Stars, Stripes, and Student Unions

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(Source: Flickr, user: houseofstone)

I am lucky enough to currently be in the States, visiting an old friend for a fortnight. I am residing in his apartment (flat) in Washington, D.C., along with his three roomies (flatmates), all of whom are college (uni) students.

D.C. is a hub for students aiming to forge their career on or through Capitol Hill. Politics is what this city thrives upon, and you can only walk a couple of blocks before you are reminded of that with banners, signs in peoples’ yards (gardens) or approached by Party members. However, what has really struck me is the difference in the politics of education.

Chatting to my friend (who does not attend college, but is a budding, and already pretty successful, entrepreneurial type – good job! Awesome!) and his housemates, it seems there are vastly different cultures and expectations surrounding attaining that ever-promising, sometimes-assumptive, degree.

Here in the States, college is not something one can just decide to partake in. Americans save from birth in order to send their child to college. College can cost anything in excess of $40,000, and the living costs are barely supported by student loans. Admittedly, this is similar to British students’ financial predicaments, however, this is heightened by the upfront costs tuition fees present here. The divide between the rich and the poor cannot be healed, unless education is made more accessible. Figures show that only 34% of families who are earning less than $35,000 can afford to save any money towards sending their children to college. This is juxtaposed against over 75% of families earning over $100,000 who have a savings fund. On top of this, college costs are continuing to rise, and vary greatly dependent on the ranking of the college in question. This is foundation enough to make the claim that the cycle is not easily broken. In the UK, however, it is much easier, (though admittedly not overly common) considering the tuition fees are not required up front. There is also a multiplicity of grants and bursaries available for people from less well off, or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Moreover, there is a greater focus upon employability and prospects. Of the students I have gotten to know in D.C., they all have internships and they are ones which provide worthwhile experience and hours. There is little in the way of photocopying and making coffee. My friends here go to work in their suits, commute to Capitol Hill, and come home having reviewed existing policies and researched new ones. The government website describes being a part of an internship as an opportunity to “experience the thrill and rewards” of their programmes. This is a stark contrast against my meeting with government recruitment staff at my university’s careers fair, who told me “apply, but it’s unlikely you’ll even hear back… a lot of people apply to these roles…”. True British encouragement, saturated with the characteristic pessimism that is to be expected… but not what you want to hear from a careers advisor.

Is this student employability heightened in America by the fact that they know these kids are coming out of “well-to-do” families? There are none of these disadvantaged kids running into roles at Capitol Hill, that could be coming into work at the House of Commons internship roles, purely because of the inaccessibility of the colleges here stops the ‘scallywags’ from breaking ranks. I know House of Cards is highly dramatised, but the mention of a “dead disadvantaged kid” being in the pocket of Frank Underwood just depicts the way that the poor in America are used as political tools – not as cogs in the machine.

Yeah, I know there is the No Child Left Behind programme in place, set up by good ole’ George W. Bush; it has however been argued that after 7 years of working on it, it has failed and should have the “plug pulled” on it. Plus, the programme is an educational based one – not a financial aid. Money is what makes America what it is today; however, owing to this, there are a lot of big holes in the net for people to slip through. The rejection of anything which can be construed as “Communist”, reminiscent of the Cold War fears in USA, is where America fails to help the needy. Obamacare was a potential breakthrough, but it was strongly battled against and was never absorbed into society like , for example, the NHS is and was. However, the difference is, the NHS was formed out of an era which demanded such a plan to be put in place after the suffering of the Second World War. Obamacare was forced into a society which strongly advocates each man for himself.

So, education in America is only really an available option to those whose bank balances can stretch to it. In the Land of the Free, you’re only really as free as Capitalism allows you to be. So, whilst there are benefits to being at an American college, such as the potential to get a decent internship which could actually lead into your career, your parents have to have made the money first, and in the case of Harvard and Yale, for example, made a fair few donations too, to butter up the admissions officers. An intelligent child from the back end of nowhere really has only got community college to fall back onto. The British university system has greatly reduced this from being an issue; student loans and bursaries are available, and there is a much greater acceptance in society of taxes going towards funds such as these. Equality of opportunity is a reality; or at least a developing one, anyway.

So, is the Land of Opportunity really all it sells itself to be?

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