Class in Session

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Everyone knows that higher education and higher
incomes go together—that is, the longer you stay in
school, the more money you’re likely to make. But the
actual numbers, especially when it comes to poverty, are
surprising. In 2003, according to a study by the U.S. Census
Bureau, of people who had gone to college for at least
one year, only 1 in 20 was living below the poverty level.
In contrast, for people who had never gone to college,
about 1 in 3 was living in poverty.
In other words, the conventional wisdom is astonishingly
correct. Although it is no guarantee, and less of one
than it used to be, the surest route to staying out of poverty
is to go to college.
Perhaps that is as it should be, but one problem is that
college enrollment and completion are not equal across
classes. If you divide the United States population into five
groups based on family income, in 2003, only 49 percent
of high school graduates from the bottom two income levels
enrolled immediately in college. In contrast, 80 percent
of high school graduates from the top fifth of family
incomes did so. And when one considers that poor students
graduate from high school less frequently than nonpoor
students, the disparities between family income and
college enrollment grow even larger. These differences do
not owe entirely to ability, either. As the Spellings Commission
on the Future of Education reported earlier this
year, “low-income high school graduates in the top quartile
on standardized tests attend college at the same rate as
high-income high school graduates in the bottom quartile
on the same tests.”
In sum, without a college degree, there is a fair chance
that you will live in poverty. Worse still, the poorer your
family is, the less of a chance you have of going to college.
In general, these mutually reinforcing trends are a recipe
for the poor to stay poor and the well off to stay well off.
As former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers
put it, “I am worried that we will become a stratified
economy, like many in Latin America where the prosperous
and the advantaged stay prosperous, and the poor and
disadvantaged stay poor.”
One local program, The Odyssey Project, which I started
in 2005 and continue to direct, is trying to do something
about these dispiriting statistics and this potentially
stratified economy. The Odyssey Project is a free, collegeaccredited
course in the humanities offered to low-income
adults in the Champaign-Urbana community. Adults 18
and older who live at 150% of the poverty level or lower
can enroll in an intensive introduction to the humanities,
including courses in literature, art history, philosophy,
U.S. history, and critical thinking and writing. Classes
begin in late August, end in early May, and meet in the
evenings twice per week at the Douglass Branch Library in
Champaign. The courses are taught by faculty from the
University of Illinois, which, along with the Illinois
Humanities Council, sponsors the program. Because of
this support, The Odyssey Project charges students no
tuition and is able to provide books, childcare, and even
bus tokens, free of charge. Best of all, students who complete
the course receive six college credits, which they can
then transfer to other colleges or universities, including
Parkland College or the University of Illinois.
The goal, beyond introducing students to the lively
world of the humanities, is to build a bridge to higher education
for those who have never gone to college or who, for
one reason or another, have had to drop out. Since the
inaugural class of 2006-2007, several Odyssey Project
graduates—although not nearly enough—have gone on to
continue their education. I hope the course is helping lowincome
adults to make good on the intelligence and ability
they have but haven’t yet had a chance to realize fully.
As I am reminded every day, though, The Odyssey Project
is not a cure-all. Even after taking our class, the barriers
to higher education for students remain high, especially
for low-income adults who have jobs and children and
especially as tuition at two- and four-year colleges continues
to rise. When I went to college, I was 18 years old and
thought very little of taking out thousands or tens of thousands
of dollars in student loans. And not only did I not
have a family to take care of—I had a family taking care of
me. Odyssey Project students do not have those luxuries.
And despite much talk along those lines, education is
not a sufficient, not even a practical solution to poverty.
The economy does not need very many more workers with
university degrees than it already has. As Jared Bernstein, a
senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, has said,
“Education is a supply-side policy; it improves the quality
of workers, not the quality or the quantity of jobs. A danger
of overreliance on education in the poverty debate is that
skilled workers end up all dressed up with nowhere nice to
go.” Indeed, most of the jobs—over half— that our economy
will create over the next decade will not require a college
degree. What will keep those low-wage service and
manufacturing workers out of poverty is not education but
better economic policies: full employment, a more generous
earned income tax credit, a solution to crippling health
care costs, to name but a few. At best, The Odyssey Project
can help to correct some of the disparities involved in who
gets a chance to go to college and who ultimately gets the
jobs that require a college degree.
Less practically, perhaps, but equally important for this
humanist, The Odyssey Project gives students a chance to
learn about themselves, their world, and their country’s
history. For most students, a college degree is a long way
away. In the meantime, in terms of the everyday, The
Odyssey Project invites students to engage what writers
and artists and philosophers have thought and said about
what it means to be human, to be mortal, to be in or out of
love, to be the object or agent of racism, to live an ethical or
excellent life, to work for a living, to be poor—our students
rarely need to be told much about the last two, but still—
and to test those ideas against their own. In general, the
curriculum mixes the “great works” of Western Civilization
with more contemporary readings. In the literature course,
for example, students might begin by studying the sonnets
of Shakespeare and then move on to the more politically
charged uses of the mode that twentieth century poets like
Edna St. Vincent Millay and Claude McKay have made. In
the U.S. History course, which usually emphasizes history
told from the bottom up, as the saying goes, students also
get to learn where the people of the United States have
been, how we got to where we are now, and perhaps where
we are going or could go as a result.
One place I hope we are going is to a more just society,
where the class one comes from plays far less of a determining
role in one’s life than it does now. In its admittedly
very small way, I believe The Odyssey Project is helping to
bring about that better world.
For information on The Odyssey Project, call the Illinois
Program for Research in the Humanities at 244-3344,
or visit the IPRH web site

This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.