The effort to increase the number of low-income students who graduate from four-year colleges, especially elite colleges, has recently been front-page news. But when I think about my students, and my own story, I wonder whether the barriers, seen and unseen, have changed at all.
In spite of our collective belief that education is the engine for climbing the socioeconomic ladder — the heart of the “American dream” myth — colleges now are more divided by wealth than ever. When lower-income students start college, they often struggle to finish for many reasons, but social isolation and alienation can be big factors. In “Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College,” Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl analyzed federal data collected by Michael Bastedo and Ozan Jaquette of the University of Michigan School of Education; they found that at the 193 most selective colleges, only 14 percent of students were from the bottom 50 percent of Americans in terms of socioeconomic status. Just 5 percent of students were from the lowest quartile.
It’s often a struggle for poor students just to gain admission to college, but once on campus their background can create another challenge to graduation.
But once those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds arrive on campus, it’s often the subtler things, the signifiers of who they are and where they come from, that cause the most trouble, challenging their very identity, comfort and right to be on that campus. The more elite the school, the wider that gap. I remember struggling with references to things I’d never heard of, from Homer to the Social Register. I couldn’t read The New York Times — not because the words were too hard, but because I didn’t have enough knowledge of the world to follow the articles. Hardest was the awareness that my own experiences were not only undervalued but often mocked, used to indicate when someone was stupid or low-class: No one at Barnard ate Velveeta or had ever butchered a deer.
Urban students face different slights but ones with a more dangerous edge. One former student was told by multiple people in his small Pennsylvania college town not to wear a hoodie at night, because it made him look “sketchy.” Standing out like that — being himself — could put him at risk.
A related factor is the alienation from their families, who may not be fully supportive of the distance and growth these students have chosen. One low-inocme, first-generation University of Chicago student wrote poignantly about the social isolation that almost derailed her graduation. Affordability is only part of the problem.
… My scholarship opened the doors for me, but it didn’t see me through my four years here.
Adult mentors can help, and the Posse Foundation goes a step further by creating a supportive peer group.
How Did Posse Get Its Name? In 1989, Posse Founder and President Deborah Bial was working with talented urban young people. She watched these students go off to college, only to see them return within a semester having dropped out. Knowing that these students were bright and capable, she couldn’t understand what was making them leave college. When she asked them what happened, one student replied, “If I only had my posse with me, I never would have dropped out.” That simple idea, of sending a group—or posse—of students together so they could “back each other up,” became the impetus for a program that today has sent hundreds of students to top colleges and universities throughout the United States.