Systemic Inequity

By Linda F. Nathan

Everyone knows money is important. For those privileged to have enough of it, money is not an obstacle for living a decent life or for college access. My husband and I frequently say, “Money isn’t everything,” but only the freedom of having money allows us to say such a thing. We didn’t want our own children restricted in their college choices. Of course, we hoped that they would consider attending Tufts University, where my husband is a professor, so that, if admitted, they would be eligible for tuition remission. But we didn’t want to limit their explorations or plans. Many of my friends will espouse similar statements: “We will take out loans if we have to” or, “I’ll be working to pay this tuition off for another 20 years.” Many of our friends began a college fund when their children were born. I know of many families who enlist the help of a grandparent to pay for a grandchild’s tuition. So, for the children of the “haves,” the cost of college is a consideration, perhaps, but it doesn’t predetermine the future.
However, within the urban public school arena where I have worked for four decades, the assumption that “money isn’t everything” is patently false. We hope our students will receive adequate scholarships or federal loans. We urge students to go to state colleges and universities where tuition might be more affordable. We counsel kids against taking on too much debt. But no matter what approach we take, cost is a huge obstacle in accessing quality higher education. A recent study reports that state funding for higher education has fallen by 18% since 2008. Money, or the lack of it, can easily determine the kind of future a young person will have. Some families have the good fortune to assume that no matter the monetary demands, college is accessible. But that is just not true if you are poor or don’t have the social or cultural capital to navigate the system of higher education. The data are incontrovertible: Elite colleges and flagship universities enroll more students from the top 1% of the income distribution than from the bottom half.

Kevin remembers being encouraged to dream big about college. He knew he was talented. He had excellent grades in both visual arts and academics. “We had heard since we came here [to Boston Arts Academy] as freshmen, even in freshman orientation, that we could all go to college. It was part of the curriculum.” Kevin recalls the intensity of senior year with his peers. Classes revolved around writing college essays and preparing portfolios as well as practicing for interviews. “‘Where are you applying? Is your portfolio finished?’ That’s all we talked about. Everyone was going to go somewhere.” In this case, the assumption was, there is a college for everyone.

Kevin received a full scholarship to the nearby Massachusetts College of Art and Design, a four-year, public arts college, but he desperately wanted what he called the “full college experience” of going away from home and being around a diverse mix of kids. “I’d been doing art so intensely for four years in high school. I just wanted to see what else was out there.” So instead of going to MassArt, where he had a full scholarship, he went to another state school: the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he would need financial aid. Pell grants wouldn’t cover the cost of in-state tuition with room and board. Kevin qualifying for financial aid, and he understood that he would have to repay some loans when he graduated.

During freshman and sophomore year, Kevin had a great advisor who made sure that he did all his financial-aid paperwork on time. But junior year, he was assigned a new advisor in his major. That advisor didn’t know Kevin well, and he wasn’t as methodical about checking in with Kevin about issues such as aid deadlines. Kevin recalls when his life began to unravel. “I was so busy at the end of sophomore year. I was working for Unity House [for students of color], and I was performing and deejaying all over to earn money for books and everything. I was also working 30 hours a week in the cafeteria. Of course, I had a full load of classes too.” When he returned in September of his junior year, he discovered he didn’t have housing. “Alarm bells should have gone off. I should have realized right away something was wrong. But I just thought it was a housing thing and it would work out. Lots of my friends had had housing issues. So I stayed on a friend’s couch for September, waiting for housing to come through. That wasn’t so unusual with my friends. But when I went to the housing office to find out when I’d get a room, they just laughed and said I wasn’t even enrolled. There was a hold on my account. I was so confused. How could that be? I was like big man on campus. Everyone knew me and loved me. I was involved in everything. Why would I have a hold?” Too late, Kevin realized that he had neglected to apply for financial aid for his junior year.

It was already mid-October and he was too embarrassed to tell his mother that he actually wasn’t a student. “She just wouldn’t have understood. She had sacrificed her whole life for me to get here.” He stayed involved with all his college activities. He kept his on-campus job and even kept going to classes, but slowly things began to catch up with him, and he realized that now he had all this debt and he didn’t know what to do. He dropped out of college and worked two jobs trying to pay off some of the loans, but he couldn’t make much of a dent in the debt he was accumulating while also paying for rent and food. “The debt just went higher and higher with the interest. At some point I think I realized that I owed $42,000 and there was literally no way I could be paying that off and live.” Kevin didn’t want to acknowledge that his dreams of a college degree had vanished. He was working 40 hours a week cooking in a diner and also making money on the weekends performing and deejaying, but he still couldn’t see how he’d ever be able to return to school.

He knows that he should have been responsible for understanding when and how to reapply for financial aid, but he also recognizes the role that his first advisor had played in helping him keep track of the paperwork. “I shouldn’t have relied on my advisor, but, you know, if you don’t grow up knowing all about financial aid and the deadlines, and you don’t have a parent to remind you, it’s really important that someone at college can help with that. I’m not the only one who missed deadlines. Sometimes I think colleges should be measured on how many students actually graduate rather than how many enroll. And if a lot drop out, like what happened to me, maybe tuition and loans should be even less. Why isn’t the college held responsible at all?”

I’m intrigued by Kevin’s last comment. Why, indeed, don’t we hold colleges responsible for graduation rates? And how are graduation rates tied to money? There is a direct correlation between the ability to access financial aid and graduation rates. At UMass–Dartmouth, graduation rates are under 50%. How much of that attrition is due to the fact that money is an obstacle for too many students? I don’t think this disappointing graduation rate means that UMass Dartmouth is a bad school. Many of my Boston Arts Academy students who have gone there, whether or not they have graduated, have spoken in positive terms about their classes and the education they received. Even though many students commute, Arts Academy graduates have found that UMass Dartmouth has a strong community of color, but offers few programs that adequately help first-generation students, especially with respect to financing. There are no required meetings for these students. There are no regular check-ins. Kevin was lucky to be assigned such an attentive advisor his first few semesters. But luck should not be the reason students graduate or not.

My students desperately want to believe what we have taught them: They can go to college. Money isn’t everything. They will get scholarships. They can even take out loans. Kevin and so many students like him realize too late that money, in fact, is everything. They also realize that making one small mistake means the difference between securing a future that they dreamed of in high school and a future that may not be better than their parents’. Money, white privilege and the ethos of meritocracy have created extraordinary barriers for too many. We have created a two-tiered system that seems to have no end in sight.

Again, relative privilege ensures this will not happen with my own children. I have been able to help them with college and even graduate school. My son, a medical school student, will be able to make a choice about whether he wants to become a primary care physician and he will not have to enter a more lucrative specialty field just to pay back loans. This kind of freedom shouldn’t be available only to the affluent.

Could we imagine a more holistic conversation between higher education leaders, high school principals, guidance counselors, nonprofit leaders and funders—both private and governmental—about the kind of supports necessary to ensure that money is not an obstacle for success in college? Students across the country are engaging in protests about the tiny numbers of students of color attending many of our private and more elite colleges. These Black Lives Matter protests are laudable. They harken back to the student movement of the 1960s. But I fear that the students are missing the point by focusing solely on the percentages of students admitted. Colleges must also be accountable for graduating those students they accept. The real question is how all institutions of higher education can ensure that the Kevins of this country are afforded access to finishing college and earning a degree. If we believe that college access for poor and working-class youth and adults is an important vehicle for democracy to continue to regenerate itself, the entire nation must commit to changing our policies so that money does not continue to be an obstacle.

When my book came out and I had the opportunity to be interviewed on the radio and in the press. Some of my alumni heard me or read the interviews. I received a stunning email from one of them: “Thank you, Ms. Nathan, for giving voice to what I ‘ve been feeling all these years. I have felt like such a failure for my inability to finish college. I have been paying off those loans forever. There just hasn’t been a way back to school. I know I’m smarter than the job I have now, but without loan forgiveness, this is my life now.”

Another, Laura, told me that she could have been Kevin if it hadn’t been for an administrator on campus who intervened and made sure that she got housing after helping her get rid of the “hold” on her account. Laura had missed an email about needing to waive health insurance and so she was locked out of housing or enrolling in the next semester classes. The administrator wasn’t just any administrator, but a vice president. “They had to listen to her at the housing and enrollment offices.” But these issues of missing an email shouldn’t create such potentially devastating situations for students and yet they are all too common.

I have been asked: What can be done? What are the steps forward for creating better outcomes?

I write about many of the ways high schools could be strengthened to provide more support for their students. However, I am convinced that higher education institutions have a responsibility to find solutions to alleviate the financial constraints for low-income students, first-generation students and students of color. Here are my suggestions:

Release of transcripts. All college leaders could agree to release transcripts for courses that students already paid for. In this way, students would be able to hold on to some of the credits they had earned and not forfeit everything. In Kevin’s case, this would mean that he would have two years toward his college degree. I can already hear the protests from many higher education circles about how this enables young people. However, I can imagine a system where credits are released and then students are required to pay a little back each year over a period of time. But, holding all credits back ensures that the student will NEVER be able to return to college unless, like another of my alumni, they literally hit the jackpot and win the lottery. When I have asked college administrators about the rationale for not releasing credits already paid for, they return to the issue of students still owing money. They seem unable to separate money paid and money owed.

Success Offices. Colleges could commit to robust Success Offices with clear and continuous communication to students about deadlines and upcoming opportunities. The goal of these offices would be to ensure college completion of enrolled students. Imagine if during the regular orientation, students had the chance to work with trained personnel about financial aid deadlines, what you can choose to waive (like health insurance) and myriad other issues that crop up constantly for which many students are unprepared. Imagine if these offices were staffed with students who understand the invisible web that can trap low-income students too easily. Since finishing my book, I’ve learned about an organization called Persistence Plus that sends text messages to students asking them where they are planning on studying since finals are coming up, or whether they have checked in at the tutoring center. I’m intrigued by these online applications, and impressed with the positive data reported by the organization. Nevertheless, I argue in my book, that while individual effort is clearly important in college success, we should not let colleges off the hook. They too have a responsibility to help students persist and graduate.

Additional orientation sessions for first-generation students. As countless students told me, “the Success Office can only do so much.” My alumni explained that people in the financial aid office, student accounts, health … “all those places where we have to interact, also need to know that their job is to help us and not prevent us from graduating.” I was told over and over again that these offices need to hold regular and required meetings for their students—and that these offices and individuals need to communicate with one another.

Professional development in supporting low-income population. Colleges could collaborate on professional development focused on working with first-gen students for all employees who work in student accounts, financial aid and other areas. In addition to having good accounting skills, these employees could benefit from broad training in how to support low-income students in their college going years, including sensitivity training around poverty and immigration status. (An alum just called to tell me that the financial aid person on her campus as recently as last month referred to “illegal aliens” instead of undocumented students, or students without official papers. Terms such as “illegal alien” are actually hurtful to my students.)

Rethinking accountability for success in rating colleges. All colleges and universities should be required to publish data that reports graduate rates by “subgroups.” (“Subgroups” is the term used by the state to define non-white students, special education students, or students in poverty.) All pre-K-12 public schools’ test scores are reported annually in the newspaper and by the Massachusetts state Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education using such “subgroups.” Why is it that higher education institutions are not obligated to play by the same rules? A professor friend of mine at a four-year “second tier” private college tells me her president doesn’t want to release the scores of graduation rates for African-American students because they are so abysmal. This lack of transparency renders the crisis difficult to analyze and address.

Debt forgiveness. Higher education institutions could lobby the federal government so that loan forgiveness programs are widely adopted. Student debt continues to be one of the most serious ways in which low-income young people are trapped. Just recently, a Boston Globe article headlined, “Debt load hits black students hardest,” noted that “African-American students who started college in 2003-04 typically owed 113 percent of their student loan 12 years later. … By contrast white borrowers had paid down their debt and owed only 65 percent of the original amount, and Hispanic borrowers had knocked down their debt to 83 percent of the initial loan.”

Rethinking the role of Accuplacer tests in community colleges. It is clear to me that these tests are serving a harmful role in the advancement of young people. I would like to see community colleges eliminate them and use GPA, recommendations and transcripts for placement. In so doing, students can take “co-requisite” work alongside their college-level classes.

More investment in community colleges. As I have noted in my book, per-pupil expenditures in Massachusetts are abysmal. It is difficult to provide the necessary supports to the myriad students who attend community college. I would like to see community colleges offering more online, self-paced courses with more extensive supports for students than currently offered. I would also like to see financial aid cover developmental courses.

Competency-based college degrees. In my book, I discuss a program that College for America at Southern New Hampshire University is working on with Match Inc., the Boston-based public charter school. I think these programs need more analysis on outcomes for participants; otherwise, I fear that we are developing a two-tiered system. College for America programs began with a focus on providing bachelor degrees for employees at companies like Panera Bread, who wanted to move up in the ranks. But I am not convinced about the quality or depth of the coursework as compared with more traditional four-year degrees. Nevertheless, I would be intrigued by a pilot program that allows careful analysis of how students do in a non-time-based or credit-based system as compared with a more traditional one. For some students, I believe the results will be strong. Currently, I’m supporting a former colleague to matriculate and gain his bachelor’s degree after working for 30 years in the performing arts field. I believe that he makes a strong candidate for a competency-based degree.

If we implement some of these suggestions, we may have better chances of graduating students like Kevin. As Kevin reminded me, “We are sort of like the America dream. We are what this country is made from. And if we don’t make it, I can’t help but wonder if the whole country will make it.”

I couldn’t agree more. And looking at the current tax bills before Congress, I cynically wonder if we want more Kevins to graduate from college.

Linda F. Nathan is executive director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship and teaches at Harvard University and University of Massachusetts, Boston. She was the founding Headmaster of Boston Arts Academy. This piece includes excerpts from her recent book, When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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