Reflections on higher education: coming from behind

There’s something powerful about coming from behind – being an underdog. Students who are the first in the family to attend college, single parents, descendants of immigrants, or students from diverse backgrounds whose parents typically did not attend college are in a difficult situation. They are outsiders in the process of gaining a college education that opens otherwise locked doors of opportunity. Accessibility provides an opportunity for those who are willing to work hard and put energy and effort into a long-term goal of changing their trajectory and that of their family. Accessibility clouded by debt diminishes the true power of opportunity for too many.

No one is surprised when a student scores a 30 on the ACT, finishes in the top ten percent of their high school class, and graduates college in four years. Expectations have been set and met. The university should challenge gifted students to achieve better results at every stage of the process.

On the other hand, when a student is struggling to get into college, comes from “adverse” circumstances of one or more types, has a poor performance history, or has produced little evidence that they will succeed – in in short, is an underdog – we need to rejoice especially hard when they start and end, especially with little or no debt. The positive impact for all comes from the heart of the student despite the circumstances. The heart, the determination, the spit, the courage and the sense of purpose are always greater than the circumstances. The constructive outcome of study is diminished by excessive borrowing, especially for studies that offer few employment opportunities. The effectiveness of the educational process is attenuated, deadened or drained by indebtedness.

A university president with whom I worked for several years was the champion of an entire community of oppressed people. I led a planning exercise for a group of universities to help them better respond to their identified missions. As campus leader, the president created a mission and support organization for students who were educational underdogs. He was tough too. It expects student engagement.

One day he described the campus environment to me through a series of statistical overviews presented with an overhead projector: you know, those old things we used to show “transparencies.” One no longer finds overhead projectors, and the rarity of the tool is surpassed only by the rarity of transparency in contemporary society.

He had a slide showing the average family income of his incoming students (he always called students “his” students). It was a good sign for me. He felt a personal responsibility, not a mission stifled by bureaucratic attention to process and rules.

He cared deeply.

The average family income of incoming students was less than $30,000. Several slides later, he plotted the starting salary for graduates. The average was over $30,000. It hit me like a brick. This institution offered the opportunity for a student, in four short years, to surpass the whole family that had bid farewell to the first year at the college gate. While certainly not the only benefit of a college education, earning power is an irrefutable requirement for the institution and for students when burdened with debt.

Thanks to their power and their concentration, these underdogs were winning a race. Those who tirelessly remind others that a good, well-paying job is not a central aspect of a college education are annoying. Everyone who makes this request has a household income at or above the median. Education outsiders don’t usually think that way.

In misguided efforts to grow in the name of growth, to appear to serve much by opening doors to those who are unprepared just because they can borrow, tragedy ensues without a concomitant investment to help and support students. Otherwise, a student may spend a year or two playing around with college and its social and intellectual opportunities while racking up substantial debt. And in the end, the student leaves with little to show, but debts and some college credits.

The burden of debt and failure is a mighty punch that should be overcome with transparency and an action plan to help underdogs come back from behind.

Walter V. Wendler is president of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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