By Sarah Farbman
Lies we let our students believe:
All colleges are created equal
If you work hard enough, you can do anything
“There is this thing. It’s called the meritocracy.” This is how I started one day, a few months ago, when I was trying to explain college rankings to two high school students I was working with.
“It’s the idea that if you work hard enough, you will succeed.” This particular instance aside, I don’t usually discuss sociology with my students. Our conversations tend more toward essays they have or have not written and what I found the last time I looked at their grades.
“We like to think that the United States is a meritocracy, a level playing field where the best outcomes go to those who have worked the hardest. This idea is half true at best.” On some level, my students already know this. They have watched mothers and fathers, tíos y tías, brothers and sisters work 50, 60, 70 hours a week and have only just enough for rent and food, nothing for their aching backs and blistered feet. They have seen classmates with straight A’s get pregnant, as if life weren’t hard enough. They have seen fellow honors students get shot. They have seen suicide attempts; they have attempted suicide.
During the 2017-2018 school year, there were 640 seniors at the school where I worked, 70 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced lunch. Based on the number of seniors who filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, by the deadline that year, I could estimate that about 15 percent of the senior class of 2018 had college ambitions. 15 percent. What will the other 544 students do after graduation? How will they find a way for their own future children to not need free or reduced lunch?
There is a large suburban high school near where I grew up. According to the Chicago Tribune, 97 percent of the graduating class of 2017 matriculated at a college or university. These students will have a significantly better chance as adults of achieving some level of financial security and the mental and physical health that comes with it. You would be hard-pressed to argue that numbers like these are the result of hard work on a level playing field.
“But some people, a few people, do rise through the ranks of the meritocracy and succeed,” I continued. “In fact, the myth of the meritocracy needs these exceptions in order to continue. Because members of the upper classes in this country can look at people who climbed and clawed their way out of poverty and say, ‘See? People in this country work for what they have and deserve what they get.’”
As I talk, I am thinking of the case of one particular meritocracy success story that I know very well.
My father grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a truck driver. He was the first in his family even to start high school, much less graduate. My father is a board-certified neurologist with three advanced degrees. Eighteen years into his medical career, armed with financial success and fiscal caution, my father was able to pay full tuition to put me through an elite liberal arts college.
Lies our students believe, despite what we tell them:
Being a doctor/engineer/lawyer is an accessible career for all of you
You can do it alone
Turns out, a big part of my job that year was managing expectations. The mission of the nonprofit organization that I worked for is to help academically-minded students from low-income backgrounds get to and through college. The chapter that I worked in started in 2012 in a failing high school in Colorado. My predecessors recruited goal-oriented students and carefully cultivated college ambitions in them. We had help: the optimistic mythos of our culture leads many students to dream big. Please do not mistake me: dreaming big is incredibly important. It gives folks hope and forms the bedrock of any chance students in poverty have of leading a financially comfortable life as adults. But it can be dangerous when the narrative that young people buy into does not reflect their reality.
Four years into the program, my job was sometimes about directing expectations the other way. Despite low test scores, despite poor grades in math and science classes — or high grades in very poor math and science classes — despite never having personally known a doctor, many of my students dream of being physicians. They will enter college the same way they entered high school, far behind their peers from better-performing schools and unaware of it. They don’t realize, for example, that college Algebra, the math course the best math students take as juniors and seniors at their high school, is just another name for Algebra II, the class that the best math students in other high schools take as freshmen, or sometimes even eighth-graders.
I sat down one day with Q, an undocumented senior who says that she wants to be a doctor. In this culture steeped in optimism, it feels strange to look an ambitious young woman in the eye and say, you can’t. But Q is in no way a dazzling student. Her mother already works back-breaking hours trying to put her older brother through school, so there’s no money there. Without legal status, Q isn’t eligible for the government aid that most of my students rely on. How can she afford to embark on an incredibly competitive, arduous, lengthy and expensive journey that will most likely result in failure at some point along the line? I listed other careers in the medical field and implored her to research them.
A lie we let our students believe:
College, that great American equalizer, exists to help each and every one of you break the cycle of poverty
In-state tuition at Colorado State University costs $26,000 per year. That’s a new car every year, for four years in a row. That’s more than many of my students’ parents file on their taxes as income for an entire year. On a recent tour to CSU, I learned that the university has a forty-person hot tub. It’s new.
Let’s not forget that American colleges and universities are businesses. To a certain extent, then, I suppose we can forgive them for running as such. In order to keep their doors open, colleges must attract full-pay students, who, along with the school’s endowment and other funding streams, help to subsidize their less-wealthy peers. In order to attract these students, colleges and universities play into the arms race of newer and nicer and bigger and better amenities. And in order to pay for those, colleges must continually raise their tuition.
When my students fill out the FAFSA, the numbers are so low that the applications look fake. Yet the financial aid packages they are offered, even to public schools, often leave gaps that can make higher education inaccessible to them, even with the scholarships we help them find and apply for.
Truths we don’t tell our students:
There is more to learn in college than what’s on the syllabus
Students from more well-off backgrounds have an invisible toolbox that you don’t
I sat in a coffee shop one day, gazing over my shoulder, hoping it looked like I was studying the menu. I was listening to the table next to me. At first glance, I would have said that the man was 20. His posture folds him in on himself slightly, and I pegged him for an art student. As I listened to their conversation, it became clear that I was slightly off.
“I haven’t heard from CU yet,” he was telling the girl across the table. He named some friend who had already been accepted to the University of Colorado’s flagship school. This worried the man, whom I now thought of as a boy.
“But,” he said, “My mom called them. This whole thing is really wigging her out, and that’s wigging me out. But she said they said we’d know by April.” The girl nodded. It was unclear if she was in the same position or if she was maybe a year older.
I ‘decided that I didn’t want anything’ and turned my attention back to my computer as their conversation began to drift. My mind wandered to A, one of my seniors. I am consistently amazed by how together A has it. She schedules her own dentist appointments. She leads cross country practices and wins speech competitions. She gets her younger siblings to school every day.
We were trying to communicate her financial situation to CU so they could give her financial aid. But her case is not simple. Her mother doesn’t work because she cannot hold down a job. Consequently, she does not file taxes. The family’s primary source of income seems to be child support from A’s father, who is an undocumented immigrant and also does not file taxes, and child-support from the father of A’s siblings.
Naturally, a case like this arouses suspicions. We just needed mom to disclose her social security number to her own daughter and sign a few forms so that CU would offer A a financial aid package that might give her a shot at financing a college education. But mom wouldn’t. Mom doesn’t like forms, doesn’t trust strangers. It would seem that mom didn’t want to let her daughter go and had found a way to keep her close, or at least make her departure much more difficult.
How far could A, an incredibly smart, charming, level-headed and responsible human being, go, if her mother were like the mother of the boy in the coffee shop?
Things our students believe which may or may not be true:
Your test scores are competitive
You will be the one to achieve your parents’ dreams
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Even once our students get to college, a degree is far from guaranteed. At Colorado State University, only 65 percent of students who matriculate graduate within six years. At Adams State University, another public university in Colorado, the six-year graduation is only 32.1 percent. It cannot be the case that one in three students at CSU and two in three students at ASU simply are not working hard enough. Students at these institutions drop out in alarming rates because they do not have the preparation needed for the rigor of a college education or they do not have the academic, cultural or financial support they need to finish school. And the costs of dropping out — debt, shame— are high.
Let me be very clear. Hard work works for some people. My father, for example. But my dad had some advantages. His parents were citizens. He stood no chance of getting pregnant. He’s white. When I talked to him recently about this very topic, my father suggested that my definition of success may be short-sighted. Sometimes, the journey from empty fridge to full bank account can be achieved over a couple generations. And of course this can happen. And, of course, it doesn’t always happen.
But the danger in the myth of the meritocracy is not that it is categorically correct or incorrect. The danger is that this narrative encourages us to look at individuals — were they smart enough? Did they work hard enough? Do they deserve it? — rather than the systems and patterns that allow members of certain demographics to routinely flourish while members of other demographics are an anomaly if they attain the same levels of success.
The question policy-makers and concerned citizens should be asking is not how to mold enterprising, low-income kids so that they fit through the narrow bottle neck that is higher education and manage to squeeze themselves into the middle class. The question needs to be how to make certain middle class privileges — fluent literacy, for example, or not having to ration your toilet paper — accessible to everyone.
The answer is not hard work. We need higher education that is culturally and financially accessible and high schools that prepare students better. We need an acknowledgment that four-year universities are not for everyone; some folks would be better served by a trade or vocational path. And an acknowledgement that there are deep, structural obstacles standing between many members of the lower class and financial security. But deep down, I suspect that reforming the education system, and even more, narrowing the gaps between social classes, has nothing to do with better teachers or more money for books and everything to do with a deep commitment to a drastic and lasting cultural shift. Frankly, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. But I don’t plan to tell my students that.