College Signing Day, the day when high school seniors all across America commit to their choice college or university. Here in Philadelphia, none other than Michelle Obama is set to rally the city’s youth and honor their hard work. It is a time of joy and celebration, but my heart is filled with neither. I’m filled with guilt, shame and anger because we, as a society, have lied to our young people. Work hard, we tell them. Do your homework. Get good grades. Be respectful. Stay out of trouble. Show grit. Take responsibility for your actions. Do these things, and you can go to college, get a good job, and help move your family up a rung on America’s social ladder. This is what we tell our young people. It’s a lie. Let me explain. I never thought about how my college was going to be paid for. None of my friends wondered about how their colleges would be paid for. College payment was just as assumed as college attendance. And that’s the problem. Our voluntary economic segregation, and its inextricable ties to racial segregation, allows people of wealth to maintain their collective ignorance concerning the lack of access to postsecondary education for Americans in poverty.
The Financial Fit
I didn’t magically come to this understanding. It took seeing the truth before my very eyes to understand the fallacy of the bootstrap American Dream ethos which holds that if someone simply works hard enough, they can attend college and earn financial security through a good paying job. Every spring, seniors in our high school in West Philadelphia bring a member of their families into school to have their financial fit meetings. They come armed with their financial aid award letters that specify college costs, offered loans and awarded scholarships. With a teacher, students input this data into a spreadsheet that helps calculate total out-of-pocket costs. A common student’s data for an in-state public college might look like the following:
$11,000. $11,00 for a student whose family’s EFC (Estimated Family Contribution) on the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application was $0. $11,000 for a lifelong-resident of Pennsylvania with a GPA of over 3.0. Whereas other states offer accessible scholarships for all residents with successful GPAs to in-state public colleges and universities, Pennsylvania does not have such a program. This is not access to education; it is the slamming of a door. The vast majority of our students have done everything we, as a society, have asked of them. They have come to school every day. They have done the work. They have passed the classes. They have applied for the colleges and the scholarships. They have played the game and followed the rules. And still, when all is said and done, the university gates remain closed for the simplest and most unjust of reasons; they can’t pay the entrance fee. The injustice of the moment weighs heavily in the gymnasium where families sit alongside teachers, analyzing the hard truths in the spreadsheet. For too many families, the $11,000 is simply prohibitive. There are no trust funds to turn to. There aren’t houses to borrow against. There isn’t a wealthy grandparent to ask for assistance. There is community college which, here in Philadelphia despite the tireless work of many, boasts an abysmal
10 percent graduation rate. Many meetings end in tears. A few have been offered exclusive scholarships that provide access to college, but most have not. Most families say they’ll talk it over and come to a decision. Some will try to raise funds. Some will attend community college. Some will decide that their life as a student will end at their high school graduation.
A System of ‘Pay to Play’
The question is not whether the system is to blame, it is. These kids have worked and earned their place in college. Their rigor, grit and resilience is not up for debate. It is not only unjust for these kids to be denied access to postsecondary education due to their inability to pay, it is also a societal flaw that hurts us all. We would all benefit from a more educated, successful, gainfully employed population. We would all benefit from a reduction in poverty and all of the resulting societal ills. The question I ponder is whether people of wealth truly understand the degree to which the university gates are closed to people in poverty. I don’t think we do. [pullquote position="left"]I think we know the system is unfair, but we also think that scholarships abound, that those who truly work hard can earn funding for their education. We support affirmative action in its questionable claim to lift up those who have been denied access in the past, but don’t truly understand how few choices there are for so many Americans. We need to get off the highway and drive through one another’s neighborhoods. We need to visit one another’s schools. I strongly believe, hope maybe, that if people truly knew the depths of America’s poverty, if we saw the stark disparities in our homes and schools, and sat in on the dinner table conversations about planning for our children’s futures, we would lay down the racially cloaked arguments of bootstraps and hard work. We would see the system for what it is; a pay to play system that chauffeurs the wealthy to college, and marches the poor to, at best, menial work, or at worst, incarceration. But most of all, we need to stop lying to our young people. We need to stop telling families to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and then insist they take out loans to pay for them. We need to wake up and stop selling our kids a worthless bill of goods called the American Dream. After all, to paraphrase George Carlin, it’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...