Putting Priorities and Expectations in Perspective


How do you prioritize higher education when you are struggling to survive and provide for your own family? The recent devastation in Haiti is a vivid reminder for me of this reality. In Haiti, as in many impoverished Latin American countries, survival is the priority, not college.

 We can pontificate all we want about the value of forgoing the short-term opportunity cost of going to college because of the long-term value provided by completing a college education. I’ve been complicit in trying to make this case to students more than once (OK, many times). “Sacrifice now for your future” we tell many first-generation low-income students. But are we imposing our own expectations in the comfort of our own financially comfortable (and well-educated) context without considering these students’ realities?

For many low-income students, there is a very real and immediate trade-off between helping to provide for their family and going to college. We know the data: Latino, African-American, and Native American youth are much more likely to live in poverty than other youth. Yet we assume these students can and should forgo the opportunities to help support their families when they reach the traditional college age (which is also the age these youth can more actively engage in the working world).

 Should low-income students have to choose between their present (supporting their family) and their future (going to college)? I think too often we do make them choose and are too ready to blame the student when they choose to help their family instead of immediately going to college. After all, we spend a lot of resources and political energy creating “opportunities” for college. So when students choose not to go to college, we can sleep well at night knowing that at least we did all we could to create the opportunity.

 But are we really doing all we can to create a genuine college opportunity for low-income students? In too few policy conversations do we consider the profile of those with the most need in our society when we consider policy options to access and complete a college education. If we did, the pathway to college, application process, access to financial aid and attendance options would be much less complicated.

 While we focus on increasing student access and success in public policy debates, we can’t forget what a privilege it is for these issues to be in the forefront for us. We know college graduates earn more, have better health, and are more engaged citizens. Access to affordable and quality health care, education, and housing are expected rights for many of us. However, for many impoverished communities, like those in Haiti and in many Latino communities in the U.S., access to these services is too often a luxury they cannot even envision, much less expect.

 There are institutions of higher education that have adapted some of their financial aid practices and schedules of course offerings in recognition of the financial reality faced by low-income youth in their community. However, those in positions of power in policymaking and funding need to be reminded of the complicated and heart-wrenching choices that many low-income families must make on a daily basis to support their families and contribute to their communities. 

 My thoughts are with those in Haiti and their families.

 Deborah A. Santiago is the vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education.