Dec 23

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.