On Political Books

June/July/August 2014 The Unkindest Cut

The visionary guidance counselor in a poor urban high school discovers why some top colleges don't want even his best students: money.

By Elias Vlanton

To succeed, Steckel exploits the handful of national and New York state programs aimed at assisting first-generation students to attend college, and he also markets his students to wealthy selective colleges looking to diversify their student body. Colleges such as Bates (Maine), Muhlenberg (Pennsylvania), and Williams (Massachusetts) want to increase the number of minority students, not only to fulfill their liberal educational missions but also to enhance the educational experiences of all of their students. But a look at the numbers demonstrates that each school can only afford to admit a handful of poor students—so the more Josh Steckels there are, the less successful each will be. The resources of even wealthy colleges are limited. Middlebury College in Vermont has accepted and generously funded several of our Maryland students, for example, yet even with the maximum amount of federal aid available, a low-income student brings $200,000 less over four years to Middlebury than a student who pays full tuition. Even with a commitment to economic diversity, how many low-income students can a college afford to accept?

This reality undermines a widely publicized conclusion of “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students,” the 2012 paper by economists Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery. The study argues that there is a large, untapped supply of high-achieving, low-income students who should be considered at more competitive schools that can offer them more money. While such schools may be able to accept and fund a few more poor students, even the wealthiest colleges are unable to admit all high-achieving applicants regardless of economic status. Many of Steckel’s students who do not end up at selective residential colleges attend local public colleges, often from fear of social isolation of faraway campuses filled with affluent students, or because they worry about leaving their families in need. But finances are a struggle at public schools, too. A generation ago, strong state university systems offered their residents a high-quality education for any student who could save money from a summer job and was willing to work part-time during the school year. Unfortunately, tuition and fees at these institutions have increased in recent decades, while state aid has dropped. The average cost of tuition at a four-year public university (even with grants and student loans) now runs more than $10,000 a year. Low-income students and their families must either take out loans they cannot afford or lower their academic expectations to fit their budget

Hold Fast to Dreams takes a hard look at the obstacles highly motivated poor children must surmount to attend and graduate from college. It also shows that a dedicated, resourceful counselor can help a few students escape the lives proscribed by their circumstances; many of Steckel’s students end up with college degrees and productive careers. But a few dedicated educators cannot help poor kids succeed in a vacuum. We need the political will to devote enough resources to ensure that all our students are prepared for, and can afford, quality higher education. We see they can succeed, so why are they not given the chance to do so?

Elias Vlanton is a veteran teacher at Bladensburg High School in Maryland. In 2009 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from St. Mary’s College of Maryland for successfully assisting low-income students attend college.

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