ONTD Political

poor students struggle as class plays a greater role in success

6:02 pm - 12/24/2012

GALVESTON, Tex. — Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“I don’t want to work at Walmart” like her mother, she wrote to a school counselor.

Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.”

Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.

Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.

“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”

Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”

The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.

Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.

While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead.

Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes. Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.

In placing their hopes in education, the Galveston teenagers followed a tradition as old as the country itself. But if only the prosperous become educated — and only the educated prosper — the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge.

“It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.”

High School

No one pictured the teenagers as even friends, much less triplets. Angelica hid behind dark eyeliner, Melissa’s moods turned on the drama at home, and Bianca, in the class behind, seemed even younger than she was. What they had in common was a college-prep program for low-income teenagers, Upward Bound, and trust in its counselor, Priscilla Gonzales Culver, whom everyone called “Miss G.”

Angelica was the product of a large Mexican-American family, which she sought both to honor and surpass. Her mother, Ana Gonzales, had crossed the border illegally as a child, gained citizenship and settled the clan in Galveston, where she ruled by force of will. She once grounded Angelica for a month for coming home a minute late. With hints of both respect and fear, Angelica never called her “Mom” — only “Mrs. Lady.”

Home was an apartment in a subdivided house, with relatives in the adjacent units. Family meals and family feuds went hand in hand. One of Angelica’s uncles bore scars from his days in a street gang. Her grandmother spoke little English. With a quirky mix of distance and devotion, Angelica studied German instead of Spanish and gave the fiesta celebrating her 15th birthday a Goth theme, with fairies and dragons on the tabletop globes. “Korn chick,” she fancifully called herself, after the dissonant metal band.

But school was all business. “Academics was where I shined,” she said. Her grandmother and aunts worked at Walmart alongside Mrs. Lady, and Angelica was rankled equally by how little money they made and how little respect they got. Upward Bound asked her to rank the importance of college on a scale of 1 to 10.

“10,” she wrote.

Melissa also wanted to get off the island — and more immediately out of her house. “When I was about 7, my mom began dating and hanging around a bunch of drunks,” she wrote on the Upward Bound application. For her mother, addiction to painkillers and severe depression followed. Her grandparents offered her one refuge, and school offered another.

“I like to learn — I’m weird,” she said.

By eighth grade, Melissa was at the top of her class and sampling a course at a private high school. She yearned to apply there but swore the opposite to her mother and grandparents. Protecting families from their own ambition is a skill many poor students learn. “I knew we didn’t have the money,” Melissa said. “I felt like I had no right to ask.”

New to Upward Bound, Melissa noticed that one student always ate alone and crowded in beside her. “She forced her friendship on me,” Angelica said.

Bianca joined the following year with a cheerfulness that disguised any trace of family tragedy. As the eldest of four siblings, she had spent the years since her father’s death as a backup mother. To Bianca, family meant everything.

She arrived just in time for the trip at the heart of triplets lore — the Upward Bound visit to Chicago. While they had known they wanted more than Galveston offered, somewhere between the Sears Tower and Northwestern University they glimpsed what it might be. The trip at once consecrated a friendship and defined it around shared goals.

“We wanted to do something better with our lives,” Angelica said.

Ball High was hard on goals. In addition to Bosco, a drug-sniffing dog profiled in the local paper, the campus had four safety officers to deter fights. A pepper spray incident in the girls’ senior year sent 50 students to the school nurse. Only 2 percent of Texas high schools were ranked “academically unacceptable.” Ball was among them.

Melissa now marvels at what a good parent her mother has become to her younger brother after she stopped drinking and was treated for her depression. But when she returned from the high school trip to Chicago, the conflicts grew so intense that Miss G. took her in one night. “I really put her through a lot,” said Melissa’s mother, Pam Craft. “Everything she did, she did on her own — I’m so proud of her.” Miss G.’s notes variously observed that “there are limited groceries,” “student is overwhelmed” and “she’s basically raising herself.”

While faulting her mother’s choices in men, Melissa made a troubling choice of her own with her ambitionless boyfriend. Among the many ways he let her down was getting another girl pregnant. Yet as many times as they broke up, they got back together again. “He is going to bring her down,” Miss G. warned.

Despite the turmoil, Melissa earned “commended” marks, the highest level, on half her state skills tests, edited the yearbook and published two opinion articles in the Galveston newspaper, one of them about her brother’s struggle with autism. Working three jobs, she missed so much school that she nearly failed to graduate, but she still finished in the top quarter of her class. It was never clear which would prevail — her habit of courting disaster or her talent for narrow escapes.

Returning from Chicago, Bianca jumped a grade, which allowed her to graduate with Melissa and Angelica.

Angelica kept making A’s on her way to a four-year grade-point average of 3.9. “Amazingly bright and dedicated,” one instructor wrote. A score of 1,240 on the math and reading portions of her SAT ranked her at the 84th percentile nationwide. When the German teacher suddenly quit, the school tapped her to finish teaching the first-year course.

Outside school, Angelica’s life revolved around her boyfriend, Fred Weaver, who was three years older and drove a yellow Sting Ray. Fred was devoted — too devoted, Mrs. Lady thought, and she warned Angelica not to let the relationship keep her from going to college. Fred’s father owned a local furniture store, and everyone could see that Fred’s dream was to run it with Angelica at his side.

Senior year raced by, with Miss G. doing her best to steer frightened and distracted students though the college selection process. Despite all the campus visits, choices were made without the intense supervision that many affluent students enjoy. Bianca, anchored to the island by family and an older boyfriend, chose community college. Melissa picked Texas State in San Marcos because “the application was easiest.”

Angelica had thought of little beyond Northwestern and was crestfallen when she was rejected. She had sent a last-minute application to a school in Atlanta that had e-mailed her. Only after getting in did she discover that she had achieved something special.

Emory cost nearly $50,000 that year, but it was one of a small tier of top schools that promised to meet the financial needs of any student good enough to be admitted. It had even started a program to relieve the neediest students of high debt burdens. “No one should have to give up their goals and dreams because financial challenges stand in the way,” its Web site says.

Plus an unseen campus a thousand miles away had an innate appeal. “How many times do you get the chance to completely reinvent yourself?” Angelica said.

Rich-Poor Gap Grows

If Melissa and Angelica felt that heading off to university set them apart from other low-income students, they were right. Fewer than 30 percent of students in the bottom quarter of incomes even enroll in a four-year school. And among that group, fewer than half graduate.

Income has always shaped academic success, but its importance is growing. Professor Reardon, the Stanford sociologist, examined a dozen reading and math tests dating back 25 years and found that the gap in scores of high- and low-income students has grown by 40 percent, even as the difference between blacks and whites has narrowed.

While race once predicted scores more than class, the opposite now holds. By eighth grade, white students surpass blacks by an average of three grade levels, while upper-income students are four grades ahead of low-income counterparts.

“The racial gaps are quite big, but the income gaps are bigger,” Professor Reardon said.

One explanation is simply that the rich have clearly gotten richer. A generation ago, families at the 90th percentile had five times the income of those at the 10th percentile. Now they have 10 times as much.

But as shop class gave way to computer labs, schools may have also changed in ways that make parental income and education more important. SAT coaches were once rare, even for families that could afford them. Now they are part of a vast college preparation industry.

Certainly as the payoff to education has grown — college graduates have greatly widened their earnings lead — affluent families have invested more in it. They have tripled the amount by which they outspend low-income families on enrichment activities like sports, music lessons and summer camps, according to Professor Duncan and Prof. Richard Murnane of Harvard.

In addition, upper-income parents, especially fathers, have increased their child-rearing time, while the presence of fathers in low-income homes has declined. Miss G. said there is a reason the triplets relied so heavily on boyfriends: “Their fathers weren’t there.”

Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the affluent also enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials, a problem that would trail Melissa and Angelica in their journey through college.

“Middle-class students get the sense the institution will respond to them,” Professor Lareau said. “Working-class and poor students don’t experience that. It makes them more vulnerable.”

Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution has found that low-income students finish college less often than affluent peers even when they outscore them on skills tests. Only 26 percent of eighth graders with below-average incomes but above-average scores go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, compared with 30 percent of students with subpar performances but more money.

“These are students who have already overcome significant obstacles to score above average on this test,” Mr. Chingos said. “To see how few earn college degrees is really disturbing.”

Triplets Start College

Melissa lasted at Texas State for all of two hours. As soon as she arrived, her car battery died, prompting a tearful call to Miss. G., who arranged a jump. Her dorm mates had parents to haul boxes and hover. Melissa unpacked alone. With four days left until classes began, she panicked and drove 200 miles back home.

For all the talk of getting away, her tattoo featured a local boast: she was “B.O.I.” — born on the island. Her grandparents ordered her back to school. “I really didn’t want to leave” the island, she said.

Midway through the semester she decided she had made a mistake by going to Texas State. She had picked the wrong time to leave home. She would move back to Galveston, join Bianca at community college and transfer to a four-year school later. But when she tried to return the financial aid to Texas State, she discovered it was too late. A long walk across the hilly campus led to an epiphany.

“I realized there was nothing in Galveston for me,” she said. “This is where I need to be.”

Angelica had a costlier setback. For an elite school, Emory enrolls an unusually large number of low-income students — 22 percent get Pell grants, compared with 11 percent at Harvard — and gives them unusually large aid packages. But Angelica had failed to complete all the financial aid forms.

Slow to consider Emory, she got a late start on the complex process and was delayed by questions about her father, whom she did not even know how to reach. Though Emory sent weekly e-mails — 17 of them, along with an invitation to a program for minority students — they went to a school account she had not learned to check. From the start, the wires were crossed.

As classes approached, she just got in the car with Mrs. Lady and Fred and drove 14 hours to Atlanta hoping to work things out. But by then Emory had distributed all of its aid. Even with federal loans and grants, Angelica was $40,000 short. The only way to enroll was to borrow from a bank.

Forty thousand dollars was an unfathomable sum. Angelica did not tell Mrs. Lady, to protect her from the worry. She needed a co-signer, and the only person she could ask was Fred. That would bind her future to her past, but she feared that if she tried to defer, she might not have a future — she might never make it back.

“I was like, ‘I don’t care what kind of debt it puts me in — I’ve got to get this done,”‘ she said.

Fred answered her request with his. They got engaged.

A few weeks later, Hurricane Ike hit Galveston, with Katrina-like consequences. About a sixth of the population never returned. Mrs. Lady lost her apartment and much of what she owned. Fred, consumed with rebuilding the store, reduced the modest sums he had promised to send Angelica.

Social life was awkward. She often felt she was the only one on campus without a credit card. Her roommate moved out, with no explanation. But one element of college appealed to Angelica and Melissa alike: the classes. Other debt-ridden students might wonder why the road to middle-class life passed through anthropology exams and lectures on art history. But Melissa was happy to ponder tribal life in Papua New Guinea and Angelica stepped off the 18-hour bus ride home and let slip an appreciative word about German film.

“My family said ‘O.K., now you go to some big fancy school,’ ” she said.

With A’s, B’s, C’s and D’s, her report card looked like alphabet soup. “I was ready for Galveston College — I wasn’t ready for Emory,” Angelica said. But she salvaged a 2.6 GPA and went home for the summer happy.

“I thought the hard part was over,” she said.

At the end of the summer, Angelica and Melissa marked their ascent as college women with the perfect road trip. Melissa had decided to become a speech therapist. Angelica would practice child psychology. Somewhere between the rainbow in Louisiana and the blues bar in Orlando, they talked of launching a practice to help poor children. Fortune smiled all week.

“We were where we should be and we had the world at our feet,” Melissa said.


She returned to a campus that was starting to feel like home. She had a roommate she liked and a job she loved, as a clerk in a Disney store. But despite the feeling of deep change — or perhaps because of it — she got back together with her high-school boyfriend. “That was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done,” she said.

In the middle of Melissa’s sophomore year they became engaged. He moved near the campus to live with her, and Melissa charged most of their expenses on her credit cards. He was enrolling in the Job Corps program, and they agreed they would pay down the bills together after he became an electrician.

Melissa hit an academic pothole — a C in a communications course, which kept her out of the competitive speech therapy program. But she decided to aim for graduate-school training, and her other grades soared, placing her on the dean’s list both semesters her junior year. When her mother made a rare campus visit, Melissa hurried to show her the prominent display on the student center wall.

“That was one of the proudest moments of my life,” Melissa said.

Just before her senior year, Melissa planned a trip to celebrate her 21st birthday. Preparing to leave, she discovered her money was missing. Only one person had her bank code. After finishing Job Corps, her boyfriend was jobless once again and acting odd — as if he were using drugs.

No one but Melissa was surprised. Although she returned the engagement ring, she could not return the $4,000 in credit card debt he had promised to help pay. With her finances and emotions in disarray, she started her senior year so depressed she hung up black curtains so she could sleep all day. She skipped class, doubled her work hours, and failed nearly every course.

“I started partying, and I was working all the time because I had this debt,” she said.

If the speed of her decline stands out, so does her lack of a safety net. It is easy to imagine a more affluent family stepping in with money or other support. Miss G. sent her the names of some campus therapists but Melissa did not call. She waited for an internal bungee cord to break the fall. She came within one F of losing her financial aid, then aced last summer’s classes.

She is now a fifth-year senior, on track to graduate next summer, and her new boyfriend is studying to be an engineer. At home, she had a way of finding the wrong people. “I haven’t found any wrong people out here,” she said.

With more than $44,000 in loans, she can expect to pay $250 a month for the next quarter century, on top of whatever she may borrow for graduate school. She hides the notices in a drawer and harbors no regrets. “Education — you can’t put a price on it,” she said. “No matter what happens in your life, they can’t take your education away.”


Bianca missed the Florida road trip, though no one remembers why. She liked to talk of getting away, until it came time to go.

Among the perils that low-income students face is “under-matching,” choosing a close or familiar school instead of the best they can attend.

“The more selective the institution is, the more likely kids are to graduate,” said Mr. Chingos, the Brookings researcher. “There are higher expectations, more resources and more stigma to dropping out.”

Bianca was under-matched. She was living at home, dating her high-school boyfriend and taking classes at Galveston College. A semester on the honor roll only kept her from sensing the drift away from her plan to transfer to a four-year school.

Her grandfather’s cancer, and chemotherapy treatments, offered more reasons to stay. She had lived with him since her father had died. Leaving felt like betrayal. “I thought it was more important to be at home than to be selfish and be at school,” she said.

The idea that education can be “selfish” — a belief largely alien among the upper-middle class — is one poor students often confront, even if it remains unspoken. “Family is such a priority, especially when you’re a Hispanic female,” Miss G. said. “You’re afraid you’re going to hear, ‘You’re leaving us, you think you’re better.’ ”

In her second year of community college, Bianca was admitted to a state university a hundred miles away. Miss. G. and her mother urged her to go. Her mind raced with reasons to wait.

“I didn’t want to leave and have my grandfather die.”

“I had to help my mom.”

“I think I got burned out.”

Bianca stayed in Galveston, finished her associate degree, and now works as a beach-bar cashier and a spa receptionist. She still plans to get a bachelor’s degree, someday.

“I don’t think I was lazy. I think I was scared,” she said. In the meantime, “life happened.”


After the financial aid disaster in her first year, Angelica met the next deadline and returned as a sophomore with significant support. Still, she sensed she was on shakier ground than other low-income students and never understood why. The answer is buried in the aid archives: Emory repeatedly inflated her family’s income without telling her.

Angelica reported that her mother made $35,000 a year and paid about half of that in rent. With her housing costs so high, Emory assumed the family had extra money and assigned Mrs. Lady an income of $51,000. But Mrs. Lady was not hiding money. She was paying inflated post-hurricane rent with the help of Federal disaster aid, a detail Angelica had inadvertently omitted.

By counting money the family did not have, Emory not only increased the amount it expected Angelica to pay in addition to her financial aid. It also disqualified her from most of the school’s touted program of debt relief. Under the Emory Advantage plan the school replaces loans with grants for families making less than $50,000 a year. Moving Angelica just over the threshold placed her in a less-generous tier and forced her to borrow an additional $15,000 before she could qualify. The mistake will add years to her repayment plan.

She discovered what had happened only recently, after allowing a reporter to review her file with Emory officials. “There was no other income coming in,” she said. “I can’t believe that they would do that and not say anything to us. That seems completely unfair.”

Emory officials said they had to rely on the information Angelica provided and that they will not make retroactive adjustments.

“The method that was used in her case was very standard methodology,” said J. Lynn Zimmerman, the senior vice provost who oversees financial aid. “I think that what’s unusual is that she really didn’t advocate for herself or ask for any kind of review. If she or her mother would have provided any additional information it would have triggered a conversation.”

Unaware she had any basis for complaint, Angelica found a campus job she loved, repairing library books. It was solitary and artistic work, and it attracted a small sisterhood of women who appreciated her grandmother’s tamales and her streak of purple hair. One day her boss, Julie Newton, overheard her excitedly talking about Hegel.

“She was an extremely intelligent woman and an unusual one,” she said.

Yet even as Angelica’s work hours grew, so did the rigor of her coursework. Meetings with faculty advisers were optional and Angelica did not consult hers. When it came time to declare a major, she had a B-plus average in the humanities and D’s in psychology. She chose psychology.

By the end of her second year, she felt exhausted and had grades to show it. Her long-distance love life was exhausted, too, and she briefly broke up with Fred. She went home for the summer to work at Target and dragged herself back to a troubled junior year.

She moved off campus to save money but found herself spending even more. “I would sit and debate whether I could buy a head of lettuce,” she said. Fred was no longer helping, and her relationship with him snapped. That he had backed a $40,000 loan only made the split harder. They had been together since she was 15.

“It was days of back and forth, crying,” she said.

This was no time to tackle Psychology 200, a course on research methods required of majors. The devotion of the professor, Nancy Bliwise, had earned her a campus teaching award. But her exacting standards and brusque manner left student opinion divided.

“Quite possibly the greatest professor at Emory,” wrote one contributor to the Web site Rate My Professor. Others found her “condescending,” “horribly disrespectful,” and “plain out mean.”

Midway through the semester, Angelica just stopped coming to class. Professor Bliwise called her in and found her despondent. “She was emotionless and that scared me,” the professor said in an interview. Angelica said she had to work too much to keep up, but could not drop the course without losing her full-time status and her aid. So she planned to take an “F.”

Alarmed, Professor Bliwise raised other options, then asked — empathetically, the professor thought — if Angelica had considered cheaper schools. She herself had worked her way through Cleveland State then earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago.

Angelica sat stone-faced, burning. All she could hear was someone saying she was too poor for Emory. “It was pretty clear if I couldn’t afford to be there, I shouldn’t waste her time,” she said.

That was the beginning of the end. Angelica failed that course and three others her junior year, as her upside-down circumstances left her cheating a $200,000 education for a $9-an-hour job. She was not one to make it easy, but Emory never found a way to intervene. “Is there a way to reach out to her?” Professor Bliwise asked in an e-mail to the dean’s office.

The dean’s office left messages. Angelica acknowledged that she was slow to respond but said she got no answer when she did. The school did an electronic key card check to verify whether she was still on campus. More professors expressed concerns. “Personal issues are interfering with her ability to concentrate,” one warned. Angelica contacted campus counseling but said all the appointments had been taken.

Emory can hardly be cast as indifferent to low-income students. It spends $94 million a year of its own money on financial aid and graduates its poorest students nearly as often as the rest. Its failure to reach Angelica may have come up short, but that is partly a measure of the sheer distance it was trying to bridge.

When Angelica finally found a way to express herself, she did so silently. Her final piece for a sculpture class was a papier-mâché baby, sprouting needles like a porcupine. No one could mistake the statement of her own vulnerability.

“It was a shocking piece,” said her professor, Linda Armstrong. “She had a way of using art to tap into her deepest emotions and feelings. I don’t think she understood how good she was.”

Angelica spent the next summer waiting for an expulsion letter that never came. Another missed deadline cost her several thousand dollars in aid in her senior year, and Emory mistakenly concluded that Mrs. Lady had made a $70,000 down payment on a house. (In describing the complicated transaction with a nonprofit group, Angelica failed to note that most of the money came from a program for first-time home buyers.) Emory officials said the mistake did not affect her aid, but the difference between the school’s costs and her package of loans and grants swelled to $12,000 — a sum she could not possibly meet.

She skipped more classes and worked longer hours.

“I felt, I’m going to be on academic probation anyway, I might as well work and pay my rent until they suspend me.”

Finally, Emory did — forcing her to take a semester away with the option of reapplying.

The tale could be cast as an elite school failing a needy student or a student unwilling to be helped, but neither explanation does justice to an issue as complicated as higher education and class.

“It’s a little of both,” said Joanne Brzinski, a dean who oversees academic advising. “We reached out to her, but she didn’t respond. I always fault myself when students don’t do as well as we’d like them to.”

“It’s such a sad story,” she added. “She had the ability.”

Ms. Newton, Angelica’s former supervisor at the library, wondered if her conflict went beyond money, to a fear of the very success she sought. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say she was committing self-sabotage, but the thought crossed my mind,” she said. “For someone so connected to family and Grandma and the tamales, I wondered if she feared that graduating would alienate her.”

A long bridge crosses the bay to Galveston Island. Angelica returned a year ago the way she had left, with Mrs. Lady and Fred at her side. She is $61,000 in debt, seeing Fred again, and making $8.50 an hour at his family’s furniture store. No one can tell whether she is settling down or gathering strength for another escape.

A dinner with Melissa and Bianca a while back offered the comfort of friends who demand no explanations. Melissa suggested they all enroll at Texas State. But Bianca does not know what to study, and Angelica said that she had gone too far to surrender all hopes of an Emory degree.

“I could have done some things better, and Emory could have done some things better,” she said. “But I don’t blame either one of us. Everyone knows life is unfair — being low-income puts you at a disadvantage. I just didn’t understand the extent of the obstacles I was going to have to overcome.”


hinoema 25th-Dec-2012 11:56 am (UTC)
This is now essentially impossible except at community colleges, and community college education has all sorts of drawbacks (as mentioned above).

Like what? I didn't see any mention of the drawbacks of community college in the article.
maenads_dance 25th-Dec-2012 11:58 am (UTC)
Among the perils that low-income students face is “under-matching,” choosing a close or familiar school instead of the best they can attend.

“The more selective the institution is, the more likely kids are to graduate,” said Mr. Chingos, the Brookings researcher. “There are higher expectations, more resources and more stigma to dropping out.”

Bianca was under-matched. She was living at home, dating her high-school boyfriend and taking classes at Galveston College. A semester on the honor roll only kept her from sensing the drift away from her plan to transfer to a four-year school.

Read more at ONTD Political: http://ontd-political.livejournal.com/10305734.html#comments#comments#ixzz2G42GroNx

A snippet. There is definitely good teaching for a great price to be found at community college, but also a lot of lousy teaching, and community colleges just don't have the resources to invest in student retention long-term.
hinoema 25th-Dec-2012 12:41 pm (UTC)
I'd call that more 'a potential disadvantage' than 'all sorts of drawbacks', but anyway... it depends on the community college. Portland CC has a great transfer program, including simultaneous co-enrollment with pretty much all of the state (and some out of state) colleges. The classes are also great quality and my teachers have mostly been excellent, which is why I'm studying there virtually and not in my native state of Arizona.

From what I see, under-matching isn't an inherent flaw of all community colleges; it's the fault of poor community colleges (like Pima in Arizona).

A semester on the honor roll only kept her from sensing the drift away from her plan to transfer to a four-year school.

That sounds like a personal issue. My broke self has been on the honor roll from the beginning, and I haven't drifted away from my plans to continue to a University. I'm co-enrolled at PSU already, in fact.

Essentially, I don't feel that a few examples are illustrative of all community colleges. Without them, people like me couldn't afford to do what I'm doing, which is trying to get enough skills in CC to help pay for a University later. (I'm getting both a transfer and a 'vocational' Associates. It'll take 6 months longer, but I'll have a transfer degree and a solid skill set at the same time.) Er. *Waves Community College flag*

Heh, sorry. I just love my CC.

redstar826 25th-Dec-2012 02:00 pm (UTC)
granted, this was back in the 1990s, so things may have changed, but going to a community college for my first 2 years was probably one of the smartest decisions I ever made.
roseofjuly 25th-Dec-2012 03:17 pm (UTC)
The article itself mentions that many of the issues are personal, and some are systemic.

But come on - surely you must realize that despite your good fortune in going to an excellent community college, if a student is only surrounded by students who want to take a few classes here and there or who only have plans to get an associate's that it's got to be hard for the student who plans to transfer?

I think community college is an excellent choice especially for students without the funds to go somewhere more expensive, and there are many great community colleges that are oriented towards helping students transfer to 4-year schools. But the student either has to be singularly motivated, or the school has to have the resources to encourage these students to stay on the path to transferring even when the chips are down.
tabaqui 25th-Dec-2012 07:42 pm (UTC)
...if a student is only surrounded by students who want to take a few classes here and there or who only have plans to get an associate's that it's got to be hard for the student who plans to transfer?

Why? Why should what other students are doing matter? You want to get good grades, you study and do good work, what difference does it make if the person next to you is going to go on to a 4-year or go back to being a welder?

If everyone around you influences whether or not you actually achieve your goals, then it really doesn't matter *what* you do, you're gonna fail.
maenads_dance 25th-Dec-2012 08:13 pm (UTC)
Environment matters. Being with a cohort of students who take studying seriously and who care about their coursework matters a ton.

During my classes at community college this past year, I specifically sought out fellow non-trad students and particularly older students, because the career changers and late-in-life college students tended to be the most deadly serious about college. If you're eighteen and fresh out of high school, it is very very easy to slack off. Unlike in high school, nobody's going to call home if you're truant. The things that keep people going to class and working hard are a culture of hard work and a peer group that cares about education.

If all your friends do or care about is blazing after class - if the only people you know are in community college because they didn't have the grades and/or motivation to get into a 4-year state school - then you are not surrounding yourself with people who are going to motivate you to success.

Honestly your last paragraph sounds suspiciously bootstrappy. It's true, the choices we make are the most important at the end of the day, but one of the most critical choices to make - and this is something that is opaque to a lot of people until they have life experience under their belt - is who you spend time with.
tabaqui 25th-Dec-2012 08:36 pm (UTC)
Bootstrappy? No. But i *do* think that if you're serious about something then a classmate who is a party type shouldn't be able to just...derail you by *being* there. If you can't tune out other people's junk, how are you going to manage in a job or in life-after-school, if everyone around you sends you binging off like a pinball?

You don't always get to chose who you're with in a class or project group, or who you have to live with (dorm-type situation). If you can't resist their slacker or defeatist or whatever attitudes, then it seems like you're kinda doomed.

I just...can't imagine relying on the people around me (other than maybe a teacher) to *motivate* me. That's my job.
coyotesuspect 25th-Dec-2012 09:41 pm (UTC)
You're taking a wider issue of environment and acting as if the commentators above are merely referring to other individuals. They're not talking about some party girl you sit next to in class, but an environmental ethos which doesn't emphasize or value educational advancement.

It's a very and lonely and difficult thing to be one of the only people at your school to wants to go on to a four-year degree. We have a natural impulse as humans to share our experiences with those around us, and it's obviously very difficult to share your hopes, or have someone help you talk through plans, or cheerlead you, or offer tips and advice, or even do homework and write essays with if no one else is the same situation as you or taking education as seriously as you. It's incredibly alienating to not have someone to commiserate with, and it's very hard to resist conforming. That's why high school programs such as Upward Bound (mentioned in the article) exist; not just to explain how to get into college, but also to provide an environment which embraces college as a goal and emphasizes academic achievement.

So yes, if the school's culture is such that most students aren't there "seriously," very driven students can still walk the rocky path to success, but, as with most things, that's a road easier walked with others. So if you are in a situation where it feels like no one else is taking it as seriously as you are, it's very easy and natural to stop taking things as seriously as well. It's not "pinballing;" it's being a human who reacts to and tries to conform with their environment.
tabaqui 25th-Dec-2012 10:07 pm (UTC)
If they're talking a 'wider issue' of community college being 'not serious' or that the students at cc's are not serious, that's a rather dim view to take.

koalafrog 26th-Dec-2012 05:25 pm (UTC)
During my classes at community college this past year, I specifically sought out fellow non-trad students and particularly older students, because the career changers and late-in-life college students tended to be the most deadly serious about college. If you're eighteen and fresh out of high school, it is very very easy to slack off. Unlike in high school, nobody's going to call home if you're truant. The things that keep people going to class and working hard are a culture of hard work and a peer group that cares about education.

I don't see how this counts towards your "all sorts of drawbacks" to community colleges.

You're much more likely to encounter "I don't give a fuck" students at a university or state college, because you're more likely to find entitled, rich, made-to-go-to-college-by-parents students at those institutions.

I'm a college prof, and I've found that my students in tech schools and community colleges are much more invested and try way harder than the students I taught at universities.

The vast majority of people going to community colleges these days aren't there because their grades weren't up to snuff for a "better" school - it's all down to money these days. The economy has really changed the make-up of community college students... I'd say for the better.
romp 26th-Dec-2012 10:25 pm (UTC)
You're much more likely to encounter "I don't give a fuck" students at a university or state college, because you're more likely to find entitled, rich, made-to-go-to-college-by-parents students at those institutions.

I'm a college prof, and I've found that my students in tech schools and community colleges are much more invested and try way harder than the students I taught at universities.

This is my experience. And as for your last point, all I need to do to see that in action is visit various schools in California. The CCs (CSUs vs. UCs) are largely Latin@ and people taking a class at a time as they can afford it.
bestdaywelived 26th-Dec-2012 06:34 am (UTC)
That's not the case. In an environment with students who are dedicated to education as a primary goal, you'll take it more seriously.
tabaqui 25th-Dec-2012 07:45 pm (UTC)
including simultaneous co-enrollment

What is that, exactly? I ask because our daughter has this dream of going to college in LA (Cali), but being as we're in Missouri and she isn't a straight-A student, we've told her that she'll need to get her basic stuff out of the way at community college first, because we can't afford out-of-state 4 year.

And see, not even sure if you can do that - take all your 'must have' classes, like algebra and whatnot at a community college, and then take the classes specific to the degree you're getting at the state university.....
(If i'm explaining that clearly....)
maenads_dance 25th-Dec-2012 08:15 pm (UTC)
Having done the out-of-state transfer into a state Cali school, by way of community college, this past year -- my advice is look up the IGETC requirements for Cali schools and do your best to fullfill them at a two-year local CC. IGETC are the gen-ed distribution requirements that Cali schools want, and they're at times idiosyncratic and hard to figure out. A lot of schools will not accept transfer students who haven't already fulfilled the IGETC reqs.
tabaqui 25th-Dec-2012 08:37 pm (UTC)
Good to know, thank you.
ennifer_jay 25th-Dec-2012 11:21 pm (UTC)
Also, make sure the classes actually *transfer*. I've seen a lot of people transfer from CC to 4yr even *in state* (e.g. from a CC to one of the public 4 year universities in the state, where a lot of the times the courses at CC are designed to be easily transferrable to the 4 year university) and half of their credits haven't transferred.

I'm going to carefully suggest that it's semi unlikely that her credits will transfer smoothly. The following may seem like I'm "talking down" to you, or being condescending, so I apologize if this is how it comes across. Plus you may already know all this and this may be unnecessary, but just in case:

Say you take Math 101 at X CC in Missouri. Let's say it focuses specifically on algebra. Then your daughter transfers to Y 4-yr institution in California. There they have a Math 102 that is solely algebra. So they see that and it fits, boom, the 3 credits transfer and show up on your daughter's transcript as "MAT102" with a grade of "T" (for transfer).

But what if there is no exact fit? That means the credits won't transfer, and you and your daughter will have paid for that course for nothing. She'll have to take another math course in California. This is where the idea of getting a Bachelor's degree in 4 years begins to chip away.

In sum: She may take 60 credits at CC and then transfer, but maybe only 45 of those credits will actually be accepted at the 4 year institution.

A lot of times, there are lists that specifically list "if you take X course at X CC, it will transfer over as Y course at Y Uni," but they often only cover state universities, common private universities that students transfer to, and maybe common, nearby out-of-state universities. It's unlikely that it will include a university several states away. You may not have the money for an out of state tuition for four years, but you may end up paying close to it, anyway, when her credits don't transfer.

ALSO: Depending on her major, there may be gen ed courses specifically designed for her that she won't be able to take at a CC. E.g. in the medical fields, often times there are specific science courses designed to address the needs of specific majors, like a specific biology course for pre-med majors that will cover different aspects of biology than your generic Bio 100.

citations: I worked in a registrar's office, I've had my own transfer credits, and my undergrad university has a high transfer-in rate from CCs. A good friend of mine transferred from a CC to my undergrad university. She spent 2 years at CC and now has to spend 3 years at undergrad university.
tabaqui 25th-Dec-2012 11:31 pm (UTC)
Oh, no, not condescending at all. What i know about what courses will and won't transfer is not much at all, and since she's only 15, we haven't exactly gotten down to the nitty-gritty, yet.

What i'm supposing we'll do is find out exactly *what* she has to take for the major she wants (not sure what it's called, exactly, she wants to counsel kids, like a school counselor), and then see if any of the local cc's have them, and *then* see if they'll transfer.

I have no idea if any of the online colleges are better or worse for that sort of thing (they make me paranoid, frankly, about being ripped off). If not much will transfer, then we'll have to see what our options are.

It'd frankly all very distressing to think about, but, as parents, you do what you gotta do and you ask a lot of questions.
serendipity_15 25th-Dec-2012 11:54 pm (UTC)
Perhaps you can get a hold of the CC course catalog for this coming semester and the course catalog from the university she wants to go to in LA and then get in contact with the registrar to say if course X in Missouri would be applicable with course Y at the university. In regards to online colleges, your best bet might be to look at on-line degrees through traditional brick and mortar schools, for instance USC offers a completely online Master's of Social Work and Georgetown offers an online Master of Nursing degree. However, I am not sure if completely online degrees are available at the undergraduate level. Actually, in regards to online stuff see if there a mix of online and classroom classes available for your major at the school she wants, maybe she could take those first at home and then go to Cali to do the classroom stuff. A mix of online and classroom classes was available to undergrads at my university, which was one of the state universities.
ebay313 26th-Dec-2012 03:51 am (UTC)
Yep, this is so common. I work with a program at a University that requires 60 (or 64 depending) credits to start, and when I see transfer students who tell me they have everything done, they have 60 credits exactly from X CC, at that point I typically would guess they do not have all of what they need done because it is soooo rare that I see someone who has all transferable CC courses.
hinoema 26th-Dec-2012 04:51 am (UTC)
U-select is a great resource for checking transfer credits.


And yes, many people take the 'core basics' at a CC to save money. Oregon is trying to set PCC up as both a technical college and a uni prep college, which I think is a great plan.
ebay313 26th-Dec-2012 03:42 am (UTC)
Saying that there are a lot of problems and pitfalls that poor students often fall into with community colleges isn't saying that community colleges are universally terrible, always a bad choice nor even suggesting that community colleges should not exist. It's great that you have found a good community college to attend and have your transfer plan set but this is not universally true for all students who attend community college. Along with the difficulties the article mentions a lot of students attend community colleges to save money without a clear plan and end up wasting money and using up their available aid instead of saving money. I see this happen to students a lot. A lot of students go to a community college and don't have a lot of knowledge of the workings of higher education, and go in without a clear plan, or with an unrealistic plan, and they take classes assuming they will transfer but then find out they don't when they try to transfer to a University- often lacking the credit hours and requirements to be where they planned in their path to a bachelors degree. Along with that students are very often given misinformation at a lot of community colleges- leading to taking courses that don't transfer or don't fulfill the requirements they were told it was. Or students start at a community college not knowing where they plan to transfer and thus don't have a specific place to check transfer information regarding or requirements. And unfortunately I've also seen students given misinformation from the University they plan to transfer to about what the have/need to transfer.

In a sense a lot of this is an individual thing. It is an individual problem if one does not plan ahead and make sure what the are taking transfers to what University they plan to transfer to, but they also go well beyond being just individual issues- they are issues that affect a lot of students, often effecting poor students less familiar with higher education systems the most, and of course are related to institutional set ups and policies as well. And that last part is important because talking about these pitfalls with community colleges doesn't have to mean advocated getting rid of community colleges but rather some of this could be improved by better set ups and policies with community colleges, universities, and other organizations/governing boards involved.
pleasure_past 25th-Dec-2012 10:34 pm (UTC)
This isn't brought up in the article, but I know a bunch of people who got completely fucked over on financial aid when they transferred to four year schools because they graduated from community colleges first, and thus had a bunch of credit that didn't count toward anything but which still counted against them for measurements of "academic progress." My best friend basically had her major chosen for her because it was the only major that would get her a degree without her losing all of her financial aid at some point. In fact, if I'd gone to my best friend's school (the local state school) instead of the private school I chose, I'd have been lucky to be able to get through any degree program without losing my financial aid. And you can pretty much forget about minors or electives.
tabaqui 26th-Dec-2012 12:03 am (UTC)
That really, really sucks.
koalafrog 26th-Dec-2012 05:29 pm (UTC)
FYI this happens even when transferring from four year school to another four year school. Blame the college boards, tbh, it's up to them. I just recently had to send in a shitload of paperwork and exam/assignment examples to get my one specific class "approved" to transfer to any school in the GA college system.
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