The working class at college

Posted on May 8, 2013 by

I was reading an article someone recommended, when I stumbled upon the following:

Why Smart Poor Students Don’t Apply to Selective Colleges


Some of the poorest high schoolers in the country are also among our top-performers. These “low-income, high-achieving” students come from the poorest 25 percent of families, but their grades and SAT scores place them in the top 10 — or even top 5 percent — of all students. Getting these students in our best colleges should be a national ambition. It would increase social mobility, raise national productivity, increase taxable income, shrink our deficit, cut income-support payments … you get the point.

But the point is, we’re failing. In fact, the majority of these smart poor students don’t apply to any selective college or university, according to a new paper by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery — even though the most selective schools would actually cost them less, after counting financial aid. Poor students with practically the same grades as their richer classmates are 75 percent less likely to apply to selective colleges.

Kids with richer, better-educated parents tend to have higher grades and test scores, as you might expect. But it might surprise you to learn that about 40 percent of the top-performing students come from the poorer half of the country.

This immediately struck my interest because I belong to that “Why didn’t they go to a better college?” group. There are numerous reasons for that, which I shall list here:

  • Neither of my parents had gone to college, and neither did my older sister. They had this nebulous idea that I might one day go, but they were under the impression that it just sort of happened automatically.
  • None of my close friends were going to college, although all of my classmates were (all of whom were officer’s children), and some had even dropped out of high school already and gotten their GED. My boyfriend went to a for-profit technical school and bitched that he paid out of the nose and didn’t get any education, which was true.
  • I received academic recognitions, but I had no idea what they were good for. I just framed certificates and hung them on my wall. Pretty.
  • I got invited to UT Austin for a summer camp, but I was surrounded by Smart Rich Kids there, and decided that I wouldn’t fit in. Then I found out what tuition would cost and realized that I couldn’t earn enough working even full-time to afford it, and that wasn’t even taking account of room-and-board. Nevermind. Why did they invite me there? It was the only college campus I ever visited. I had no car and my parents never suggested driving me.
  • I got sent a pile of brochures from various schools, but when I found out their acceptance rate, I understood that they were just using me and making fun of me. Harvard sent me a packet that landed right in the dustbin. A 5% acceptance rate? Your sense of humor suckz.
  • I started filling out an application for federal student aid, and was stunned to see that my parents’ income was listed on the form. My parents made pretty good money, even if they’d started out scraping the monthly rent together, but they thought the idea of paying for my college was stupid. Why should they pay for me to study?
  • Furthermore, why should they pay for me to apply? I barely had any cash leftover from my part-time job, so the filing fees for applications were a barrier to me.
  • I found out about the AP exams after my classmates had already taken theirs. I never heard of CLEP.
  • My SAT scores were pathetic in comparison to my PSAT scores. Guess I’m not smart enough to go to college. Then I got depressed and dropped out of honors Spanish and my grade-point dropped me right out of the top-10% of the class.
  • I found out about the GI Bill and suggested to my parents that I go to college that way, after enlistment. They were horrified and insisted that I instead enroll at community college.
  • Which I did. After the longest year of my life, working full-time and going to community college at night to attend classes I’d already completed with straight-As in high school, at the age of 18, I dropped out and moved to Germany.

The end.

I’m considering going back to school in the fall, and my experience teaching college-level courses has made me more confident of my ability to pass them. (Yes, I understand the irony of that, but so is life.) Also, since I will be attending in Germany, I don’t have to worry about sinking under the weight of student loans or wading through miles of paperwork and complicated processes that are specifically designed to exclude people like me.

This time, I have my husband to coach me through things and motivate me, and foot the (small) bill. Maybe I’ll have better luck next time. If not, that’s okay. We working class girls know how to hustle.

Posted in: Education