Racism and the Tuition Crisis

By Faith Wilson


                  I should know better, but after reading a short article about the crisis hitting universities regarding tuition rates on the Huffington Post, I was tempted to see what the blog response postings were saying.  Thankfully, most expressed outrage at the growing impossibility of college attendance, but there was one post that caught my eye for its sheer ignorance of social context.  The writer said that he/she could see no connection between race and the financial situation facing colleges and universities.  Was this person kidding?  I suppose this individual believes that we all have an equal shot at college attendance and that the disproportionate lack of African-American and Latino/a student enrollment is due to more lucrative job offers or bounteous fame and fortune available to these groups?  Maybe more of them win the lottery or something, thus precluding the need for college.  Or, as some universities boast in the press, a 2% minority population is momentous and something to crow about, so there’s no problem to begin with, right?    Of course, I’m not even talking about the representation of minority FACULTY, which is even more abysmal. 

                  At my own university, faculty and staff were told that the state grants that most of our undergraduates rely upon to attend were suddenly and without warning being severely cut back.  The financial aid office was notified with less than a month’s window to contact these students and inform them that the money wasn’t there.  Thankfully, our university was able to dip into its own funds to back as many of the students as possible, stepping in where the state couldn’t.  Like other states, Illinois is unwilling to aggressively tax the wealthy, so the working class is generously stepping in as they have done throughout history, in the form of increased transportation rates, gas price hikes, and now, cuts to college aid.  I mean, after all, we can’t punish rich people for their “success” but apparently they can punish us for ours.  Those who have bought into the so-called “tuition 401Ks” have found their funds decimated by Wall Street’s casino-like adventure in 2008- and these were the better paid representatives of the working class.  Most don’t have a “college savings plan” let alone a savings account. 

                  Now let’s add skin color to the equation.  It doesn’t take a statistician to point out that poverty and race are closely correlated.  Add gender to that already strong r value and you get a pretty clear picture of what is going on.  When state and federal grants are cut (graduate students do not get federal or state financial aid- they get loans, but that’s another issue), then the most vulnerable students are the first to be denied college attendance.  A majority of these college students are poor, minority, and female, though there are also a sizable number of low-income whites who are swept up in the purge.  Merit-based scholarships go to- you guessed it- the wealthiest students, which is probably why conservatives and neo liberal democrats are constantly pointing to the plethora of scholarships as “the answer.”  Once again, individual, isolated acts of funding, dependent on the whim of donors (I hope that no college students were depending on Bernie Madoff) are seen as a solution while states are systematically denying students access to college, though not without worried hand-wringing. 

                  Racism on college campuses is expected to rise as this situation worsens.  When you successfully winnow minority representation to a “manageable” 2%, this increases the vulnerability of a group to racist attacks.  Buoyed by an escalating, irrational resentment of a black president being in office, white students at UC San Diego are hanging nooses (“only a joke” of course) in college libraries- a direct attack on the notion of African Americans being intellectual.  Why not scare them out of the library if they are insisting on remaining in college after being repeatedly “warned?”  Case in point- not four weeks prior, a fraternity held a “Compton Cookout” using the worst racist stereotypes in costume and language.  When black and white students and faculty rightly expressed their outrage, black students were called “ungrateful n**s” on the campus T.V.   The fact that there was no hint of embarrassment or fear of reprisal on the part of the white fraternity members says a lot about how underrepresentation of minorities sustains racism as an institutional entity.  Apparently nothing scared them underground and these acts were out in the open, sending a message of intimidation.  What’s next- a real noose with a person hanging from the other end?  And the more that our government refuses to make K-adult education a human right by fully funding it (meaning no 5,000 word essays to get a scholarship, no minimum GPAs, no mandatory parental involvement, no lists of “community service projects” and other irrelevant hoops), the more we can expect to be at the mercy of budget cuts and the more we can expect to see open acts of racism as minority groups become fewer in number and more marginalized on campuses.