I think most people have about five big chapters that form the core of their life story. For me, the story of how my education was funded is probably the one I repeat most frequently. This seems like a good place in my bloglife to write it down.
As a child, I did not use the term “poverty.” My family lived in the crotch between the railroad tracks and a black-smoke-belching machine factory, in a little house where eight kids shared two and a half bedrooms and one bathroom while the parents slept in an ex-dining room with no doors. I think we assumed this was how most people lived.
My father worked full-time as a maintenance electrician in a chemical factory, part-time as a hardware clerk, as-needed as a home handyman and amateur auto mechanic, Sunday mornings as a eucharistic minister, and all the nights and weekends that he could as a volunteer EMT.
He paid our bills, but he did not save for a rainy day, retirement, or anybody’s education. Before each of us got a driver’s license, we were required to buy our own car and pay for our own insurance. So the Turner kids worked concessions at the state park, labored in the bird seed factory, mowed lawns, babysat, baked pizzas, rewired a house, washed dishes in the nursing home, cleaned houses and—best of all—shelved books at the public library. And we paid our bills too.
But we also didn’t save, at least not much. So although I was the seventh and—as my father lovingly admitted—“not the smartest of the bunch” (anyone who has met my siblings knows that this was realism, not insult), I was the first to earn a degree. It was not a practical expenditure for most of the skilled people in my family.
My own plan for paying for college had involved moving in with my sister and attending a branch campus of Ohio University part-time while looking for a job. That plan got thrown out the window shortly before I graduated, when the vice principal and the guidance counselor brought me into the school office to tell me that I needed to get a better plan.
I had received a scholarship that exceeded in value the tuition charged at that branch campus, and it would be an embarrassment to the school if the winner of that scholarship wasted the money. So, because the vice principal was friends with the admissions director at Hiram College, and because a local couple in my home town sponsored a scholarship at Hiram for graduates of my school, they had decided that I needed to don the scarlet and sky blue and join the fighting Terriers. I did.
It meant going into maximum debt, which I’d hoped to avoid. It meant four years of regular, humiliating visits to the financial aid office, explaining over and over that although government formulas included a “parent contribution,” there was no such thing. It meant begging for more work-study hours, a flexible payment schedule, eating spaghetti every single day of the summer while I worked on campus and house-sat for professors to save room and board expenses. It wasn’t bad, really. I love spaghetti.
During winter breaks, when I’d visit the elderly couple who were footing a large chunk of my bill, my faith in the generosity of the affluent would be bolstered, as would my commitment to not letting them down. In my junior year, when I had the chance to study in Europe and see places I’d dreamed about ever since I’d learned to read, somehow my scholarship magically expanded and my parent contribution miraculously materialized to cover the four months of my missed wages.
It all worked so well, I decided to try graduate school.
The first grad school gave me a full fellowship, which was damn nice of them. Without tuition expenses, my two part-time jobs combined with my partner’s full-time work for the government let us live pretty well in the very-expensive nation’s capital. We quietly violated our lease by providing free housing for everyone we could think of in our one-bedroom apartment, because we loved that beautiful city so much and wanted everyone we knew to experience its wonders.
The second grad school waived my tuition and offered me a teaching assistantship. During orientation, the program coordinator said, “I hope you all are doing this for love and not for money, because there ain’t no money to be had in the humanities.” And I did love exactly 50% of my experience: the teaching part. Have you ever stood in front of a freshman composition course at a large land grant university, looked out at the faces of the international students and the farm kids in baseball caps and the hung-over sorority girls, and realized that you were speaking to America? Or at least that fraction of America who had combined means, motive, and opportunity to get to college?
However, the less practical half of my doctoral program experience—I didn’t love that. One day my boss said, “You’ve been working in libraries since you were in junior high. Didn’t it ever occur to you to go to library school?” To which I replied, “There is a thing called library school? What is this library school thing?” And thus: the third grad school.
There, I managed to get a rare graduate assistantship, though I also paid every penny of my tuition. Or rather, my partner paid up front for my 11-month sprint, and I earned it back afterwards, working for less than $13 an hour in what Forbes once described as “the worst return on investment” of all graduate degrees. (It’s dropped below criminal justice now. What does that mean, I wonder?) Fortunately, I had done it for love, and not for money.
A few years later, we retired my student loan debt from college, started saving for our children’s education, and never stopped being grateful for the people and the programs that made it possible for me to study.
Gratitude was the g-word I have always associated with my education funding. This week, though, I have wondered: was I supposed to feel guilt?
Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that, if sustained by the Senate, will make it impossible for poor kids to indulge their selfish desires for graduate school. In order to fund big tax cuts for corporations, Congress seems to need to smack down us freeloaders.
Unlike graduate students in the hard sciences, I cannot claim that my years of study ever led to a life being saved, or a marketable product being developed, or a structure being built to stand long after I’m dead. In fact, some of those siblings who could not swing post-secondary education have done much more in those areas than I could ever do.
So how do I defend the drain I must have been on the taxpayers of our nation?
While I love telling the story of the wonderful people who helped me—the realistic dad, the kind industrialist and his wife who were my benefactors, the pushy vice principal and tolerant financial aid officer, the hospitable professors, the husband who went job hunting every time I got accepted into a new program—it’s a lot more uncomfortable trying to justify the small number of tax breaks for which I qualified.
When I was young, there was still a corner of the American mind that indulged learning for learning’s sake, but I have never been all that comfortable with this concept. Although that strange happenstance of the scholarships led me to attend a liberal arts college, and the happy availability of a fellowship resulted in three years of interdisciplinary study in medieval liturgical music, dead languages, Thomistic philosophy, and other things that have no known market, I assumed that the rest of my adult life was supposed to be spent returning favors. I have tried to do that.
I have not, however, counseled my own children to pursue the kind of education I received. As the planet warmed and the political climate chilled, I advised them to seek a societal niche that even the average 21st-century voter would agree needed filling.
My daughter, whose hard work and service during high school resulted in her own taxpayer-funded college experience, believes that the world needs more foot soldiers in the good fight against public health crises. I think most taxpayers and even most congressional representatives would probably agree. To make her contribution, she needs to complete a graduate program.
She will clear the hurdles that Congress seeks to place in front of her, because our family is lucky. But most of the kids growing up in our neighborhood, or in the neighborhood where I grew up—they will not. I wonder which niche those embryonic inventors, engineers, doctors, and librarians will fill instead.