I read this article from The New York Times today about how low-income high school kids have so many barriers to college entrance. The article profiles three students from Kansas trying to figure out if they can attend college. For one, who is bright and a good test taker, the thought of taking the ACT for a second time to raise his score by one point to qualify him for more scholarship aid, is not enough of an incentive to take the test again. Another young woman nearly misses out on taking the test for a second time because she doesn’t have the $52.50 to take the test. Fortunately, someone from the town puts up the money for the young woman to take the test. Another woman offers free test prep for students.
But, oh, my. The price associated with simply trying to navigate so many unknowns, to have to catapult over obstacles that middle class families wouldn’t bat an eyelash at…it is so, so expensive to be poor in this country.
It’s college acceptance and rejection season. Students find me, daily, to express their elation, their worry, their sadness. Despite it being hard, I broach conversations of “their gap,” if they’ve gained acceptance. How much money do they have to come up with to make up for what the school isn’t giving them? Often, that gap is impossible for them to close. They simply don’t have the money. Neither do their families. They feel betrayed and they feel that they’ve failed themselves. I try to gently explain what it means to graduate from college owing a ton of debt, how it limits options, how it keeps some goals perpetually out of reach. It’s sometimes a cruel conversation, particularly because they have always thought that they were going to college (because that is the expectation around here, but we don’t ever interrogate what that really means), but few people discuss the intricacies of how to pay for it.
As much as I want to rage against all the people who are supposed to be talking to them, honestly and lovingly, I discuss these things with them. I ask if they have considered community college. I affirm that there is nothing wrong with them and everything wrong with the system that sets them up for a reality for which they are unprepared. I hope that they know I’m coming from a place of care and concern.
I find these conversations with students much more difficult this year, largely because the longer you know the kids (I’ve taught some of them when they began high school and have assisted as they’ve grown), the more invested you become in hoping–needing–them to make it, because jeez, you just want to believe that maybe fair doesn’t exist for everyone, but maybe–just for these kids–fair exists for some.
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.
To learn more about the Heinemann Fellows, click here.