Wednesday, April 19, 2006

They want to go to college

Recently I spend a couple of pleasant hours reading entries in the Save Me a Spot in College contest organized by the Campaign for College Opportunity.

The Campaign, run by my friend Abdi Soltani, wants the public to know that higher education is in trouble. It aims to get the state to recognize that the goal, adopted in the 1960 California Master Plan for Education, of providing a path to college for every qualified student is about to crash off a cliff. Unless something is done, over the next decade 1.8 million young people will be turned away by the state's overburdened higher education system. One million three hundred thousand of those potential students will be locked out of the community colleges that were supposed to accommodate all high school graduates. Already the situation is pretty dire: even if a kid can make or raise the money to pay for tuition, books and fees, she may not be able to get into the classes she needs or even have a chance to meet with an over-booked counselor for help in navigating the maze.

The Campaign seeks to encourage efficiency at the colleges, but, as importantly, asks the legislature for a predictable, reliable funding stream, and the schools for predictable tuition schedules. They trust young people will find a way, but only if given a clear path.

The contest offered students in grades 6-12 a chance to win scholarship money by answering the question, "why should California leaders save you and your peers a spot in college?" Entries could take the form of written work, posters or TV ads. The response was overwhelming: the Campaign received 6000 written entries.

Somebody had to read all these papers -- that's where a cadre of readers, including me, came in. Every entry got at least one full reading. I'm sure the winners will get multiple passes by different readers.

My batch of 50 was fascinating: these kids all believe firmly that college is the way out of poverty and very unpleasant employment, if any. Their picture of the bad job awaiting the chump who doesn't go to college is "flipping burgers." Many speak of wanting to make their parents, often immigrants who didn't have a chance at college, proud of them. They also want not to have to work as hard as their parents -- college is a way to escape the deadening round of multiple, minimum wage jobs that they see the adults in their families working.

Their interest in college seems to be entirely vocational -- only one of the 50 suggested that college would be "fun" and only one suggested that by going to college he'd be able to give more to the state as a citizen. Perhaps my batch was skewed; it seemed to me that a majority of their career plans seemed to be in medical or health related fields. Three wanted to be veterinarians. Three others, one a girl, hoped that college would enable them to become professional soccer players. Apparently we are not raising linebackers and shortstops these days.

Let's hope we adults can give them the opportunities they want so much.

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