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Barring Gifted But Poor Students from College

I try to stay away from the New York Review of Books. It is a trap for aimless readers like me. I may enjoy a piece on the last Khan of Mongolia. But that makes me want to sample a letter about derivatives or a review of what Titian thought of Tintoretto. Pretty soon it's bedtime and I have forgotten to do important stuff like talk to my wife and watch "The Closer" on TNT.

Yet I couldn't resist a piece in the May 14 issue by Columbia University humanities professor Andrew Delbanco about the sorry state of American higher education. In most respects, it was a splendid analysis of what ails our universities: bad investments, recession, elitism, etc. But on one crucial point he lost me. That was his conclusion that "a great many gifted and motivated young people are excluded from college for no other reason than their ability to pay, and we have failed seriously to confront the problem."

I noticed he did not identify even one person to whom this had happened. Like many writers in the review, Delbanco was observing from the scholarly heights. His was a wide-angle view, full of national statistics and global analysis. That was one of the pleasures of reading the piece, to see all these issues in historical and social context.

What troubled me as I read his conclusion was this thought: In 27 years of reporting on urban high schools, the sort of places where you would most likely encounter gifted and motivated kids denied a chance at higher education because of money, I have never found a single student who fit that description.

If I had, it would have been a great story. An impoverished student with an A average who could find no way into college would have grabbed my editors' attention. Letters of indignation at our society's failings would have flooded the editorial page. Big checks and offers of scholarships would have poured in from businesses and colleges to ensure that this student realized his dream.

Maybe I am not nearly as a good a reporter as I think I am. Maybe I just missed those stories. At the end of this column, I will ask your help in testing that thesis. For the moment, however, let's put aside my inadequacies and consider what I have observed, many times, that is keeping potentially gifted and motivated young people out of college. It has little to do with their ability to pay.

Delbanco's conclusion rests on data from the 2002 "Empty Promises" report by the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. The study authors estimated that more than 160,000 students with annual family incomes below $50,000 were qualified for college admission but did not attend even a two-year community college because of financial barriers.

The report didn't identify any of those students either, and its data don't make Delbanco's case. The report's definition of college-qualified -- a 2.7 grade point average or an 820 combined math and verbal score on the SAT -- did not match Delbanco's portrait of gifted and motivated applicants.

I am convinced that the problem is not colleges putting up too many financial obstacles in the way of bright kids, but public school systems failing to give our many potentially successful high schoolers -- and their elementary and middle school siblings -- the academic skills and working habits they need to be ready for college.

Average reading and math achievement for 17-year-olds is like my patience with traffic jams: It has not noticeably improved in the past 30 years. Low-income students with good brains continue to perform poorly in large part, I think, because they attend high schools run by people who don't believe such kids can learn very much and who don't try very hard to teach them. Educators who do believe in their potential find it difficult to get the resources they need because too many policymakers, politicians, voters and taxpayers do not share that optimism.

When the poor but gifted and motivated students Delbanco describes materialize, they are treated like 6-11 power forwards looking for athletic scholarships. College recruiters underline their names. High school teachers load them up with awards. Counselors decide which of many interested colleges might be best for them. I can name scores of Washington area educators, and organizations like the DC College Access Program, who make sure students like that are not overlooked.

Staying in college is still a challenge for them, but at the moment we are assessing the notion that they can't go at all. Even in the worst of circumstances, their teachers and counselors find community colleges for them and help them stay on track to a four-year college. Doing anything less, given the rarity of such students, would be inconceivable to the educators I know.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, as Delbanco says, we are ignoring many accomplished but poverty-stricken young scholars. Help me test that theory. My e-mail address is at the bottom. Send me the name and contacts of any gifted and motivated students you know who have been unable to go to college because of money. If their stories check out, I will confess my ignorance, tell why this happened to them and help them get where they want to go.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com

By Jay Mathews  | July 27, 2009; 3:18 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
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Comments

Jay said:

"I am convinced that the problem is not colleges putting up too many financial obstacles in the way of bright kids, but public school systems failing to give our many potentially successful high schoolers -- and their elementary and middle school siblings -- the academic skills and working habits they need to be ready for college."

academic skills, working habits, and KNOWLEDGE

It's the knowledge, or content, that public school students lack. This needs to be addressed starting in kindergarten all the way through middle school.

Posted by: Nemessis | July 27, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

I was shocked at the small amount of material being taught by some teachers and how students could get A+s and master the material and then move on to Jr High where they were slammed with a lack of knowledge. Right now too many students are exceeding very very low expectations by clumsy teachers. While the previous poster talked about "public school" at college I felt the people least prepared went to Catholic school and some had straight As, but were stymied by the lack of religious classes that were easy As

Posted by: bbcrock | July 27, 2009 6:34 PM | Report abuse

Jay said:

"But on one crucial point he lost me. That was [Delbanco's] conclusion that "a great many gifted and motivated young people are excluded from college for no other reason than their ability to pay, and we have failed seriously to confront the problem.""

Delbanco seems to conclude that (1) there are lots of smart people who cannot afford college, and (2) there is a problem with this situation. Neither of these statements should confuse you.

Also, while I agree that "the problem is not colleges putting up too many financial obstacles in the way," extra-curricular activities like eating still cost money. Regardless, there more important barriers to higher education than the disparitiy between public/private high school students.

Posted by: moemoney5 | July 27, 2009 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Jay said:

"Low-income students with good brains continue to perform poorly in large part, I think, because they attend high schools run by people who don't believe such kids can learn very much ..."

I don't think teachers have access to such kids's income statements. Even if they did, I hope no teacher would assess a student's potential based on their tax bracket. And what about shy kids who never say what their dad makes/yr?

Posted by: moemoney5 | July 27, 2009 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Right on Mr. Matthews. Grades from schools with mostly poor students are basically meaningless anyway. I will always remember my algebra teacher in middle school who had the temerity to give out only 2 A grades in the class. She was despised for that, and parents complained, but I sat in class with those kids and they just weren't getting it. They probably needed to take the class again, and maybe the pre-algebra class again, but even she couldn't fail them all. She based the grade primarily on test scores, and many kids had been skating through the prior courses based on getting most of their grade just by turning in their homework every day. Grades should be almost 100% based on tests.

Posted by: staticvars | July 28, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, but I don't see how this could be a real problem. All college aid is either need or merit based. If you have both, you are golden. Anybody with a family income under $50,000/yr would qualify for a Pell Grant and all kinds of state aid, regardless of merit. If they could get accepted into a college, they would have no worries about how to pay for it. If they can't get accepted, then they aren't the "gifted" students that this guy was talking about.

Posted by: margaret6 | July 28, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Most financial aid is loan-based, not grant-based, margaret6. And most scholarship money can only be used for academic expenses (not rent, utilities, groceries, etc.).

Getting good grades does not give you a free ride! Instead of taking out more loans, students often hold jobs to make money. Even working part-time during the semester takes away from time studying or sleeping. I'm a broke college student and right now I'm saving money for textbooks.
I don't know anyone who pays their own tuition; they either go into debt or their parents pay the bill. However, lots of college students don't want to take money from their parents anymore, especially if they have younger siblings.

Sorry, but even gifted poor people are not "golden."

Posted by: moemoney5 | July 28, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Absolutely: content knowledge. I'd also add writing ability and study skills/organization. Far too few schools really teach writing, which includes grammar and spelling. Study skills aren't necessary in the usual school environment, since so little material is covered and so little expected on assignments. I also agree with the comment that grades should be based heavily on tests/quizzes/written work (including in-class compositions that don't reflect someone's else's input). It's intellectually dishonest to give an A to a student with nothing but Cs-Fs on tests and quizzes. That was in honors algebra II in an affluent suburban school, too. Educational malpractice would also describe it, if the education establishment acknowledged the concept.

Posted by: momof4md | July 28, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

The greater loss is not the gifted-and-motivated-with-no-money, but the not-so-gifted-or-motivated-with-no-money. There are many, many, many more kids who fall into this latter category. Upper middle-class, and upper-class kids who aren't terribly gifted or motivated often have school counselors who will track down nice colleges/universities that are good matches for them, and parents who can pay for their educations. They get four (or more) years to find themselves, and develop a career plan, and come out ready to find decent jobs.

Families without those resources can't buy four more years of growing-up time for their kids, with the result that those kids are all too often left to their own devices as far as career plans go. Far too many of them go exactly nowhere.

Posted by: contrarymom | July 31, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

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