Archive | December 2013

“College culture”

I’ve been in a blog rut. My weeks have been flying by in a haze of graduate applications and ever-lengthening shifts at my retail job, and I haven’t had any time to dig up anything interesting for the blog. I contemplated a long-winded rant about the admissions employee at Rutgers who promised me a fee waiver two months ago, only to hear yesterday from the same employee that such a waiver did not exist and that reviewing my application would be delayed since my payment was now late, but who wants to hear about that? Not her, I’ll tell you that much.

AND THEN — inspiration struck during a meeting of the Rochester College Access Network this morning. We were discussing College Goal Sunday, a national initiative for communities to host college access events on the Sunday following the Super Bowl. Rochester’s College Goal Sunday event at East High will be a FAFSA completion workshop, facilitated by volunteers from the community and local college financial aid departments. Students and their families from the Rochester area are welcome to attend and get their FAFSA forms completed and handed in. From my perspective, this event is a wonderful response to the challenge that many families have with getting their financial aid in order, and even better, it’s free and open to anyone who walks in. (What the heck is FAFSA?)

While I think College Goal Sunday addresses an important gap in programming, one of the group members made an excellent point about its major shortcoming: College Goal Sunday is happening on a Sunday. Besides the fact that most religious denominations have service on Sundays, many black and Latina/o communities reserve Sunday as a day of rest and family time. Sunday, for many, is sacrosanct, and there are likely hundreds of students in Rochester who will not attend College Goal Sunday for that reason. The term “college-going culture” is thrown around often in the non-profit education world, but whose culture are we promoting? When an organization or individual says they hope to establish a college-going culture, they mean that they want college to become a part of the life process for low-income communities, as it is in many affluent communities. Unfortunately, social science research (combined with recent state rankings) indicate that this isn’t how culture works at all.

First, individuals tend to make choices based on the patterns of action they see in their surroundings, not based on values (see Ann Swidler’s “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies”). Community-based organizations and philanthropists may tout the benefits of a college education from dawn to dusk, but the patterns of action held by a community will always be more powerful than the objective value of a new way of doing things. Second, things tend to go poorly when one culture attempts to rehabilitate another. There are plenty of examples of this, but my favorite is Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa.

None of this is to say that the situation in Rochester is impossible to be salvaged, nor that non-profits and CBOs have no place in education policy. Rather, major cultural differences are being swept under the rug in the crusade for equal education attainment. It is not acceptable for a city of our size to hold one (and only one) community-wide FAFSA completion event on a Sunday, and it is not acceptable for charitable organizations to demand a change of Rochester’s culture. The entire concept of establishing a college-going culture assumes that something is being set up where there is nothing, which degrades the rich culture that already exists in Rochester and other, similar cities. If the quality of life in Rochester is to improve, its culture must be empowered. Otherwise, policy makers run the risk of preaching to the choir, and wondering why nothing is changing.

P.S. A few organizations in Rochester offer FAFSA help to families, including Urban League of Rochester, Monroe Community College, and Bryant and Stratton College. Some RCSD counselors have also scheduled FAFSA completion events for the students at their school. However, College Goal Sunday is a much larger and (barely) more publicized event.