The news finally came down. The big court has made race-based affirmative action in universities no longer legal. Even if you were sleeping or doing other work, the news was trumpeted via email, Twitter, reactions on Facebook, and the small summer air currents we enjoyed today. Luckily, not the birds yet, though I expect an angry Blue Jay outside to broadcast it shrilly any moment.

There’s the decision, and there are the reactions. There’s Donald Trump insisting that this will make our country great again. Joe Biden has taken a different approach; it feels as though, at least in the media, everyone’s priming their verbal weapons.

Me? I’m thinking of the general high anxiety surrounding attendance at college all around. To put it bluntly, most people can’t afford it.

I went to Queens College in New York when all branches of the City University of New York were free to New York residents—and were very good to boot. This was followed several years later by 2 years in Columbia University’s Teachers College, which offered need-based scholarships almost exclusively to people of color. I had no problem with that even as it took me 12 years to pay down the loan I took out. Many of us accepted this paradigm back then.

But in those years, my monthly payments totaled $500 per year, lasting a dozen years. School loans now are on another planet because the size of tuition approaches the size of Jupiter, and people carry that burden for many more years regardless of how much money they make or whether they even have a job.

I’ve been following research concerning the surge in tuition (teaching staff’s salaries haven’t gone up that much, a lot goes to huge pay increases to top administrative staff as well as the building of new facilities). Why does tuition relentlessly go up even when other things don’t? Because demand continues regardless of the cost. In other words, families are ready to pay these fees regardless of how prohibitive they are. As least, they were till the pandemic.

But not everybody. I meet people all around me who don’t go to college because they can’t afford it. Some go to tech schools where they learn hands-on skills and get apprenticing opportunities. Others do a couple of courses in community colleges, but looking down the road at the financial burden that lies ahead, they decide to forego the rest.

In doing that, they forego opportunities for better-paying jobs and for housing (rents here are very high). When you’ve only finished high school, you may get a decent job to start but you won’t get promoted or become a supervisor. Your salary will remain low, and as younger people enter the job market, they will be favored over you. Many couples choose not to have children, or not to have more than 1-2, because they say they simply can’t afford it. They can’t afford the college tuition.

Race-based affirmative action in universities had its heyday for half a century; at that time, it seemed to be the right thing to do. Resentment started back then, too, but has surged with the surge in tuition. It seems to me that a more accurate target for these feelings is the sky-high tuition our university system fosters, loading people with so much debt, including for their parents who take some of that on and find themselves working well into their 70s to pay it off.

Ironically, the wealthy Ivy League colleges have enough money to provide substantial scholarships, but the state, city, and private universities do not, so if you can’t get into the former you have few or no options.

For me, the big issue isn’t race-based affirmative action programs for schools, it’s the system itself. I asked Chat GPT how much it costs for a year of study at Oxford University in England, one of the oldest, most premier universities in the West. It answered that for 2022, and with some variances according to the specific college and program studied, British and EU students pay 9,500 British pounds, or $12,000 annually. Huh?

I get the sense that once again, the well-to-do are favored, leaving poor whites and people of color to fight over the crumbs. We write angry columns and vote this way or that, but what we’re fighting over is crumbs. That, too, is how the system works.

If we are to have any kind of affirmative-action programs in schools, I would like to see something that relates to income. The current vast income gap can’t go on much longer. Give a much bigger break to those who come from low-income families and have to work harder than their richer peers to get to college. I believe that will have implications for minority groups as well.

Yesterday I had lunch with a young woman from the Rez working on a Ph.D. in linguistics as part of her effort to restore native languages. She talked of how few of the department faculty, in a university famed for its progressive values, are people of color or show much sensitivity to native origins. Instead, she struggles against the perception that she doesn’t really belong because she doesn’t have the academic background others have (she couldn’t afford that early course work).

In college, I remember meeting peers who came from a very different economic level. They not just had more money, they knew how to navigate their way better, were aware of options I never dreamed of, had more confidence in speaking up in class and consulting with professors than I did.

In this country, the class you come from can make all the difference.

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