Getting Off the Island

Fantastic in-depth NYT article today about the unconscionable gap in college completion between students from wealthy and poor families. I wish they’d invested to multimedia it up the way they did the gorgeous, groundbreaking avalanche story the other day — could’ve been even more powerful. But at least the Grey Lady wrote a great piece and had a video companion.

It’s a heartbreaking story. We know the basic narrative already, but it hits you fresh every time you read about another young person’s story. And here there are three. Each of them illustrates a different facet of the tremendously complex web that’s been woven to snag low-income students before they cross the finish line. You can read all the statistics as a citizen, but you read about Angelica or Melissa or Bianca as a parent.

It’s also a maddening story that got me riled. More on that below.

A couple of things ring out across the stories. Money is a huge barrier for all of them, and strong character is what enables kids to push through the crapstorm if they’re going to. Even just the financial challenge on its own is a complex web — navigating financial aid, dealing with the stress of debt accumulation, the social isolation of feeling like the only kid without a credit card when you’re out at the bar on Thursday night, being asked to cough up $10 for an appointment with the college counselor when your part-time job pays less than that per hour.

Beyond that, it’s a whole soup of stuff that gets in the way. Undermatching. Communication breakdowns. Parents not being in the picture or not pulling their weight. Boyfriends who add drama and draw emotional energy away from school. The “soft bigotry of low expectations.” The pain of moving 200 miles away when you’ve spent almost no time outside your hometown since you were born. It’s amazing how much life can turn on something like a car battery dying.

The image of getting off the island — ie, getting the f?#$ out of Galveston — is a powerful one. The girls in this story are dead set on that goal and — especially Angelica and Melissa — try to bounce back. Angelica is so hell-bent on Emory that she signs a $40K loan when she shows up for freshman year and finds out she’s missed the window on financial aid. That reminded me of this amazing story. We need more organizations like Portmont College and OneGoal that take non-cognitive skills seriously and treat character development as central to solving the college completion problem.

I also found myself getting angry as much as sad at points. Part of this is anger at the country for being so complacent about the problem. If the American Dream is about equality of opportunity — if that’s in theory the one thing that liberals and conservatives can agree on — then why are we letting this problem get worse? Then again, there’s a lot we’re being complacent about. This one just seems even more fundamental and potentially bipartisan than, say, gun control.

Some of the Emory folks quoted in the article also make you want to shake them. This is a place that deserves credit for admitting twice as many Pell-grant students as Harvard (shame on Harvard). But it pours $94 million into financial aid and then won’t get off its ass to take a no-excuses approach to getting low-income kids to graduation? The vice provost for financial aid comes off as if he can’t even conceive of someone not understanding the byzantine policies or feeling confident enough to fight for themselves. The dean for academic advising saying ‘we reached out to her and she didn’t respond.’ Really?! You didn’t just go find her? She’s, um, enrolled at your school.

Angelica, I really, really hope you’ll go back to Emory and finish up. You’re so close. They’re obviously not going to go too far out of their way to make it happen for you. But I hope you’ll do it for yourself anyway. Get off the island.

Oh — and in your honor, I’m putting a bit of Clay Davis in Emory’s stocking on Tuesday:

One thought on “Getting Off the Island

  1. Well said, Dai!

    This is a great sentence from the article that should be a battle cry for a greater push to reform the higher education industry in this country: “But if only the prosperous become educated — and only the educated prosper — the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge.”

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