Two Americas: To Begin and End a College Comparison

Yes there are two Americas, or perhaps multiple Americas depending upon how divides are created and who receives that privilege. To some it is haves and have nots, does and does not, maker and taker, responsible and irresponsible, black and white, good and evil, liberal and conservative, or heck, just insert any generic simplistic blanket groupings.

Regardless of America opportunity exists. It might not be easy. Why should it be, but one can change their station in life. We hear of income inequality, but in theory the chance is available for an individual to lesson that gap. Abundant examples exist where that theory did morph into reality. We cannot ignore that basic fact.

Likewise we cannot ignore that people are different. In my opinion we do not conform to the overtly crude stereotypes that seem to populate political punditry, but we can discover similarities if we are so inclined.

Me, I’m a white male who earned his undergraduate degree in the 1990s and later graduate degrees. I may technically be an academic, but I’m a country boy at heart, running barefoot in the strawberry fields of my youth and having so much dirt caked upon me that my parents hosed me off outside for identification purposes before allowing me inside to meet the bathtub, shower, and a bar of soap.  Today I might be a “responsible adult” married to a beautiful and wonderful wife but wherever I’ve lived that boy from Livingston Parish has as well.

We were never “rich” when I was a kid, and I’m certainly not wealthy as an adult. I’m a professor by trade and despite some of the “average” salaries which are posted in assorted stories; I started at the time when pay freezes and not raises were the norm. Now even if I were 5 years older and had received those annual salary bumps and had my institutions reward me financially for output and advancements in rank, teaching at any level isn’t the best field to obtain financial riches.

I believe that everyone should strive to be productive regardless of occupation. My first official “job” began when I started kindergarten. Before school I reported to my Grandfather to fill the strawberry box crates with plastic pint containers or to perform some other task he assigned. As I progressed in school, the responsibilities increased to picking berries, repair work on a shed, tractor, other piece of machinery, or really just some form of physical manual labor before heading off to school. I wasn’t paid directly, but I was never without the money for school supplies and functions. If I wanted to purchase something extra, my parents or grandparents decided what else I needed to do beyond the expected in order to earn enough money. My classmates had similar childhoods so that was our “normal.”

Once in high school some friends got “paying” jobs, but many of us still spent our non-school associated time working on the farms or in the family store or other business. Naturally our expenses grew, but amazingly {sarcastic font} somebody in the area always needed a barbed wire fence strung, something painted, bush hog blades sharpened, sewer line unclogged, or something whenever you needed to buy a new water pump for your hand me down pickup on which you paid notes to your parents, gas money to go to a ballgame, cash for a school function or even that “I’m gonna impress this girl date.” For example going into my senior year, I converted the sewer lines my Grandfather originally installed in a house 40 years earlier to PVC pipe. I crawled for hours under that house to buy this really pretty and sweet girl some roses for her birthday because I wanted to do something she would remember.

Being class valedictorian, high ACT scores, and long lists of extracurricular activities did earn me an academic scholarship which covered tuition, books (my institution had a rental system for hardback books which was fantastic), and fees. I received some smaller scholarships that covered the costs of paperback books and gas money for the truck. I still worked around my parents and grandparents because that was just what you did for your family. Following my freshman year, I took my first paycheck job which was filling up beer coolers on the weekends at the stores in Hammond, Ponchatoula, and later Denham Springs. That job paid for summer school tuitions which my primary scholarship did not cover.

For my master’s degree I received an assistantship which covered tuition, and I worked in the university archives which covered other expenses. As a doctoral student outside of Louisiana, I taught undergraduate courses which paid for tuition and most of my monthly rent. For the only time in my academic career, I took out some Federal student loans to cover the remainder of the rent, food, and other expenses.

I lived modestly and cheaply in a small shotgun addition to a 100 year old house that had a gas stove and wall heater, icebox, window unit air conditioner, concrete floor shower, and little else. The hot water heater was actually in the next partition of the shotgun addition which the owner made into another 2 bedroom apartment. I paid 1/3 of all utilities while the occupants of the next apartment paid 2/3. Now anything said in one apartment could be heard in the other as the dividing wall was merely studs with painted 1/4 inch plywood nailed on both sides.  Still I was able to live alone without having to find a roommate.

I lived within my means, and fortunately one of the 3 major grocery stores in that college town always seemed to have specials on pork-n-beans so I had what I call good eats. Add a major professor who often had his students over as guests for dinner and who would pay you if he needed someone to cover his class or to take care of his yard while away instead of a professor who regarded grad students as personal serfs, and I was quite comfortable. Thankfully no major medical emergencies happened and no major unplanned expenses occurred. If not for that luck, I would have been up that proverbial creek without a paddle. I probably would have survived, but I would have had to make some difficult choices if something unexpected happened.

Now if I was able to do it, anybody today should right?

I reckon I could be the poster boy for the modern “conservative” attitude about working to earn what I needed financially to allow me to advance upwards upon the economic ladder of success.

The concept makes for good rhetoric, but the brutal reality is that I could work the same schedule and seriously even double what was an amount of work and effort for which I’m actually proud to know that I accomplished and still be behind in today’s world.

Just consider: 

That water pump for the old truck today costs double. A set of tires is almost triple. Those 8 for $1 pork-n-beans are now 3 or 4 cans for $2 on sale. My old doctoral student apartment no longer exists, but just perusing the local paper classifieds the cheapest I could find cost about 3 times the amount I paid for rent. I often walked or rode an old bicycle that I repaired the 3.5 miles to campus back in the day, and this cheapest place today is about 10 miles from campus where public transportation is nonexistent.

Let that sink in:

Without any taxes deducted, at what I earned in my paycheck it would take 70 hours of work per month just for rent today. As that doctoral student without taxes deducted, I covered my rent with about 20 hours work not that long ago. Now one would assume that a graduate student teaching survey courses as the instructor of record today would earn a greater salary than I did. In terms of what appears on their paycheck, however, they do not.

Actually their paycheck would be less than mine even though the assistantship reward today is actually greater than I received.

No, you can’t blame Obamacare or Federal taxes. You see the position still covers tuition, but tuition today is significantly higher. That number listed on the paystub is less than what I earned for the same amount of hours.

Hard to contemplate that I paid rent from about 20 hours of work and covered other expenses with the remaining portion of salary with my student loan providing a small cushion to drive down to see Dad or for research travel, much of which I had to do in Louisiana because of sources so I had the financial benefit of my childhood bedroom in exchange for things like cutting grass or splitting wood for his wood burning stove. Yes, I did imagine assignments were the wedge as I swung the maul. A roof over my head, getting some needed exercise, and a no cost simple way to release anxiety and relieve some stress, so I did alright.

Today a graduate student in the same position spends practically the entire month’s salary just for rent while I spent about 25 percent for rent.

Oh I know that someone not familiar with graduate school will say that you only worked 20 hours per week and jeepers that’s a big workload. I’d probably agree if I had not lived the life. In addition to those 20 hours, we took 9 credit hours of courses and the standard wisdom is that for each hour inside a classroom one can expect to work approximately 3 additional hours outside each week. Yes, that’s only about 56 hours total, and for someone who chose to work at a community college 56 hours a week of classroom, student meetings, campus obligations, service time, and some CC professors conduct research although research isn’t typically a major part of our professional reviews that’s an average week. Still as that graduate student when you add in an average of 5 to 10 books to read per week to prepare for qualifying exams along with the research and travel to conduct research, and you’re easily hitting that 80 to 90 hours per week working to obtain an education.

Now that’s comparable to the hours of many professors. Correct, we do not punch time clocks (well I did work at one institution briefly that insisted faculty check in and check out), but our work for the day is not necessarily concluded once we leave the classroom or campus for that matter. Sure, just like any profession, you can find examples of individuals slacking off. As a department head, I listened to a lot of student complaints about their professor not being available. Many, oh so many, times I’d leave out of my office to walk over to the professor’s office that the student charged was unavailable. Often I found the professor in the office assisting another student with varying numbers of students waiting their turn outside. This was beyond the required and posted office hours, but that is the norm when you care about teaching and make challenging assignments and exams for your courses. It’s a fulfilling job. It’s definitely different from working out on the farm, but teaching and filling the obligations of a professor isn’t exactly an easy job.

I won’t even detail the amount of uninterrupted time often required to write letters of recommendation for scholarships, program, school, employment applications. The need for those letters seems and just might be endless.  Yes, I’m venting, but those letters multiply exponentially if you procrastinate on just one.

The Sad but Honest Reality

Given the expenses of today, those same opportunities I had to succeed are not available in some cases, highly risky in others, and simply not prudent for many.

Now think about someone working minimum wage. Go ahead and make the argument that minimum wage is only a starting rate, and give yourself some pay raises.  If you wonder what minimum wage is in different states, here is a handy chart.

Let’s keep the math really simple: $8 an hour, so $320 for a 40 hour week, and $16,640 for a 52 week annual.  No taxes, no deductions, just take that amount and find the cheapest possible rent, figure the bare minimum in food, add only the most basic of necessities; last century you’d have some left over, but today?

Now raise your salary:

$12 an hour, $480 for a 40 hour week, $24,960 annually. Significantly better than minimum wage, but start deducting those expenses.

Work a 2nd job: $10 an hour, $200 for a 20 hour week, $10,400 annually. Now you have $35,360.  Sounds OK, but is it really for a family?

I cannot qualify how accurate this website is, but I used it as a starting point to have some general amount of annual expenses for a child in your household since each person and each child varies depending upon specific needs. Obviously the numbers I know and those given on this website aren’t exact, but essentially that second job at $200 per week covers that child.

This is what we have even without taxes, insurance, and other deductions.  Subtract those from the paychecks, and there ain’t much left.

Go back 25 or even 15 years, and those wages meant something far different than today.

I think many people fail to actually consider the buying power of a buck just over the course of a score of years when arguing wages and just the bare necessities needed to exist.

Honestly that might not matter that much if other salaries and costs had the same multipliers.  Seriously, it doesn’t bother me that a successful college football coach earns more than me. That person can earn 10 times than me, and it still would not bother me. Look back and compare the salaries of some of the greatest college football coaches in history. Paul “Bear” Bryant, Eddie Robinson, Tom Osborne, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and any others on the all time wins lists. Their salaries were more than the average of professors. More often than not, their salaries were higher than the university presidents.

There is nothing wrong or unfair about that. It’s a professional choice. The thing is, however, is that the salaries of those coaches could be placed on the same graph as the most distinguished and productive professors and college and system presidents. Today, a football coach often has a starting salary greater than all the salaries of all professors in a department combined. In some cases, the salary of the coach is more than the entire budget of an academic college in a university. In previous times the differences between the top and the average were not as great.

Too often income inequality is rated as the difference between the highest and the lowest.

What shocks me, and one of the reasons why I think that I enjoyed opportunities that are not as available to someone of my status today has nothing to do with the disparity between high and low. It’s the tremendous gap between the highest levels and those of that generic “middle class.”

It’s the same in business. Many workers today need more skills and training to perform many jobs. They deserve to be compensated more than the unskilled workers. That gap, however, between salaries of the majority of skilled workers and the unskilled workers is far less than the gap between the CEO, upper level management, and the skilled worker. Just like modern football coaches, that CEO has more responsibilities, but should the level of compensation for those responsibilities have increased multifold over the level of compensation for the workers who have the new skills?

Folks this ain’t socialism or communism. It’s not redistribution. It’s about the differences in opportunities available to those in the middle. The change didn’t happen immediately. Those changes happened over time.

That doesn’t seem to resonate with some that things are because that’s they way they always were.

If rent, mortgage, transportation, necessities don’t really resonate with you today because you already have many of those things within in your possessions from previous purchases, here’s a luxury comparison that made me ponder.

I just pulled up LSU football ticket prices for the past 2014 season. I’m just comparing the price stamped on the ticket for a single game, and not calculating the season ticket costs. If I had my old seat for this past 2014 season, it would have cost me $50 to see the Tigers play the University of Louisiana at Monroe, $80 for Mississippi State, $115 for Ole Miss, and $125 for Alabama.  That old seat whether it was to see an in state school such as ULM or Bama had a face value of $16 not so long ago.  Over on Ebay, I saw ticket stubs from Auburn, LSU, over at Jordan Haire in 1981, and those tickets cost $12. Wages certainly haven’t jumped as much as ticket prices!!!

Here’s a simple fact that I think fewer and fewer people are willing to admit. Where you finish in life is often affected by where you start.

In the past it seemed like some people did start that 100 yard race with a 10 or 20 yard advantage for no other reason than being born with that advantage. That’s life. Today it seems like a few people don’t even have to run a single foot of that race as they began after the finish line. Now if they considered the place they began as a starting point to extend the race further, I think we would all be pushed to do better. The problem is that too many of that group are just satisfied with the finish, and that is the judging standard as opposed to how far one travelled to reach their finish.

Where and when you finish is connected to when and where you begin.

Does distance travelled and obstacles overcome count for anything or is the finish line the only thing upon which to base success?