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For Poor Students, Barriers To Higher Education Are Many

The front-page story in The New York Times grabbed my attention. Citing the work of education researchers, the article said that the nation’s 238 most selective colleges are failing to attract talented low-income students. Even though these students have a better chance of graduating from selective schools than from the local community college, many don’t even apply. They pre-empt their own chance at success, and reinforce the stubborn inequality that is shackling America.

The story implied that this was a college admissions problem, a case of schools not trying hard enough to recruit and retain students with the right qualifications but the wrong background. I knew it was more than that.

“People make it out to be so simple. It’s not just recruiting. There are so many other factors,” explained Joan Mazzotti, executive director of Philadelphia Futures, an innovative not-for-profit that mentors and supports promising students in the city’s tough, comprehensive public high schools, giving them the tools and resources to succeed in college. My husband and I volunteered with the organization for years, and it exposed us to the enormous, pervasive barriers facing students for whom higher education is a brave reach, not a birthright.

Mazzotti listed some of those challenges: Students who are the first in their family to go to college often face social isolation on campus. Even with generous financial aid, they struggle to have enough money. Even with the extra classes and tutoring offered by Futures, they often are under-prepared in class. And they bring with them intractable family problems rooted in poverty and social dysfunction.

We saw this in the two students we mentored. Though they lived near Center City, their experiences were shockingly proscribed. One had never been to a zoo. Or a sit-down restaurant. Or seen live theater. Or met a Jew. Taking the SAT was a rarity in their neighborhoods, whereas it was an inescapable, recurring pasttime among my own children’s peers at Jewish day school. And rarely did their public high schools provide adequate support — Mazzotti said the average guidance counselor has at least 400 students.

Affirmative action in college admissions? These students don’t have a level playing field in ninth grade.

Futures does an extraordinary job of helping students, and its record proves it: Mazzotti projects an 80% college graduation rate for the high school class of 2009. But this is labor-intensive work, with at most 50 Futures students in each grade. And while they are encouraged to reach for selective schools, Mazzotti stresses the larger imperative of the “right fit,” arguing that the worst outcome is for a student to leave an expensive college before graduation with a mountain of debt.

The students we mentored were resilient, ambitious, hard-working and fine human beings. It is a stain on America that they have to struggle so hard for what some of us take for granted.

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