitalism does not amass wealth only on “the One Percent.” We refer to groups like “the poor,” “the middle class,” “the rich” as though these were static entities, when in actuality, when most people start out as young adults they could be classified as poor, but as they gain experience and skill they move into the middle class, and some of those even move on to become what could be called “wealthy” or even rich. But just as the large majority who started out poor don’t stay that way, often those who are rich fail to maintain that status as well. Just as an example, check out the Forbes 500 rich list from, say, ten years ago, and compare it with the list today. Looking at just the top ten, only three people are still on the list today that were there on the 2003 list. (I’m not saying that the other seven no longer on the top ten list from 2003 are now taking handouts on a street corner, but somebody like Paul Allen, who had been the fourth richest person on the planet in 2003, no longer makes the top 50.)
    My mom and dad had me when they were 16 and 17-yrs old, respectively, and they both quit school to raise me. My father started out as a Fuller Brush door-to-door salesman, and we lived in a one-room apartment where all four walls were covered with different colours and patterns of wallpaper, and the floor and ceiling were different colours both from each other and the walls, and there was a single electrical socket. I won’t bore you with the whole story, but my father is now what many people would call wealthy — maybe even rich.
    The problem with too many on the political Left is that they’re under the mistaken notion that wealth is a zero-sum commodity, where some people getting wealthy necessarily makes other people poor. If that’s the case, why are there far more wealthy people today, when there are over 7 billion people on Earth, compared to when I was a child, when there was less than 4 billion people on the planet? Why are comparatively less people starving now than ten years ago? Why are literally millions of people over only the last five years or so, from places like China and India, moving up out of abject poverty into the middle class? It’s because wealth is created, not a zero-sum good, and is created most quickly and efficiently when governments stay out of people’s way, and keep their noses out of people’s businesses.

    • Staffan says:

      Yes, entrepreneurs start businesses – what I’m saying is that they evidently can do this under democratic socialism too, not just under capitalism as is commonly assumed.

      Your examples of social mobility may be true in certain cases but the overal situation is clear: economic inequality is increasing and has been since the 1970s. And there is a clear relation between equality and social mobility. Sweden and other Scandinavian countries have more social mobility than America in spite of having much higher taxes. So the “land of opportunity” has become a myth.

      But even with a different politics there is only so much you can do – or even should do. The rank order between ethnic groups has been the same since a reasonable amount of equal opportunity had emerged in America and it has stayed the same ever since.

      If wealth was created in the manner you say, then people wouldn’t be frustrated or scared of eviction or losing their jobs. And a common worker could support five kids on a regular salary as once was the case. But if you think poor Americans will be comforted by the fact that less people are starving today then you should tell them that.

      And China is a great sweatshop success – just don’t inhale the air.

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