Wednesday, December 26, 2012

College: Ticket For Upward Social Mobility or Widening the Gap b/w Rich & Poor?

Things are a little bit different when you have money.  When you're rich...wait I almost forgot, nobody wants to admit to being quote/unquote "rich."  Ok fine. Strike that.  What I meant to say was when you have money you have a general idea of how much of it is in your bank account, give or take a hundred bucks or so.  When you're poor, you know exactly how much money is in your bank account - to the penny.  You don't have "maybe 500 bucks" in the bank, you have "sixteen dollars and thirty-two cents" in the bank and it has to last until the 15th.  When you have money you go to the doctor regularly.  When you're poor you avoid any and all medical facilities unless you are dying - and even then you have to think about it.  When you have money, you own your home.  When you are poor you are behind on rent to the person with money who owns the home. When you have money and need to get some of it to a distant friend or family member in need you may wire it directly from your account to theirs.  Depending on the bank, this is typically done for free.  When you're poor you go to Western Union and pay $25 bucks to wire $25 bucks.  And speaking of bank accounts, when you have money you usually work for the type of place that does direct deposit.  When you're poor, the people at the neighborhood check cashing place -- who take a nice big bite out of each check you cash -- know you on a first-named basis.

And so it should come at no surprise that when people with money send their kids to college those kids have a completely different experience than poor kids.  Such a conclusion was reached (or rather reiterated) recently by the New York Times piece "For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in Hard Fall."  The piece follows three young women from poor families and reports on their respective difficulties as they attempt to navigate the college experience.  The results are somewhat predictable but the article raises a valid question about whether higher education truly serves as a social ladder for the poor or whether it merely serves to maintain the status quo of the American Dream Fallacy.   

From the NY Times:

Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.
“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”
Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.
Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.
The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.
“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”
The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.
Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.
While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead.
Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes. Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt. In placing their hopes in education, the Galveston teenagers followed a tradition as old as the country itself. But if only the prosperous become educated — and only the educated prosper — the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge. “It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.”
Also from the article:
Angelica reported that her mother made $35,000 a year and paid about half of that in rent. With her housing costs so high, Emory assumed the family had extra money and assigned Mrs. Lady an income of $51,000. But Mrs. Lady was not hiding money. She was paying inflated post-hurricane rent with the help of Federal disaster aid, a detail Angelica had inadvertently omitted.  
By counting money the family did not have, Emory not only increased the amount it expected Angelica to pay in addition to her financial aid. It also disqualified her from most of the school’s touted program of debt relief. Under the Emory Advantage plan the school replaces loans with grants for families making less than $50,000 a year. Moving Angelica just over the threshold placed her in a less-generous tier and forced her to borrow an additional $15,000 before she could qualify. The mistake will add years to her repayment plan.
She discovered what had happened only recently, after allowing a reporter to review her file with Emory officials. “There was no other income coming in,” she said. “I can’t believe that they would do that and not say anything to us. That seems completely unfair.”
Emory officials said they had to rely on the information Angelica provided and that they will not make retroactive adjustments.

1. Is College no longer a ticket for upward social mobility for the poor?  
2. Are colleges like Emory set up to cater exclusively to wealthy families?
3. Is student loan debt keeping the bulk of poor kids from obtaining a college degree?
4. Is the lack of guidance from poor families increasing a repetitious cycle which bars the poor from succeeding in college?
5. If you've been to college, what role has wealth (or the lack thereof) played in your own personal experience?

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