The most important moment of Dr. Robert Putnam’s presentation “Closing the Opportunity Gap” on July 21st at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts came after he’d already offered his conclusion. During the question and answer session, an audience member asked Dr. Putnam about former presidential candidate Bernie Sander’s plan to make college free. The questioner wanted to know if Dr. Putnam thought that providing more access to college would decrease inequality.
Dr. Putnam thought for a moment before he responded. Making college free could increase access, but access wasn’t the main problem, he said. Instead, Dr. Putnam focused on the fact that only 29% of students in two-year colleges earn a degree within three years. The issue, he explained, wasn’t simply to get more low-income people into college, but also to make sure that they could succeed in college once they were there. The solution wasn’t to make college free, but to use resources to hire more counselors and support staff to help first generation and poor students navigate a world that they aren’t familiar with.
I’ve thought a great deal about that answer in the weeks since the presentation. Too often, our problem-solving imagination stops at the level of access. We expect that simply opening the doors to opportunity will allow the best and the brightest to succeed where they were once shut out. Unfortunately, access is only one barrier which stands in the way of people living up to their full potential. For people who come from poverty, violence and uncertainty in their lives, those experiences remain hurdles for them even after the doors of opportunity have been opened.
I’ve worked as a tutor at a community college and in the registrar’s office at an elite private college. I’ve met many smart, driven students who want to do well and fulfill goals of completing their education, improving their lives and providing for their families. And I’ve seen so many of them wash out. Of the many students that I’ve tutored and worked with in other capacities, almost none of them were intellectually incapable of doing the work that was asked of them. There were always outside pressures which compromised their ability to stay in school- family issues, work demands, social isolation, emergency situations, and perhaps the issue which isn’t talked about enough, the emotional and psychic trauma that so many people from impoverished backgrounds carry with them every day.
Malcolm Gladwell addresses this issue as well in his wonderful podcast Revisionist History. In episode 4, “Carlos Doesn’t Remember,” Gladwell interviews a young man he calls Carlos. Carlos is from Los Angeles, and he is granted access to elite schooling through lawyer Eric Eisner’s YES Program. That would be the end of the story for many investigations; a well-deserving poor kid makes it into a program which will pay for his schooling. The end. Yet Gladwell goes further, and reveals that even with the doors of opportunity thrown open to him, the problems of poverty and family responsibilities still remain for Carlos. He is one of the students that Dr. Putnam was talking about in his presentation. It’s not enough to throw money at students for college, because the challenges which people on the wrong side of the opportunity gap face go far beyond the inability to pay.
As a temporary work assignment, I spent two months examining psychiatric folders at an organization which specializes in mental health services for children. I read hundreds of files, and while I cannot talk about the specifics in those folders, it was one of the most heartbreaking experiences I’ve had. The amount of abuse, neglect and trauma that those children were subjected to almost defies belief. Many of the folders I went through were 10-20 years old. The children I was reading about are now adults, around my age, trying to navigate the world. Some of them are around college age. They may have received scholarships to prestigious schools, or they may have enrolled in a local community college. But had the wounds these children received healed? How does an adult handle the stresses of college in addition to the hurt and shame they’ve carried with them most of their lives? Those injured children may now be injured adults, and unlike the physical injuries we often treat, we can’t see the emotional and psychological scabs that are constantly picked at by a world which places unrelenting demands on them every day.
As a result, we see increasing numbers of students entering college as access increases, yet around half never finish. There have been discussions among colleges aimed at improving student resilience, defined by Harvard University as “capacities for persistence, creativity, emotional intelligence, grit, cognitive flexibility, risk-taking, agency, adapting to change, delaying gratification, learning from failure, and questioning success.” The children I read about in those folders don’t lack in resiliency though; they’ve already survived experiences which have tested their resiliency to the breaking point. What those students need is support for their communities, their families and themselves.
Dr. Putnam eloquently made the case that to close the opportunity gap we need to widen our empathetic circle to include people we don’t normally interact with because of the way the wealthy have segregated themselves from the poor. He spoke forcefully against the macro results of concentrated wealth, and the everyday results of them, such as pay-to-play at local high schools which disadvantage poor children. The through line, from the beginning of his presentation to his answer to the free college question, was that Dr. Putnam wanted more support for communities so that those communities can support their members better. I hope that Dr. Putnam’s message made an impact on the other people in the Bushnell that night. We need to do more than open doors. We need to ensure that the people passing through them are loved and supported, so that it never comes to the place where their resiliency needs to be tested.