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The Daunting Roadblocks for First Time College Students Raised in Poverty

May 5, 2016

Most people in our country believe in the Horatio Alger myth whereby anyone from any station in life can pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they work hard and play by the rules… and education policy makers love the notion that anyone who wants to can get into any college anywhere in the United States if they apply themselves… But the truth is that obstacles that face first-time college are daunting and most of those obstacles are systemic. Two recent NYTimes articles by Tina Rosenberg describe these obstacles in detail. The first, published last week, profiled the College Advising Corps program at Jamaica Gateway to the Sciences High School and offered some insights into how difficult it is for children of non-college graduates to navigate the complicated system in place to apply for college and then apply for aid. Having worked with this kind of student as a high school administrator in the late 1970s the article was eerily familiar. I came away with the disappointing sense that despite the lip service paid to making college accessible to more students over the past four decades nothing had changed in terms of the family dynamics of first-time college students.

The second article on this topic which described the systemic impediments to college attendance was not just disappointing… it was maddening. In the article Rosenberg quoted extensively from True Merit, a report released by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation that details the obstacles low-income students face, which include the following:

  • Colleges give more weight to students who take Advanced Placement or International baccalaureate classes. These are often unavailable at poorly funded high schools.

  • Students who apply for early admission often double their chance of acceptance. But early admission is not an option for students who need to see and compare all of their financial aid offers

  • Colleges look for interesting extracurricular activities. A student who can afford to take an unpaid internship in a research lab moves ahead of a student who spent evenings working at Burger King.

  • Students who have a parent or close relative who attended the school get preference (a practice believed to increase alumni contributions). Harvard’s admission rate for these legacies, for example, is four times higher than for regular applicants. There is no more direct way to perpetuate privilege.

  • Colleges depend heavily on SAT and ACT scores. But these standardized tests are discriminatory — the richer you are, the better you’ll do, even without test-preparation services and professional tutoring, to which poor kids have no access.

  • Colleges like to see students “demonstrate interest” by visiting campus.

  • Water polo scholarships. And sailing, crew and squash scholarships. Some schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, but do hold places for students who play these sports.

  • Most controversially, even affirmative action can discriminate against the poor, the report said. Nearly 90 percent of African-American students at selective colleges, some of whom were admitted through racial preferences, are middle- or upper-class.

The bottom line in all of these: children who are poor are penalized for that poverty. And when they decide that they can only afford to attend state colleges instead of expensive private schools they are penalized again because the expensive colleges provide support for first time college students that state colleges can’t afford because of budget cuts!

Finally, to add insult to injury, the USNews and World Report rankings, the rating system that colleges have accepted effectively penalize schools who accept students with low test scores and reward colleges for having large endowments. As Rosenberg reports:

Colleges seek to move up in the rankings by competing on selectivity, student test scores, alumni giving and academic spending, among other metrics on which colleges do best when they stick to privileged students.

If we want to pay more than lip service to having a country where social mobility is built into the system, we need serious systemic reform in our economic system and in the opportunities we provide in the schools that serve students raised in poverty. We need to have funding equity from Prekindergarten through grade 12 and social service supports across the board. Instead we cling to the fantasy that if one gritty and plucky individual can overcome obstacles any gritty and plucky individual can.

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