I have been working hard recently to pay college tuition for my two daughters. During a reflective slowdown over the holidays, I realized that I feel fortunate to have a lucrative job that allows me to live comfortably and save money to finance my daughters’ higher education, given the economic times. Every day we hear about more job layoffs by major employers. The numbers are staggering. In December Bank of America announced it was laying off 30,000 to 35,000 employees. Even local stars such as Google are laying off workers.

I worry that soon the only people employed will be those who work for Wal-Mart and divorce lawyers like me. Much as I believe I provide an important service, this would not be a good sign for our country. As I thought about the college-related costs my family faces this year, the question popped up: “How are other parents paying for their children’s higher education during these tough times?” Is higher education becoming a commodity available only to the wealthy? If so, what does this trend mean to the future of our country? It seems consistent with the unhealthy class stratification that has been occurring in recent years.

Today’s economic crisis is especially aggravating the problem of funding higher education, sometimes to the point of crisis. Parents confront a nearly non-existent student-loan market. Banks are not lending unless your name starts with Warren and ends with Buffett. I suppose that if you are a descendant of Sam Walton you are good to go as well. Adding to the economic pressure is the fact that many colleges rely on endowments to fund ongoing expenses. But the stock-market crash has hit endowment funds hard, which means that tuition prices are likely to rise. California’s state budget mess on top of the overall economic crisis is forcing major education-budget cuts, resulting in enrollment caps for the California state universities and community college system, higher fees to students, and less financial assistance.

American colleges are world renowned for their excellence — but what good are they if they become inaccessible to most American families?

We need to remedy this economic tsunami. And in the absence of help from above — meaning state and federal leaders locked in ideological combat, not divine intervention — it occurs to me that we need to start locally to effect a remedy from the ground up, with many pitching in to help real individuals reach for their dreams. The Palo Alto Family YMCA Wilson Cooper Scholarship fund is offering some help. It hopes to provide approximately 30 college scholarships to local students during 2009. It is through such efforts by other organizations throughout our community that we can fill in some of the terrible effects of the economic and political boodoggles we are witnessing daily in the news. Last year the Y granted 20 scholarships to children from lower-income families. Many of the candidates had already been accepted to top schools, such as Berkeley, University of California, Los Angeles, and New York University.

The compelling stories of those applicants reminded me of what America is supposed to be about: If you work hard and play by the rules you can succeed. We cannot, must not allow this to become a complete myth. Some of the scholarship candidates survived living in war-torn countries. Many come from families where one or both parents are missing — some worked to support themselves and their family, cared for younger siblings and somehow still managed to excel in school. Many candidates for college in our community and elsewhere share similar stories of adversity overcome by sheer will, hard work and intelligence — spurred on by their personal dreams.

Unfortunately there are not enough scholarship funds such as the Y’s program helping to narrow the expanding gap between the haves and have nots. We need to be more proactive to help our qualified students reach the goal of attending college — as individuals, community organizations, foundations and businesses. We need to create parent groups to lobby our local and national representatives for more aid for student loans. We need to remind our leaders that banks, holders of subprime mortgages in foreclosure, and the automobile industry are not alone in needing financial support and that limiting accessibility to higher education could have drastic long-term consequences to our ability to compete on an economic level internationally.

We need to lobby our school boards and other school leaders to address this financial crisis on a local level by expanding fund raising efforts to include paying expenses for college and locally promoting the creation of more college-scholarship funds.

Having offered a few suggestions to address our college credit-crunch crisis, I return to my own family budget to fend off the economic apocalypse as best I can. I hope that you all stay well, and stay employed.


Originally posted on Palo Alto Online by Jeffrey Blum on January 9, 2009

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