College for the 99%

Last evening I went to listen to the Lower Merion A-Cappella Winter Invitational. As happens whenever I attend any of the band, orchestra, chorus, theater or any other kind of performance in this district, I was struck by the quality of the show. There is a confidence and a certain joie-de-vivre to the students in this district that I, having worked with young people of their age along the entire North East, know for a fact is not the norm for their less blessed peers. It made me think about other parents, just as hopeful and just as full of pride in their childrens’ endeavors, and about the innumerable ways in which the odds are against them when weighed against students like ours, who are the beneficiaries of resources, time, and considerable wealth. From orthodontia to specialized camps to SAT tutoring, students here start off ahead of most of the population their age in this country. It so happened that, as I sat mulling this over, I received this beautifully stated opinion (below the image), from a dear friend, Dr. Sara Taddeo, one whose intelligence is only matched by her compassion for the less fortunate (or, as is more the case, deliberately excluded), in her hometown. I am posting it here in the hope that it will contribute to the national conversation on our rights as well as our responsibilities toward each other.


My husband and I graduated from college thirty years ago, from the University of Pennsylvania and Barnard College, respectively. We were the first in our families to complete a degree, but this was so common among our classmates that it did not call for comment or explanation. When my sons entered their senior year of high school, it was taken for granted that they would apply to and attend college, but they, like most of their classmates, assumed they would not be able to attend an Ivy League school. My husband and I often wonder, in fact, if we would be accepted by our alma maters if we were applying now. This change in attitudes and experiences between our generations prompts my reflections. I am not a statistician, and this essay is not a double-blind study or a controlled experiment, it is an anecdotal report from the front lines of decreasing mobility: the way college admissions feel for the 99.5% who do not attend one of the Ivy League institutions, and the nearly 90% who don’t attend a private school of any type.

When my oldest began the college admissions process five years ago, he confined his search to regional public schools and his final list comprised only three colleges, all of which freely admitted they were not ”highly selective”. The applications were primarily completed on paper, duly mailed out and required no supplementary forms. Arranging tours and sitting in on classes was fairly easily managed without too much advance notice He was quickly accepted by all of his schools and immediately received clear statements regarding merit and need-based aid. The majority of his peers followed a similar path, with similarly satisfactory results. He has done well at his chosen school and is applying to graduate school, but once again, not to any of the “top” places, not least because of the long shadow of the GREs .

My younger son cast a wider net in his college search, so we expected it to be more time-consuming, but we didn’t realize how true this would be: I estimate I spent 10-20 hours a week over more than six months supporting, not conducting, his college search. In the two short years that had passed since our first-born began college, the process had morphed into a labyrinth of supplementary forms (requiring confidential financial information before an admissions decision was made), differing requirements and due dates and, worst of all, the expectation that business would be conducted on-line. Arranging visits was no longer a matter of calling or simply showing up; even less-selective schools required you to sign up on-line well ahead of time. Auditing classes was rarely possible, even though we found, as most people do, that this is the best way to get to know a college and decide if it is really for you. Once the letters of acceptance/rejection started rolling in, I was surprised to find that statements of cost and offers of financial/merit aid were opaque and often late; one well-known (and extremely expensive) university never produced so much as an estimate of the cost for my son to attend, but expected an immediate reply to their offer of admission without such vital information! My son eventually chose a mid-level private school which suited him and which we are fortunate enough to be able to pay for without the necessity of his taking on a crushing debt-load.

2010-2011 was a long year for the family, but our travails pale in comparison to the difficulties encountered by many of my son’s classmates and their parents, who were utterly unprepared for the process. They were astonished by the arcane and intrusive procedures followed by the universities and lacked the time and money to conduct a thorough search and prepare for testing. While many colleges seem to assume that on-line tools suffice to investigate and rank schools and that they conduct a great deal of outreach, especially to the underprivileged, this has not been the experience of anyone I know (an admittedly limited sample of a few hundred). One of the reasons for this is probably the insidious impediment to upward mobility which schools do not even begin to acknowledge: the digital divide. Poor students, especially those in rural areas, do not have the personal computers that wealthier students take for granted and seldom even have familiarity with word-processing, now expected for essay submission. Very few have regular access to a high-speed internet connection, certainly not at home and since paper catalogues and applications have largely been abolished, these students are several steps behind from the start. Far too many lower income seniors feel they are playing a very high-stakes game which has been rigged to favor the high rollers.

These wealthy families prepare their offspring for the college admissions process from their earliest years; some parents even take a leave of absence from their (secure, well-paying) jobs to shepherd the students through the process. Almost without exception they pay for professional guidance services, tutoring and, in particular, coaching for the SATs. This supposedly objective means of comparing students from different backgrounds has become a stumbling block for many, effectively another barrier to college. Luckily for us and for them, our sons did well on the SATs without coaching, but we know far too many deserving students – high achievers, hard working and financially deserving – who received few offers of admission and still fewer offers of aid because they missed the SAT cut-off. Many did not even attempt to raise their scores or apply to more selective schools because they were too discouraged by the complexity of the process. When these students wind up dropping out or underperforming, it is no longer the minor hurdle it was in past decades, because one semester, even at a state school, is often enough to generate tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, with no prospect of being able to pay it off.

Why is this wrong? Am I asserting that everyone is entitled to a college education in a highly selective setting? No, but I would like to see an even playing field, a meritocracy. The current system clearly favors the wealthy and privileged rather than rewarding the most able. By erecting artificial barriers to achievement, it wastes a tremendous amount of human potential in a way that is antithetical both to our democracy and to the innovation which would lead to economic growth. In the current state of the nation, with high unemployment, even for recent college graduates, the competition for those spots which are most likely to guarantee financial success – through placement in lucrative fields and professional schools – intensifies, leading to increased stress on college selection and excluding those who couldn’t afford to pay the “price of admission”, that is to say, pretty much the 99%.

– Sara Taddeo, Waterville, ME

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