Low-Income Students and College

There have been many tweets and Facebook postings about Sunday’s  NYT article on low-income students and the obstacles they face getting to college.  The detailed reporting on the three high-achieving girls, their mentor, and the multiple things that got in their way has generated over 1200 comments to date, many of them surprisingly empathetic.

Some thoughts, after thinking about this piece for a few days:

1.  The article ran on the front page of my edition of the times, and while I’m grateful for the conversation,  I am dismayed that the deep connection between social class and college access is still front page news.

2.  In any article like this, the obtuse financial aid form — the FAFSA — is critiqued, yet promised revisions that don’t “require a Ph.D.” are nowhere on the horizon.

3. While the personalization of the bigger story is compelling, the much bigger picture of deep institutional classism can too easily get lost in talk about bad boyfriends, an indifferent college administrator, and complex families.  Middle class students may experience any of those things and yet still thrive in college and beyond.

Thoughts about the ways that these young women were portrayed in the article?

 

Ritual Meritocracy

In today’s on-line/January 11’s print issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mitchell Stevens writes in an op-ed piece on the “admissions race that’s already won”, calling the annual admissions frenzy at selective colleges “essentially ceremonial — an elaborate national ritual of just desserts.” He writes:

The fact that the fates of particular applicants at particular colleges remain uncertain until the end enables us to believe that the winners earn their victories in a fair game. That is how the anxiety that attends the application season is deceptive: It encourages those who experience it to believe that the outcomes of the process are considerably more uncertain than they actually are.

More perniciously perhaps, the feverishness of each year’s application season allows us to take comfort in modest reforms that mostly only tinker with that process. Some recent fixes at selective institutions — eliminating early decision, making the SAT an optional component of applications, or, a bit more radically, proposals to replace individualized selection with a lottery system for all those applicants who meet some general criteria — will do nothing to change the distribution of opportunity that delivers talented applicants to admissions officers in a markedly class-stratified way.

It would be far better if we turned our reformist energies toward improving educational opportunity earlier in life.

I think about this in the context of Harvard’s recent decision to tap its considerable endowment to provide more financial aid for “middle income”families earning less than $180,000 a year. But to the extent that such announcements do increase the number of applicants at Harvard, admissions will become even more competitive, and students from more “modest” backgrounds will be welcomed at Harvard only to the extent that they look like the children of the wealthy donors who make their presence possible.

Stevens argues that genuine equity in college admissions will be attained when we have high quality preschool for all children, generous funding for college prep resources in low-income school districts, and a public that thinks of the needs of children other than their own. Similary, Peter Sacks cautions that colleges like Harvard are motivated mainly by their rankings in the admissions race for a relatively small pool of hyper-qualified applicants and in the end, have little incentive to substantively increase needs-based financial aid.

As long as so many students attend schools that are so ill-equipped to prepare them for college, Harvard and its peers can have it both ways in the “elaborate national ritual” of admissions: getting credit for seeming to do its part in equalizing opportunity while still serving very few students of modest means.

And to the extent that the parents who usher their children through the frenzied process of admissions do think of other people’s children, they can convince themselves that these other children must certainly have had it easier.

And the pernicious ritual continues.

Thanks to the Eduwonkette for her tip to the Chronicle piece.

Wealth is the New Disadvantage

Thanks to the Eduwonkette for the link to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, where it says, right there in black and white:

We all understand that being a rich white kid puts one at a disadvantage in the college-admissions process. But it is worth pausing to savor the irony of an institution that charges as much as $45,000 a year asking its applicants to demonstrate their proletarian credentials.

The editorial writer is commenting on a book about college application strategies by Michelle Hernandez, who advises applicants with the misfortune of having been raised by highly educated and professional parents to be “vague” about their parents’ jobs in their application materials, since the “best case scenario” for admissions is a factory-worker father and a mother on disability and the “worse case” is to have professional parents with graduate degrees .

Huh.

Who knew!

All of those parents pressing their kids into AP classes, eco-trips to El Salvador and SAT prep courses in their frenzy to get their kids into the high status colleges could, instead, have just resigned from their law firms and Fortune 500 companies to work at Walmart!

Don’t I feel foolish.

When I think of how close I came to embarrassing myself by arguing with the professional couple sitting across from me at a holiday event who were complaining about how their daughter is “too blonde” to get any college scholarships, I shudder. Clearly, I should, instead, have recommended Hernandez’s book, since promoting one’s business by selling the idea that wealth is the new disadvantage seems a very natural fit for this couple.