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


Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty
by Joshua Steckel and Beth Zasloff
New Press, 320 pp.

It sometimes feels like low-income students are to our K-12 education system what cadavers are to hospitals. Often teachers secure their first jobs in challenging schools in poorer districts, where the turnover rate is high. Here, they hone their teaching skills, and in a few years they trade up to districts with higher salaries and better working conditions. Poor students are left behind to train the next crop of educators.

Joshua Steckel, coauthor of Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty, intentionally went the other way. After four years at Birch Wathen Lenox, an expensive private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Steckel became a college counselor (and sometime teacher) at an overwhelmingly poor, black, and Latino public school in Brooklyn, the Secondary School for Research (now called Park Slope Collegiate). Once there, he used the skills and connections he had developed at Lenox to help get his new charges admitted to some of the country’s more selective colleges.

Along with his wife and coauthor, Beth Zasloff, Steckel chronicles his relationship with ten of his students, from their senior year of high school into young adulthood. The stories are invaluable both to educators who deal with children from similar backgrounds and to non-educators, who often don’t appreciate the overwhelming odds stacked against poor children. The first chapters cover the students’ past and Steckel’s experiences with them in high school; subsequent chapters cover post-high school struggles; the final chapters talk about the students in their early twenties. Each chapter is satisfying on its own, but the reader is eager to find out what happens next in these students’ lives.

I have taught for more than fifteen years in a Maryland public high school that has demographics similar to those at the Secondary School, and a colleague and I similarly shepherded promising students to selective residential colleges. Steckel’s stories remind me of my own. Hold Fast neither exaggerates nor minimizes what these kids are faced with. Steckel and Zasloff write about the rawness and trauma of the working poor, the family life constantly disrupted by parents’ late-night shifts, long hours at work, and unstable employment. Some of Steckel’s students move frequently (including in and out of homeless shelters), work part-time to contribute to the family budget, babysit younger siblings, and protect them from getting caught up in life on the street. While some dream of going to college, living at the social bottom makes that goal seem beyond reach; others see higher education as so remote that they don’t bother dreaming about it.

It is here that Steckel takes his stand. Many educators who endure at these schools are sustained by a social vision of helping needy children lead happy and productive lives, and Steckel is no exception. While a 2004 Century Foundation study found that the most selective colleges drew 74 percent of their students from the richest quartile and only 3 percent from the poorest, Steckel tells his students at the start of school that his aim is to get them into these competitive colleges—the kind of schools where future leaders are born. “[T]hese colleges [are] training the country’s future leaders,” Steckel told his classes, “and it wasn’t right that they should be filled with rich kids.”

As part-time teacher, part-time college adviser, and full-time mentor, Steckel slowly gains the trust and confidence of students who have been let down by adults so often. He must be able to nurture their fragile self-confidence while pushing them to compete to gain admittance to institutions that will completely change their lives. Hold Fast includes several compelling college application essays that Steckel helped to edit, a process that no doubt encouraged students to share and process past traumas. By the book’s end, some students have graduated from selective residential colleges that would be the envy of any parent, some have graduated from community colleges, and others have not managed to complete any college course work. For all Steckel’s skill and dedication, he cannot overcome all the problems facing his students.

And those students are a diverse lot. With a high school transcript full of Cs and Ds, and little motivation, Dwight Martin did not seem like he was college bound. Hospitalized for a concussion in a gang fight just weeks before graduation, Martin—with Steckel’s help—moves to North Carolina, earns straight As at Guilford Technical Community College, and becomes a certified aviation mechanic. Michael Forbes’s apartment burns down while he’s in high school, and he has to write his college essay while living in a homeless shelter with his ailing mother and two younger brothers. As a Skidmore College graduate four years later, Michael moves his mother and brothers to Durham, North Carolina, where he now teaches at a public charter school. Nkese Rankine determines at age thirteen to be “the girl who gets out of the ’hood”—and she does get out. At Bates College she struggles to overcome feelings of cultural isolation but proudly receives her diploma in four years. Santiago Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant who has lived in the United States since he was six, finds the economic imperatives of supporting his mother and brother too staggering to think about college. Feeling “already old” at eighteen, he gets the money to attend community college for a semester, but lacks the money to continue. Four years after high school graduation, he still has only a semester of course work to his name.

At Birch Wathen Lenox, where the cost of tuition approaches that of a residential college, Steckel’s students were, not unnaturally, focused primarily on getting into college, not on getting financial aid. But the reverse is true for poor kids: the most difficult part isn’t getting them accepted, reports Steckel, it is getting the money to pay for tuition, room and board, books, and travel. Of the 2,000 private colleges in the United States, only a tiny fraction have the endowments to offer full scholarships to complement the paltry federal grants and student loans available to low-income students. Poor children, after overcoming myriad struggles to excel in high school, have to find colleges that will not only accept them but also pay their freight. “Most aid packages asked students to contribute more than their families could handle,” the authors write, but even Steckel was surprised by the extent to which colleges would “gap” students, leaving them far short of what they needed to accept an offer to attend the school of their choice. This is perhaps the unkindest cut of all that the poor sustain during the admissions process—being offered a $20,000 scholarship to attend a $50,000-a-year college. This leaves Steckel “the task of having to communicate to students which colleges were real choices and which were not, without undermining the pride they felt at getting in.”

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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