One of the supposed principles of the American university system is that it offers equal access to everyone regardless of their background, income, or personal circumstances. Racism, we are told, died long ago, along with sexism. No one today would be discriminated against for any overt personal characteristics, so discrimination must be dead.
In reality, this is a half-truth that serves to obscure the reality of what getting into college is actually like for many people of lesser means. Without a roadmap ahead of them, and without the natural support structure that a family with experience in the college system would have to offer, poorer students sometimes face double and triple disadvantages as they try to advance in a system that was designed to hold back people like them.
This fantastic article from the New York Times attempts to shed light on the experiences of these disadvantaged students as they try and chart a course for their future. There are a few lessons from this piece that I think educators should keep in mind, especially high school teachers, because they’re the ones who are going to be seeing that kids like these get access to enough education to succeed in the world.
First, teachers should know that college genuinely isn’t for everyone. My high school bragged about the fact that every single student in my class was accepted to a four-year bachelor’s degree program, but this just isn’t a realistic expectation for every student. Additionally, it’s not even necessary to obtain a bachelor’s degree for most students, because they have specific aspirations that require vocational training instead. In short, teachers shouldn’t feel like failures for not sending absolutely every student to college, and they should try to nurture the interests of those students who are very clearly disinterested in college. They may be forced out of the school system altogether if they feel like they don’t have a choice beyond a four-year university, whereas embracing their separate interests can help give them a reason to stay in high school and pursue a higher degree.
Another thing that teachers should know is that, for many kids, educators are the only support system available. There are too many kids today who are still waiting to be the first in their families to go to college. As the article mentions, the college application process is growing more and more complicated, and not having relatives who know how to navigate that process is a big challenge for many kids. Educators should always keep in mind that things that might seem simple to them (writing a resume, drafting an essay, or filling out a financial aid application, for instance) can be daunting. It’s the job of the teacher to combat inequality wherever it is, and the college application process is a big hurdle to full equality.
The most important thing for educators to do for kids who are graduating high school is to make sure that they have bright futures. This can look different for different kids, but I think that anyone who wants to go to college should have that chance, and the secondary school system should be doing everything it can to foster those opportunities for kids.