There’s an article from 2013 titled “Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor” that keeps coming across my Facebook feed. It’s a pretty comprehensive look at why elite colleges such as Harvard and Amherst are not attracting low-income students who have top test scores and grades (in other words, these students meet/exceed the criteria for acceptance). The biggest problem is that they don’t apply, even though they do offer grants and scholarships to help offset the cost of attending a costly private institution.
This particular subject is near and dear to me considering I was a low-income, first-generation college student, and I’ve spent most of my career working predominantly with students with the same background. But I’m not writing this as a professional, but instead as a father, because the fact is, although I do have an advanced degree and a I do work at a university, my children are currently being raised in a lower-middle-class home, and I often wonder if my choice to only attend state universities and work in education will change the outcome of their future.
Two things were mentioned in this article that I personally noticed in my work and myself.
The first is not seeing the difference between colleges.
I didn’t start college until I was 21, and although I did graduate from high school (barely), I didn’t know how to type and I’d never read a novel. My girlfriend at the time (she went on to become my wife) actually typed my papers my first semester of college. I would write them out by hand, and she would type them. This was how we spent a lot of our early dating life, and not surprisingly, all that came to an end when she pulled the plug and forced me to learn how to type for myself.
Clearly, I wasn’t the top of my high school class — not even close. I went to an open-enrollment state-funded college in the same county I was raised in. But in my mind, college was college. It was all the same. I was going to college, and that was good — great, in fact — and my family was thrilled. I saw my accomplishments as being equal to those of any other college student, regardless of the institution they attended.
After college, I worked for a TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) Program at a large state university for three years. This is a federal program for low-income and first-generation students attending college, and one of the biggest problems we had was students leaving college to attend a community college closer to home, and neither they nor their parents could see the difference between attending a respected university as opposed to a two-year community college. These were students who finished at the top of their class in high school. These were students who had test scores comparable to our highest-performing engineers, along with grants and scholarships to offset the cost. And yet they would leave, oftentimes at the insistence of their parents, who also didn’t see the difference between a university and a community college.
Now, please keep in mind that there is absolutely nothing wrong with attending a community college. They are invaluable institutions. However, if a child has the potential to do more, I think we as parents have the duty to encourage it. But that can be difficult when the university landscape seems incredibly foreign, and the thought of your child living far away, in another state even, sounds terrifying. I often grappled with the idea that if a state university can’t keep these low-income students from leaving, I can only assume an elite college would have similar problems.
The second issue that is touched on in this article, but not fully explored, is that of fitting in. I finished my undergrad with a strong enough GPA and graduate exam scores for a number of elite schools. I know this because I finished several applications, and then became terrified that I wouldn’t fit in. That I’d stick out like a sore thumb. Ultimately, I applied to a state university in Minnesota where I did my graduate work. I have no idea if I would have been accepted to any of those other schools, but what I do know is that I was too scared to even apply.
This is something that I’ve observed firsthand in my career. I have watched low-income and first-generation students with impressive credentials drop out of school because they didn’t feel comfortable in a traditional university, or never applied to an elite school for graduate work because they felt like they wouldn’t fit in or have a chance.
Now this is where it becomes complicated for me as a father. I have three kids, and I often think about my experience, along with the experience of the students I’ve worked with, and I wonder how I will advise my own children when applying to college. Right now, my oldest is 10. He’s doing far better in school than I did at his age. And yet, when I think about him going to college, I get a pinch of anxiety. I wonder where he will apply, and in so many ways, I want him to apply someplace comfortable. It feels safest for him to apply to a state school, perhaps the one I work at. I know what to expect there. Harvard or Yale sounds terrifying. It feels as scary for him to apply there as it did for me to apply to those schools. So I understand the struggle of students and parents alike.
And when I think about that, I wonder how far I really have come from the low-income first-generation kid who didn’t know how to type. It becomes incredibly real how hard it is to break a cycle. Ultimately, I want the best for my children. In fact, I want them to have more than I do. I want my children to be better parents, make more money, and be better educated than I am. But when it comes to my children making the leap to an elite college, I feel as nervous for them as my mother did for me when I went from Utah to Minnesota for grad school.
I know that this is all “normal” stuff for parents to experience and deal with, but it’s particularly scary for first-generation college students who have no experience to draw from, and likely a tremendous amount of pressure (whether familial or self-imposed). I suppose the question we all have to ask is, are we going to be able to push our children to make that leap? I suppose only time will tell.