Education for all | Diversity

A couple of years ago, I was at a summer advising workshop. We do that a lot at Highline – try to find ways to be better teachers for our students.

We were asked, as part of the workshop, to think about what barriers we faced in going to college.

I thought briefly and could reach only one conclusion: None.

I knew I was going to college from the time I was 5 years old. My father, on his way to becoming a college professor, was going to college, and I knew that was what I was going to do. And I knew that was what I could do and would do.

It was what was expected. I never had a moment of doubt that I belonged or that I could succeed.

My first day of college was one of the best days of my life. The professor got up in my very first class and started talking, and I thought, “Thank God. We’re actually going to learn something.”

And, in fact, going to Renton High School had prepared me well for college. The teachers were encouraged to teach, to do whatever it was that they did best.

The classes were not stratified into “smart kids” and “other kids.” For the most part, we were all lumped together. The smart kids helped the other kids along, and we all learned something in the process.

When I started at Highline in January of 1976 (because, as my father, by then a Highline professor, said, “No son of mine is going to Green River”), tuition was around $100 a quarter. In current dollars, that’s about $350. Students could get part-time jobs, pay for their tuition and books and graduate with four-year degrees without any debt.

But the lack of barriers I encountered is not what students face today.

Unlike the solid middle class of my youth, when students on free and reduced-price lunches were extremely rare, a frightening number of scholars today come from families so poor that much of what they get to eat comes from those lunches and breakfasts. Their parents aren’t lazy; they’re just not paid a living wage despite working multiple jobs.

Tuition today is over $1,200 a quarter at Highline. It’s gone up nearly four times the rate of inflation, in large part because, during every state budget crisis, the Legislature treats higher education like an ATM. And they continue to cut state need grants, which provide financial help to the poorest of the poor.

K-12 teachers still work very hard, but they are burdened by having to teach students how to pass the standardized tests mandated by what I like to call “No Rich White Child Left Behind.” If not, they lose the roughly 7 percent of their budgets that comes from federal funding. (That ought to tell you how tight your typical school district budget really is.)

Students hate the tests. They tell me that every quarter when I ask them about the experience. None of them reports learning anything of consequence from taking the tests.

Meanwhile, classes are increasingly segregated by students’ perceived abilities. This doesn’t seem to be doing anyone any favors.

I talked to an advanced placement American government teacher recently. I said I liked to have my students do projects involving real things in the community. He said he used to do that, but now he just teaches them how to pass the AP test.

That ain’t education.

The students I get today are no less capable than the students of 20 years ago, when I started teaching, nor the students of my generation, but they are not well prepared for college.

So the students of today face barriers that largely didn’t exist when I started at Highline. We have students from all over the world, of all ages, the young, the old, the poor, the middle class, those who are ready and those who need more help. People whose fathers didn’t go to college. People who may be the first person in their family to go to college.

We remain, for so many, the college of first choice and the college of second chances — the college you can turn to when nothing else seems to be going right. We take anyone who can make it to campus, and we do all that we can to help those students succeed.

Forgive me because you had to know this was coming: That takes money. When I started at Highline, the state paid for about 75 percent of what it costs to educate an average student.

Today, it’s not more than 50 percent. We’ve gone from a state institution to a state-supported institution.

So, yes, I’m asking for money, but not a lot.

Highline has more than 350,000 alumni. If we could get every alumnus to give $10, we could build a $3.5 million endowment, and that could help a lot of students.

Even if you’re not an alumnus, please consider spotting us a ten-spot. You may not have gone to Highline or have any children or relatives who have gone to Highline, but the students of today are your clients, your customers, your employees (or, in my case, your caretakers) of tomorrow. These are your neighbors, your homies, the people from your ‘hood.

We’ve made this about as easy as can be. If you text HIGHLINE to 80077, you automatically donate $10, which will show up on your cell phone bill.

The bottom line is a lot of people doing a little can help many people a lot – scholarships and tuition assistance, support for programs that help people succeed in school.

This isn’t about salaries or benefits for people who work at Highline. I’m doing OK, and I get to work with amazing and good people – students, faculty and staff.

This is about the students who are here now, and who will be here tomorrow and next year and next decade.

And I want them to have all the opportunities that I had, without all the barriers that they have.

T.M. Sell, Ph.D., is a 1978 graduate of Highline College and a former alumni of the year. He is the author of two books about politics and is head of the journalism department and professor of political economy at Highline.