Boring but Important


This blog touches on a lot of issues related to imprisonment, like addiction, drug laws, mental illness, and intergenerational poverty.  One thing I’ve been meaning to address is class, and historically, a four-year college degree has been the way for Americans to propel themselves from the “working class” to the middle class and beyond.

We talk a lot about race in this country, but we like to think we’re a classless society because we don’t have a monarchy.  We also like to believe that in America, anyone can overcome poverty to become a millionaire if they just work hard enough.  It’s exactly because of this myth, I think, that our class divide is so hard to overcome, because we don’t acknowledge that it exists or that the deck is stacked against many people.

I learned a lot about college financial aid and admissions by working at a consulting firm that specialized in enrollment management for private colleges.  What we did was this: our clients would send us the data on their freshman applicants, we would analyze it, then tell them which applicants to accept and how much money to offer them to come.  These financial “awards” were really mostly just discounts to entice desirable students to come to a particular college.

When we analyzed the data—no matter whether it was Occidental College in L.A. or Loyola University in Chicago or St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota—there was one thing that students with the highest grades and test scores had in common.  Race?  No. High school attended?  No.  These things were factors but really it all boiled down to parental income.

Colleges often offered discounts to the richest families.  They call these awards things like “Presidential Scholarships” in hopes of flattering parents and beating their competitors.

Why do kids from high-income families do so well?  It’s not rocket science.  They have grown up in safe, lead-free homes with toys and books.  They went to preschool and well-resourced elementary schools.  Their parents attended every parent-teacher conference and made sure they did their homework.  They went to summer camps in the Adirondacks where they were on a lacrosse team, were immersed in French, or learned to play the marimba.  Colleges love these well-rounded students.

Wealthy families can also afford SAT/ACT prep classes.  They can afford to fly/drive to campus visits to the remote, pastoral towns where the most exclusive colleges are located.  They can hire tutors and college admission coaches.  These coaches do a brisk business in helping kids write the perfect application essay and advising parents on which colleges will give the biggest discounts.

But sometimes I think the biggest factor in driving kids toward academic success is that wealthy parents have expectations of them.

I don’t recall anyone having expectations of me, or talking to me about college when I was 17.  They may have, but I was so busy partying that I may not remember.  Our neighborhood was blue collar—every mom was a housewife and every husband was a car mechanic, a roofer, or worked in a can factory.  The only reason I even knew what a college was, was because there was a Catholic college nearby and my aunt had married a professor—the one “white collar” guy on the block.

Yet I knew I didn’t want to work in a can factory or be a housewife, and that college was my ticket out.  I applied to one college—Bemidji State University.  Bemidji State is in an extremely poor part of northern Minnesota near the White Earth Indian reservation.  It has a 90% acceptance rate and a 17% graduation rate (compared with around 7% and 99% for Harvard).  All I knew was that it sounded as far away from home as anything I could imagine.

By the time I got my acceptance letter, I was pregnant with Vince.  I wrote “deceased” on the envelope and threw it back in the mail.

I sometimes wonder what trajectory my life would have taken if I’d had some guidance about college, but on the whole I’ve made the best of it and have had a great life.

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