Poverty, College and A Dream Deferred

[Influencing this Post: For Many Poor Students, Leap to College Ends in a Hard Fall.]

The New York Times had an amazing front page long-form story today about how three young women who grew up in poverty in Galveston, TX struggled with the transition to college. All three women were excellent high school students who should thrive at the next phase of their life. Those girls are the kids that a high school puts their faith in. At SLA, approximately half of our student population come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and many of our students will be the first in their family to either go to college or complete college.

But what is scary is how many students who struggle with staying in college. We have heard story after story of SLA kids who found that a college changed their financial aid or how a raise in tuition meant more loans or how the hustle it took to earn scholarships for 1st year was hard to duplicate once in college. We joke around about providing the Extra Care Card to SLA alumni so that they know they can still use us as a resource in college and we spend a lot of time in senior year Advisory on preparing kids for what they will face in college and overwhelmingly, SLA kids do navigate the challenges, but the reality is that, for many kids of poverty, there is little safety net once they get to college.

This is the problem that KIPP faced when they realized that only 32% of their graduates were also graduating from college. This is what we – as a magnet school – fear when we sit down with parents in January and help them fill out FAFSA forms and then again in April when we go over financial aid packages. And again, we’re a magnet school with a college-going culture that can prepare kids for some of these challenges, and I don’t think we’ve come close to solving this problem – merely mitigating it to the best of our ability.

And let’s understand this — this problem affects kids well before they ever get to college. Every kid in an economically challenged neighborhood in Philadelphia knows someone like those girls – the kid who did everything right and still ended up on the block, thousands and thousands of dollars in debt, without a degree and struggling to get by. The dream of a college education as the ticket out of poverty is dying a faster death in our cities than policy makers and college presidents want to admit.

And if that dream dies, we’re in trouble as a nation. As the New York Times article suggests, we are dangerously close to a permanent underclass in America, and as the idea of class mobility fades, we face questions that I don’t think we want to face. It was over eighty years ago that Langston Hughes wrote A Dream Deferred:

What happens to a dream deferred?


Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?


Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.


Or does it explode?

Perhaps it is time we all take heed.

13 thoughts on “Poverty, College and A Dream Deferred

  1. As the Principal of a rural 80% plus free/reduced population public High School- I see the same things. I will take heed, in the sense, I want us (educators, legislators, parents, community members) to all come together to work on solutions to the problems faced by impoverished students looking for a way out.
    I WILL NOT compromise the idea of education being a way out of poverty. To me that is the New American Dream. Education pulled me from poverty and I assert its STILL the key to escaping poverty.

    • I agree that it is still the best hope we have as a society. However, I also think we are at a scary time in our evolution as a nation where if we do not fight to keep that door open, it will close for far too many kids who want nothing more than to succeed.

  2. Interesting that you mention KIPP in this post, as this article serves to refute their mantra with the reality that poverty is a reason, not an excuse, why too many of our kids end up poor.

    • KIPP fascinates me because they continue to evolve. This fall, they came out with a report that showed their kids were not succeeding to the levels they’d hoped after they left. They’ve launched a big initiative (because they have the money to do so) to create a support network for their graduates, but I think they are inching closer and closer to making some bold anti-poverty statements. They made choices a long time ago to allow themselves to be the darlings of the right-wing politician crowd, but I think they are beginning to back away from those choices.

      • It’ll be interesting to see if that happens, and to see how much work they do to make sure that message is heard.

          • One reason to be strangely hopeful is that perhaps, just maybe, the 2012 election really was a turning point for the country. Not on education policy, necessarily — this isn’t about Arne Duncan. But very explicitly, it was a campaign pitting the ideology of radical individualism against a more communitarian vision. And Obama won. Might that in some small way shift the education reform agenda from “every kid/school for themselves” toward a recognition of interconnectedness, which is what this conversation highlights?

  3. I remember when I was on the reaccreditation committee for UC Berkeley in 1990, which in hindsight was a relative golden age for public education at all levels. We talked about the numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who came to college woefully unprepared — and these were the ones at the top of the heap. But of course, fixing high schools or primary schools wasn’t our problem. The NY Times article shows the other side of the coin — how successful public schools depend on colleges to fulfill their mission. We have a discourse about K12 and a discourage about higher ed that are oddly unconnected.

  4. I don’t know that the idea of an underclass in America is all that new. If anything, the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s were an aberration in terms of uplifting the working class – strong unions for workers, affordable and accessible education for students. But the last two decades have seen a lot of that disappear. Union jobs (and unions) are going by the wayside, schools are becoming more competitive in admissions, and even public college is becoming incredibly expensive. Income and wealth inequality have returned to the levels they were at in the 1920’s and the Gilded Age.

    It’s fitting, perhaps, that the mother, aunts, and grandmother of one of the girls in the original Times article worked for Walmart.

    But enough on history. I’m troubled by these same things at my school, a small city district neighboring Newark. Every year I write letters of recommendation, help students fill out their FAFSAs, and generally get them ready for college. But I know full well that some of them will be back in town for one reason or another in a year or two.

    I cringe whenever my students want to apply to some prestigious out of state school or some expensive private school. One of my students wanted to go to school in Baltimore. When I looked at her financial aid award letter, I pointed out the $10,000 gap between her aid package and her cost of attendance. She said her mother was going to figure it out. She didn’t. The next year, the girl was back home and now she’s working full time at the mall. /sigh

  5. It is why we work so hard at our middle school that serves half of its students in poverty to make sure that we are not only closing the achievement gap that allow them to complete the paperwork and get accepted into college, but also closing the experience and opportunity gap, so that children of poverty are having incredible, rich experiences that allow them to communicate, cooperate, and feel comfortable in a middle to upper-middle class collegiate environment. It is something that a middle school attached to SLA could begin for your students. It would be a space for early experiences that could shape lives forever.

  6. I’m a parent, not an educator, with a daughter who is a junior in college, and I think the financial aid aspects of college admissions are surprisingly complex. I also feel that high schools should warn all their seniors about how potentially hazardous the FAFSA is. The one student in the NY Times article who messed up her financial aid application to Emery, and ended up having to take out
    a $40,000 loan for a single school year. That’s sad, but I’m sure it happens to tons of students across the nation, especially the students who are trying to fill out the FAFSA alone without any help from their parents. Should all our high schools have a required course in finance, geared toward the financial aid programs at colleges? It might sound less important than calculus or advanced algebra, but I really feel like it would save some of our students huge amounts of debt and also help them graduate.

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  8. SLA is a proving ground for how to continue to improve on this track record. As Bob Dillon mentioned, starting at an earlier age should help increase the success rate of graduates from strong schools like SLA. Educational foundations and universities should be falling all over themselves to fund research into why some students from these backgrounds succeed based on an SLA-type experience, and others do not.