One of the worst things I’ve seen in a long time has to be the videos of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner being murdered. As an educator I can’t help but see dozens of current and former students in the eyes of this picture of Tamir. His light eyes, free smile, staring ahead as if in his future he could be anything at all. And yet we forget that for a black kid like Tamir in this country, living past 12 was too much to hope for.
I teach kids a little older than Tamir, and this week, this horrendous week that is clearly beginning a long-overdue national revolution about race and the different lived experiences of Americans of different colors and creeds, my students just applied to college. How does this apply to Tamir? If we consider education the right of every citizen and the best way to even the playing field, we have to remember that Tamir’s legacy is about a system that perceives him as always being black and guilty, set up to keep him poor and in his place. The paradox of US poverty is now almost impossible to escape. This system includes our schools.
A couple years ago I wrote about a student of mine with a 4.2 GPA who didn’t end up going to college. Her parents needed her financial support in their household, and they were also “allowing” her to raise her siblings. She had just enough money she saved herself to apply to one private school, but her total debt would have been over 60,000 dollars in just four years (over 90% of students graduate in five years BTW). Many readers couldn’t believe it. They thought a kid with a 4.2 in this country always goes to college. That just isn’t true anymore. Like my last post, which went viral on Facebook, many of us from dominant culture have no conception of how to see those who live in poverty, nor can we see their very real struggles.
In particular, those on the right, with their mantra of “personal responsibility,” love to pretend like we are all playing on a level field. Many white males are blind to the privilege of being a white male. These recent murders of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner highlight this problem more that any words I could say. That is why it is important to hear the stories of the people in this country who do not have the same access to the American Dream we all seem to think is available to everyone. The college application process is a perfect example of this.
Right now I am in the process of helping dozens of desperate seniors navigate this complicated, elitist quagmire. They are mostly low-income kids who are minorities. They are making lasting decisions throughout every minute of this process, and I can’t help but point out to you that almost all of them revolve around systemic inequality.
First of all, in California, applications for the CSU (California State University), UC (University of California) and private schools are all North of $60. There are four waivers available if you qualify for CSU and another four waivers for UC/Private, but this system is flawed to say the least. What this means is that if you are dirt-poor you can only apply to four or eight colleges. This may seem like a lot, but it isn’t. At my Alma Mater, UC Davis, the AVERAGE GPA of the accepted freshman class this year was a 4.25. We’re not even talking about Cal, UCLA, or Stanford. Ivy League schools are even more competitive and their applications can be over $100.
So poor kids get eight chances to play the game. Assuming the computer believes they are poor. At times the online waiver application seems downright arbitrary. I have students with absolutely no money in the house who don’t qualify for any other reason than they click “submit” and it tells them “sorry”. There’s no redo, there’s no appeal. They look down at their lunch of Hot Cheetos and Soda (which is the same thing they had for breakfast) and wonder what the word “poor” means. Then they start wondering how they’re going to get $60 so they can at least apply to ONE school.
Then I have kids who don’t have a computer at home, which makes it hard to do online applications. That’s right. There are people out there without computers or the Internet. If that surprises you then admit it: You don’t know a single poor person, do you?
The lower middle-class is even worse off in the college application process. They don’t qualify for ANY waivers, and therefore have to come up with $300 or more to apply to four or five schools. If their parents had this kind of money laying around every month these kids wouldn’t be at my school in the first place. I teach at a public school in the ghetto ranked a 4 out of 10 on greatschools.org. The irony is that the really poor kids with 8 free applications have a remarkably small chance of being eligible to go to college in the first place because of their lived experience as a poor minority (bad schools, poverty wages, no upward mobility, institutional racism, a government that would rather pay for prisons than schools). The kids a little higher up the socio-economic ladder have a little bit better chance of being in a position to be eligible for college by the end of high school but can’t afford to apply to more than one or two schools. How’s that for a paradox?
This is why every year I pay for the applications of a few students who can’t afford to apply to college. You want to help a kid in a real way? Go to your local high school and tell a counselor you want to pay for the applications of a couple kids. I bet they can find some students for you real quick.
Here is a good illustration of the institutional inequality low-income kids have to overcome: I recently attended a Latino education conference in which a representative from UC Davis said the biggest unknown reason Latinos (and others) are rejected is the rigor of their senior year schedule. I pointed out that if we are serious about giving low-income underrepresented students a chance, we also need to do something about the cost of the application. Latinos and blacks are under-enrolled in our colleges because they can’t afford to pay for enough college applications. I see this every day I go to work.
But this is where institutional bias comes in: If low-income minorities aren’t getting into colleges because of the rigor of their senior year schedule, whose fault is that? Really it is the fault of the adults advising those students and not the students themselves. It is a problem WITHIN the system that is failing these students. If they are in a position to apply to a school like Davis, which is one of the top 10 public colleges in the nation, that means they were probably in a position to take a full load of AP classes their senior year if they had known they were supposed to. So aside from the cost of the applications, and the quality of the schools and teachers (we know low-income kids are MUCH more likely to have inexperienced, un-credentialed, or ineffective teachers and counselors), they also don’t have enough support in the complex, daunting world of college applications.
So with the deadline for college applications recently come and gone, let’s remember my student who isn’t going to apply to any CSUs because his online application for fee waivers was rejected even though he is very, very poor.
Let’s remember my undocumented students who have 4.0s, because they’ve been working their asses off in the only country they’ve ever known, who aren’t allowed to apply for federal financial aid (FAFSA). Let’s not forget what the word “meritocracy” means.
Let’s not forget about my students with 4.2s who aren’t going to college at all.
Let’s remember, the students I’m helping are playing a game of hope. They are applying to as many schools as they can afford to (which are far less than affluent students), and then they are going to fill out FAFSA and hope they get a good package. If they don’t get a good financial aid package, they won’t go to college.
Let’s not forget about the fact that even if they make it through, these kids are going to be SADDLED with debt while competing in a job market where wages are stagnant, people won’t hire you if your name is Jose, but if you take the “s” out they will; if you’re a black male you can’t even go pick your kids up from school without someone calling the cops on you; where all the gains since the recession are going to the top 1%; where we spend more money on wars than it would take to pay for everyone to have a free college education. Let’s not forget we haven’t seen this kind of inequality since just before the great depression. Let’s not forget that we have the worst upward mobility of any developed nation.
Above all let’s not forget about Tamir Rice, who never got the chance to apply to expensive colleges or ask his mom to save for the expensive applications, who was shot down 1.6 seconds after that police car came to a full stop.
Let’s not forget that the College Dream, and the American Dream, has never been more unattainable if you are poor. And if you are black, you may not even live long enough to realize it was never available to you in the first place.