Before every new semester I get a pit in my stomach

… trying to figure out how I can pay for the required texts. Even with the privilege of not worrying about food or shelter, living with my parents, it is still a daunting challenge. Most semesters I’ve been able to find ways to work it out and some semesters I couldn’t. The semesters where I literally couldn’t afford my books made it very difficult to keep up and do well in class.

I use a variety of strategies to figure out this book shindig, including checking out older editions from a the library, renting, finding used books or even online versions of old, outdated editions. This semester I’ve dug and clawed and whimpered and journeyed far to find any way I could possibly get out of spending at least $600. And alas - this time, it isn't happening.

Situations like this really make it difficult to ignore how I feel about the way academia operates in the United States. Students work harder and take on more debt to get degrees whose value is open to question. Meanwhile, colleges are the pawns of corporate interests who price gouge a captive student body. You are “free”. Free to buy this text, at this price, with this online code which expires after this semester. The same information is, of course, readily available from hundreds or thousands of inexpensive sources. But, for some reason your class must use this incredibly expensive source with all lower cost options made as inaccessible as possible. Really? Seriously?

In some other industrialized countries, they have student unions and governments who consider higher education a universal right. It is not a privilege reserved only for those who can afford it. In the U.S. the cost of college rises at an annual rate 2.3% faster than the rate of inflation (DSA). Whoa.

The whole thing feels like a game of Wipe Out. It all begins with a whole bundle of enthusiastic, bright eyed and bushy tailed contestants (i.e. freshman who are all excited about learning). Round after round contestants are weeded out. Inevitably, every one gets whacked with massive rubber balls or have to swim through mud. They myth is that only the “best and brightest” make through it to the end. But, even the cream of the crop end up riddled with PTSD. Left behind are the majority, the “failures,” left with damaged self-esteem and bitter resentment towards education.

The result is a population where the majority seriously believe the Earth was created in a puff of magic and is only a few thousand years old.

Last semester in Statistics I sat by a fellow student who worked his heart out to understand the complicated concepts being taught. He was in class every single day. He turned in every assignment. Took every test. Studied and studied. On the second to last day, he told me, “I know I’m failing this class. Why did I even keep coming to class? I would have received the same grade if I’d never tried at all.” That's so sad. It made me sick.

Like half of that class, he received the undeniably clear and present message that he was a failure. That working as hard as he could, he was not as good as other students. He was bad at statistics. One more thing to add to the list of his failures and inadequacies. Maybe he could be good at art or music. Certainly not at mathematics.

Bullshit. He didn’t fail. The system failed. I could have helped him if I had known he was struggling and if the system was not set up to punish me for helping. Maybe he had a harder time than I did. But, so did Einstein. He was a bad student and he went on to change the world.

It’s thanks to progressive government intervention, not private industry, that higher education became a real possibility for me. Programs like McNair and other financial aid I fortunately have access to.


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