The two playing fields are getting farther apart, again
March 30, 2009
I’m glad the NYT is covering this story about more colleges taking lack of financial need into account during the admissions processes this year. Students whose parents can foot the whole bill have a leg up at many places. Of course, at many places they already did, this year just a little more so. I can’t honestly say I know which is more cruel–rejecting students because there is not enough financial aid available for them to realistically attend, or accepting students when you can guess that your tuition is out of reach or a tremendous sacrifice. I’ve been down that latter road, and at the time it was pretty much heartbreaking. Fortunately for me, my parents were firm about the second mortgage they couldn’t take out, and I took a second look at my second choice, which had offered me generous funding. I got a great education and made wonderful friends.
While there are lots of good options for good students that don’t involve private school tuition, and the fact is the most college admissions stories can have a happy ending if you let them, I think it’s important to keep it in public view that students of the lower middle class or middle-middle class and students of the upper middle and upper classes have fundamentally different challenges when it comes to going to college. There are students who only have to get in, and there are students who have to get in and then get scholarships. This reality often manifests itself immediately after graduation as well. There are students who can go directly to graduate school with few worries about what will happen when their stipend just doesn’t stretch far enough for dental hygiene and students who don’t have that safety net. One group is encouraged to think about what’s possible and the other group is encouraged to think about what’s realistic. Now that educational loans are getting harder to get, the disparities are going to become even greater. We’re entering another period where it’s not even a question of whether or not you want to bet on yourself with the loans to go to the most prestigious school you get into, it’s simply going to be a question of how much cash you parents have on hand. Whole swaths of options are going to disappear for kids whose parents are not well off.
I know, I know–that’s life. Obviously, things can work out well or poorly for both kinds of student, and I haven’t even touched on the profoundly disabling effects for most students of a childhood in real poverty, but it’s important that the struggles of the real middle class not disappear, even when it looks like we are getting the same degrees and the same jobs. The barriers we face are real and long-lasting.