The recent Varsity Blues scandal was shocking news to some. But for many of us who work on social justice issues, it was a confirmation of our observations about the benefits of wealth which offer young people advantages from an early age. For too long, school districts that primarily serve low-income students and students of color have been underserved and underfunded. The students who attend these schools aren’t given the same access to resources and opportunities as their more affluent peers at every age and every stage.
Young people from better-resourced districts are more likely to access advanced placement courses and targeted college advising from a school counselor, who can develop a personal relationship with his or her advisees. These students can take part in college visits, cultural events, and summer enrichment programs hosted by the very colleges the students hope to attend. They can take part in multiple extracurricular activities, which enhance their resumes and make them more attractive to admissions officers. Their whole lives up to this point are, in fact, preparation for college.
In under-resourced school districts, the disparities are clear. Students may not have access to advanced classes, or they can’t afford the modest registration fees for advanced placement courses or workbooks. Students might not have transportation to attend cultural events or visit colleges. Students might need to work one or more jobs to support their family or they may be tasked with caring for younger siblings, making an after-school sport or club an impossibility. So many of the markers of traditional ‘college-readiness’ are out of their reach.
The outrage that is simmering more than a week after the initial news of the scandal broke was a realization that there are two sets of rules at work in college admissions—and indeed, throughout college.
While a majority (more than 80% of high school freshmen nationally) say they want to go to college and many do attend, only 58% finish. And with youth from low income families, the story is even bleaker than that. This is a massive challenge for our country because it means that there are talented, motivated young people who are not fulfilling their potential. Some will say not everyone is ‘college material’--and it’s true that not all students excel in college—but too many miss out on the opportunity to even try.
In my work with ambitious low-income students as the executive director of a regional college access and success program, I know that our students have often overcome numerous barriers and are positioned to face challenges head on. They’re problem solvers. That’s all they’ve done their whole lives. These young people want to go to college, and we help them get there.
But once on campus, they face even more barriers. They are sometimes looked down upon by their peers or their professors and are made to feel as if they don’t belong. The real issue is that it is harder for low-income students, students of color and first-generation to college students to get into college, and it’s harder for them to finish. Not because they can’t do the work—they can and they do. It’s because they don’t have the same safety net that their peers do. They don’t know how to access resources, speak to professors at office hours, or bargain for an extension for a term paper. They can’t take part in unpaid internships as juniors or seniors because they need to secure paid jobs that may be unrelated to their field of study so they can afford books and food. The same things that make it easier for an affluent student to get into college— opportunity, money, networks—make it easier for them to finish. A lack of resources is precisely what can stop a low-income student’s journey in its prime. Something as simple as a $300 student fee or a broken-down car can spell serious trouble for a student with limited resources.
We know that a college degree is a springboard to economic stability, better health and civic engagement, especially for young people from low-income backgrounds—there's national data to prove it. We know that a diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds makes for stronger academic communities and more effective workplaces—and yet there are still so many barriers to these young people accessing the opportunities to follow their dreams. We all have a part to play in creating more equitable pathways to and through college for every student who wants to go. When we do so, we will all be the better for it.
Laura Marx is the executive director of Captial Region Sponsor-A-Scholar.
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