LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
So Michel is away today because she spent this week in Madison, Wisc., home of the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus. Michel was doing a live event in collaboration with member station WPR for our series Going There with Michel Martin. In this installation, the questions being asked were why college and who needs college?
In front of a live audience, Michel and her guests debated the value, the costs and purpose of higher education in today's world. She was onstage with a panel of students from the University of Wisconsin at Madison as well as alumni and key players in the University of Wisconsin system. The students were up first.
You're going to hear from Brooke Evans. She's been homeless for much of her college career and has become an activist for low-income students. She even helped bring a food pantry to the Madison campus. Also junior Sam Park - he's a neurobiology and sociology major and the outreach director for the Working Class Student Union. Kaitlynne Roling was also there. She's a sophomore from the Madison area, and, finally, you'll hear from senior Deshawn McKinney. He is the president of the Wisconsin Student Union. Michel starts by asking Brooke Evans why she wanted to attend college in the first place.
BROOKE EVANS: So why did I want to come to college? I know - I can tell you for a fact that I didn't think people like me went to college, and I grew up with that narrative. Brooke, you're supposed to go work in a foundry because my mother worked in a foundry and her mother worked in a foundry. They were all single - single mothers. And I absolutely thought that that was going to be my future.
And, yeah, I watched my mom - I think - spent a decade going back to college starting at a tech school and then doing UW-Stout online. And I don't know if anyone knows what it sounds like when - like a soundscape of listening to my mom's footsteps when she used to wear steel-toed boots when she worked in the foundry. And she would leave real early in the morning - right? - she'd leave at like 4 in the morning. And so I listened to those footsteps, and then as she went through college, her footsteps became high heels.
And so the sounds of my mother felt like listening to what freedom must sound like. And I realized I wanted to have footsteps like that. I wanted to have something with purpose, and I knew I could leave college at any moment and go be someone's something. I could be someone's wife, be someone's mother, be someone's thing - right? - be an instrument for someone else's life and someone else's plan because it's just too damn hard to have my own. And I'm so grateful that for some gosh darn reason I'm back here again.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Sam, why did you want to go to college? Why did you want to come to college? When you were telling me earlier - and those - I know everybody here listens to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED every day, so I don't even need to say this. But, Sam, you were nice enough to take time out of your schedule to come over and talk to us for a little bit to just kind of get us - get our conversation started.
And one of the things you were telling us is you grew up three blocks from here, but most of the kids from your neighborhood don't go to college. Why is that?
SAM PARK: Well, I think there's a lot of reasons. Even before college starting in elementary school, K through five, you see that, oh, we're the kids that, you know, we had not enough clothes at home, not enough food at home, not enough warmth at home if we did have a home. And those are things that sometimes outweigh the, I guess, responsibility of doing paper homework.
And when you have these other factors in play in your life, oftentimes faculty, teachers, advisers don't understand that, don't see that, and they see you as a waste of their time.
MARTIN: OK. Well, we'll talk more about that in a couple minutes. Deshawn, what about you? You're about to go out into - I was going to see the real world, but you're going to grad school, so...
DESHAWN MCKINNEY: Yeah. Not quite.
MARTIN: Not really.
MARTIN: Sorry. But you're about to go Forth - Sally Forth. Do you feel you've got what you came for?
MCKINNEY: Absolutely. Well, I think yes and no. I didn't know what I came for. Right? So in some ways, I can't really say yes because I think I don't know what I'm doing yet.
MCKINNEY: But I think - I look at my college experience, and I think that I've had a very unique one, particularly for like a student of color on a predominately white institution like Madison, right? Forty-three thousand students - only 2 percent of those are black, right? So like most of the black students on campus are sitting onstage right now, right?
MCKINNEY: So like I say that in jest, but it is like an actual thing. Like, there's 2 percent out of 43,000. That's a problem. So - but I look at my experience, I think I've had a very unique one, right? Like, I've taken advantage of every opportunity possible. I know that I've given as much to the university as I've taken from the university.
And, like, I'm really focused on, like, making sure other people get those experiences. I know I'm graduating in May having no regrets. And I think that's a very unique position to be in, particularly for a student of color, somebody coming from a low-income background, somebody coming from the inner city of Milwaukee, you know, from the North side. So, like, I feel very satisfied. I've had a beautiful college experience in many ways.
MARTIN: Are we friends now?
MCKINNEY: We're good.
MARTIN: Are we all friends? No. I'll tell you why because I'm going to ask a hard question now. You're going to be mad.
MARTIN: All right. Are we friends? OK. Let me talk about this whole political correctness thing, OK? Because we need to chew on this. The argument is that this is the special snowflake generation that spends a very great deal of time parsing issues around identity. And I'm sure - I know that a lot of people feel this way because we see this in comment boards. We see this in letters to the editor. They feel that encouraging students to come to college to discover their identity is a luxury that this country cannot afford.
And I'm guessing you all have thoughts about this. So Kaitlynne, I'm going to go to you first on this because you're taking a class that made it into the news called the problems of whiteness. One of the state lawmakers called the class garbage. And tell me why you think that it's not.
KAITLYNNE ROLING: So, like, I'm mixed so, like, even though, like, he's in the 2 percent, I'm in like a 3 percent. So there's a couple more of us on campus. So I'm part white and part black, so it was interesting growing up learning just one side of history, and then you - because, like, when you look back at history, there's different lenses, you know? They're like - OK so if I want to learn about civil rights movement - all right. Let me put on some black lenses. Like, all right. Let me put on some women lenses, you know, just like how you look at history.
And so, like, growing up, like, K through 12, you only know one lens. And that frankly is predominately white, male-type of lens. And - but that's, like, their perspective, so, like, kind of taking this whiteness class, like, learning more in depth about that and, like, the side that they didn't want you to know, you know?
Like, you don't learn about how capitalism ties in with racism. You don't learn the - all these intersections of race, class, gender and all that stuff like that. So when people say, like, this is, like, not why we should be on campus, I think, well, we all come from different backgrounds, you know? You can come from Milwaukee. You can come from, you know, the East Coast. You can come from another country. But when we come here, we can learn those experiences from each other. Taking these classes has really helped me find myself.
SINGH: That was Michel Martin with UW, Madison students Kaitlynne Roling, Deshawn McKinney, Sam Park and Brooke Evans. In the second half of the event, Michel spoke with some noted alumni from the UW system including writers, professors, political thinkers and business leaders.
One of those panelists was Robin Vos. He is the speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, and he's well known for his conservative ideas, including those on education. And Speaker Vos had this to say about the necessity of getting a four-year college degree.
ROBIN VOS: I think all of us who've gone to college and those of us who were in college realize that it's more than just being in the classroom. It is about the experience of learning who you are, making sure that you understand your place in the world and that you find the appropriate way to give back to our community. But I don't think that that should be the primary reason why folks go to college. It should be one of many, but I think that for students that I talked to for - unfortunately, many times that's their primary reason to be here is to find out who they are and discover, perhaps, their heritage, perhaps, you know, some kind of background that they were not given an opportunity to learn when they were younger.
And they have every right to do that. But as somebody who has to be a good steward of the taxpayers, I mean, we have looked at things in the UW system. Number one - on most of the college campuses in our UW system - most college professors are full-time and most of those professors do teach 12 credits. But at UW, Madison, the number is significantly less. That's something I think we really need to think about. As taxpayers look for an investment, how are we getting the best bang for our buck? So, yes, I think college is something that we need to encourage, but I also think that in society, if you look at the numbers just on the basic facts of today, about one-third of the new jobs that are going to be created between now and the year 2020 require a college degree.
About 30 percent requires some kind of additional training be out of high school and about a third require only a high school degree. So for us to create the stigma which society has really been doing that if you don't go to college and get a four-year degree, you are somehow less of a person, you are somehow not as articulate or able to contribute to society, well in our state, we have huge needs that are in all kinds of genre, not just in a four-year institution.
Now, we will obviously need more people to graduate from college and help to succeed, but we need more plumbers. We need more electricians. We need people who are going to do all of the jobs in society. So my goal is to not devalue college, but to increase the value of every profession in our society and not do it by just saying everybody needs to go to UW, Madison.
SINGH: That was Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos onstage with Michel Martin and several other panelists earlier this week in Madison, Wisc. You can watch the entire live event at npr.org/goingthere. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.