Renee, a white 26-year-old, grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her parents wanted nothing more than to send her to a four-year college when she graduated from high school, but unfortunately, it was priced out of reach. Instead, Renee began taking business classes at a nearby community college that specialized in business training and got a full-time job. She worked during the day and took classes at night.
Some time later, Renee accepted a new job at a nearby printing company. A nice increase in pay was the upside; working the midnight shift was the considerable downside. Suddenly, balancing school and work became a lot more difficult. Renee would work until 8 A.M., sleep in the afternoon, and go to school at night. Eventually, racked with exhaustion, financially stressed out, and supporting an unemployed boyfriend, Renee dropped out of school. Money played a big role in her decision. She had already taken out student loans and burned through a small inheritance from her grandfather. Already $4,500 in the hole with student loans, Renee didn't want to sink any further into debt.
It is now four years later and Renee is still making loan payments. She anticipates it will take at least eight or nine more years to clear the debt. Today, Renee works as a legal secretary, earning $28,000 a year, which must support both her and her son. In the hopes of boosting her earnings potential, Renee has re-enrolled in school, taking correspondence classes with the aim of becoming a paralegal. When I asked Renee if she wished she could have done anything differently up to this point in her life, she didn't hesitate with her answer: "Number one, I would have finished college. I would have actually gone to a four-year college and had a real degree."
Renee is not alone. This is the story of downscaled dreams.
Soaring tuition costs combined with cuts to financial aid have forced students into massive debt and priced many smart kids out of four-year colleges altogether. Every year, 410,000 college-qualified students -- just like Renee -- from households with incomes less than $50,000 enroll in community college instead of going to a four-year college.(1) Another 168,000 college-qualified students don't enroll in college at all. These students took the SATs, had good grades, and were college-ready. They just didn't have the money. And they weren't willing to play the debt-for-diploma game.
Thirty or forty years ago, skipping college was much less important. While a college degree has always been considered a stepping stone to higher status and greater prosperity, it certainly wasn't expected of everyone. Jobs for high school graduates were plentiful, and many blue-collar workers made good money. Back in the 1970s, an accountant with a B.A. and a steel worker might live on the same block, drive the same cars, eat at the same restaurants, and send their kids to the same public schools. But as the pay difference between high school grads and college grads has widened, so too have the life outcomes. In 1977 there was only a 6 percentage-point difference in home-ownership rates between those with college educations and those without. Today, there is a 20 percentage-point difference. Today the college-haves and the college have-nots live in different worlds.
College: From Nicety to Necessity