I graduated from high school in 1977 (I’m 54…to save you the math). Up until then, I had lived my whole life in Dubuque, a great place to be from, and a city that is probably in better shape today than it was then. In our family, you went to Catholic School, but after sophomore year of high school, you were on your own for most things, including tuition at the local Catholic High School. So to make ends meet, I worked at a pizza place called the Shot Tower Inn. Typically, I’d work one week night and two of the three weekend nights, usually about 25 hours a week; sometimes 32 or 33 in a pinch. I’d get home about 12:30 and get up for school the next morning at 6:30. I was young; it wasn’t hard.
I made about $2.10 an hour, if I recall, which was minimum wage. Had I worked full-time, that would have translated into about $4,400 per year. From the money I did earn (about $3,000, I guess), I had to pay my tuition, $450 a year, and buy my clothes.
I tell you this because of what happens next: I apply to college (one school, after a five-minute conversation with my best friend about where he was going) and proceeded to fill out a Financial Aid Form. I was stunned, right off the bat: In that year, my dad’s income was about $17,000. My mom didn’t work outside the home. He ran heavy equipment for a living, and had baby fingers bigger in circumference than my thumbs. He worked hard for about four or five times what I made, but had to support a whole family on it. It was the first time I knew how poor we were. (I’m not stupid; I never thought we were wealthy.)
I remembered this as I read the well-intentioned but completely off-base article by Derek Thompson in the Atlantic with an almost identical title as this blog post. What do we learn from Mr. Thompson, who, we’re told, is the Senior Editor, overseeing Business Coverage?
- The biggest problem in getting smart poor kids to enroll is advertising. We simply need to tell them in a convincing way that they should go.
- And we need to stop scaring them with stories of debt.
- But beyond that, they have to apply to our “best colleges.” I counted for you. After the headline, he uses the term “selective” eight times.
- Mr. Thompson thinks you’ll be surprised that 40 percent of top performing students come from the poorer half of the country.
- This is because–get ready–“…a ‘critical mass’ of the country’s brightest students tend to live in country’s densest and richest in urban areas — New England, New York, southern Florida, coastal California — the poor students who don’t apply to selective schools are more likely to be scattered across the country.
Better yet, the solution is simple. Just do more of what we already do: “There are four ways that most colleges reach out to students: (1) College board mailing lists; (2) College counselors; (3) College access programs; (4) High school visits.”
Really. That’s it. It reminds me of a trustee who once asked me if we ever considered mailing catalogs to high schools.
I’ll let you comment and tell Mr. Thompson how wrong he is about almost everything, and how arrogant he comes across to many people who are either poor or not from those areas with the critical mass of bright people. Or maybe you can tell him that his failure to recognize how patronizing he sounds to most people–regardless of income or education, I hope–may be part of the problem poor kids face when they think about attending college, especially the “selective” places that don’t enroll many poor kids because they’re unwilling to think differently about what makes someone qualified for admission. Just comment below.
But for now, a short story: When I was about 28, I worked at the University of Dallas. I had my degree; I’d been working in admissions for about five years. One day, I went to a meeting at another college in the Metroplex. I pulled up and saw student lots full of BMW’s and Mercedes and other fine, imported luxury sedans. And, in my Ford Escort, I felt intimidated. I felt like I didn’t belong. Imagine being 17 and feeling that way.
So, anything you want to tell Mr. Thompson? Have at it. If enough of you reply, I’ll send him a link.
Note: I published this on January 29th and the next day, I found this chart from the document “The Condition of Education 2012.” (link here).