When I went to the University of California (Berkeley) for an undergraduate degree in the 1950s, the tuition was just over fifty dollars a semester. From a background of poverty—my father was in prison, my mother an alcoholic—I was able to work part-time to support myself and pay tuition. Granted, it wasn’t easy. My last semester, I collapsed from exhaustion and listened to my graduation ceremony at the Greek Theatre, an 8,500-seat amphitheater, from nearby Cowell Hospital on campus.
Back then, state universities were affordable for people like me with low income. Not anymore. The current annual tuition at the University of California, Berkeley, is $14,254. The university health plan costs another $3,286. The poor, like me, are out of luck.
There are scholarships, of course, but they are for poor students who are bright. I was by all indications not bright. My high school grades were low enough that the school counselors advised me not to go to college. I’d done poorly in school because of my disrupted family life.
I accepted the judgment of my scholastic advisors that I was too stupid for college. But I was determined to go anyway. After graduation, at a time when military service was mandatory for all, I went on to language school in the army (Vietnamese) where I graduated top in the class and later, long after my military service was complete, while working fulltime, went to graduate school where I earned a doctorate with a straight-A record and honors. Turned out I wasn’t so much dumb as deprived. I ended up as a linguist in seven languages and was promoted to the top executive ranks in the U.S. government. That meant that I could retire with a generous annuity and write fulltime. I now have six books and 17 short stories in print.
Were I just reaching college age today, I’d be out of luck. I wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition costs. I’d end up in a low-level job for life.
It’s time for us as a country to revise the way we do things to allow the young a greater chance for advancement. We have stacked the decks against the poor, the black, the Hispanics. My hope is that with a new Democratic president and Congress come January, we can begin to change our country so that opportunity is open to the poor as well as to the rich.