A Sense of Community College

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
A screenshot from Dave’s class outline

Reader Dave teaches at a community college, and he crafted a recent class around our current cover story:

I was engrossed by Neal Gabler’s article and admire his candor. It resonated with me particularly because I have been a freelance graphic artist for over 30 years and I understand exactly the feast or famine nature that such a freelance creative career provides, including the fact that art fees have stagnated (even contracted) over the last 20 years, as publishing budgets have done the same.

My wife has also been a long-time freelancer but our financial situation is much more positive at this point than the Mr. Gabler’s, despite what seems like similar costs (mortgage, college, etc.) and income in a high-tax Northeast state. I credit that to the luck of good health, but mostly to learning the basics of personal finance early on and so avoiding some bad decisions and making a few good ones early on. (Those skills were perfectly described in your recent reader entry “When Self-Denial Gives You Freedom.”)

In addition to my freelance work, I have taught as an adjunct in the art department a local community college for many years. Mr. Gabler’s story was so compelling I decided to devote an entire class, entirely off the course topic, to a discussion of the article and a presentation of the basics of personal finance.

I had no idea if the students (generally 18-25 in age) would be interested at all, so I gave them the option to either work on their projects or skip the class. No one did. In fact, in all the years I’ve taught, it was the first time there was applause at the end of a class. Not for my presentation skills, but for having offered information most had never heard and that they recognized could have an immediate positive impact on their lives and for decades into the future.

Here’s an outline of my class presentation, which contains links to articles, tools (Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook) and calculators (debt repayment, compound interest, inflation, undergraduate loan). This kind of information should be mandatory in every high school curriculum.

I thank Mr. Gabler for the article. There are ripple effects that will be felt for quite awhile, as I intend to offer this information in each of my future classes, until there is a required personal finance class, or as long as someone stays to listen.

Here’s some more specific advice from another reader:

I’m writing to offer a suggestion to Linda Lee, [the struggling former newspaper editor] whose story was outlined here. I tutored on anything writing-related for extra income after college. It was one of the few ways I could command a decent hourly wage for the skills I had as a writer.

Tutoring was very flexible. I was able to do it on my own time even if it was only for a free hour here and there during the week. Sessions can be held in any location (libraries, coffee shops, client homes, remotely, etc.) Getting started is simple, and cash payments at the end of a session are a way to get some extra funds very quickly. Craigslist and Wyzant.com were good ways to find clients. As a veteran (and published?) journalist and editor, I’m sure Ms. Lee’s skills would be in demand.

I passed along that advice to Linda and she replied:

I did NOT get that Civil Service job, and the people in Paris have still not wired me the $2,000, so I’m up for any advice. I had thought of freelance writing, but never thought of tutoring. It’s a great idea. (Better than going to a temp agency.) I really like the idea of someone handing me cash at the end of a tutoring session. Instant commodification.

Another reader, Amanda, previously offered advice to Ben—the unemployed dad without a college degree—in an update to “The Demoralizing Process That Job Searches Have Become.” (If you have any tips on how to make it less demoralizing, please email us.) Here’s how Ben replied to the update, which plugged a scholarship program from the mikeroweWORKS Foundation: “Well, now I know what I’m doing with my Saturday.” We’ll keep you posted on that and other reader developments.

The overwhelming majority of the reader response to Gabler’s story has been positive and supportive. But to balance things out a bit, here’s a strong reader dissent from Adam (a pseudonym), who benefitted a great deal from community college:

Hello! I wanted to comment on the discussion around money and Neal Gabler’s essay. This is a little bit of my own story and mostly a comment on his piece. Apologies if this is off-topic; I had a strong response to the cover story.

Gabler’s essay is out of touch and frankly obnoxious. By his own admission, his financial quandaries are entirely his own fault. He had privilege and opportunity, and made a series of choices that put him in desperate straits. He picked a risky career path in which money comes inconsistently; he then refused to live within his means, squandering his money on status symbols like living in the most expensive areas of the country, private school tuition for his children’s entire educations, and expensive weddings. I have no sympathy for him; he is paying the price of his own snobbery and unwillingness to make pragmatic choices.

In my observation, this is radically different from the predicament of most struggling American families. Many people have never had access to even a fraction of the opportunity Gabler describes, and have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into climbing up from poverty into the lower middle class, only to get knocked back into poverty because the car broke down, the rent was raised, someone got cancer, etc. Gabler pleads masculine pride in telling his wife not to return to work; many families never had the option of a full-time caretaker even when their children were newborns, let alone a spouse staying out of the workforce when the children have gone to college.

This is somewhat of a pet issue for me because, like Gabler, I am from a relatively privileged background—just privileged enough to be exposed to the idea that I should conduct myself like a wealthy person and refuse to consider money in my decision-making. Many of my relatives sank their whole fortunes into sending children to expensive private colleges they couldn’t afford. Why? I have never understood this.

I knew damn well at 17 that my family didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars lying around to send me to school, so I went to community college and then a state university and graduated with no debt. That’s a testament to my incredible good fortune; my parents were able to pay tuition at a state school (it was about $7k/year). I don’t think I would deserve any sympathy if I’d refused that opportunity to send us all into debt just so I could go to my “dream school.” Many of my cousins and former classmates have done this, and I think it’s a preposterous waste.

Maybe it’s the fact that people studied at these “dream school” enclaves that partly explains why they are so out of touch and unwilling to live within their means. At the state university, I went to school with young people who grew up in deep poverty, who were the first in their family to go to college, etc. This taught me a lot of gratitude about my own middle-class background and fundamentally altered my reference point for the class system. I no longer think of rich people as normal and see myself as inadequate; I instead realize that working-class people are much more typical and I feel fortunate. My sympathy lies with the families that are making tough choices about housing and healthcare, not with the families who are making “tough” choices about fancy wedding locations.

Thanks for curating wonderful discussions and keeping comments anonymous!