A student of mine is crying. It should come as no surprise to most people who know me – there seems to be a lot of crying in Room 12, most of it incited by such inflammatory questions as, ‘How are you?’ Maybe it’s the lack of windows.
She’s crying because she came to speak with me about her schedule for next year. She wants to add an extra AP course, and doing so would push her schedule around so that she would need to do a class as an independent study – essentially, as a post-hours course.
I ask her why she wants to do this; her response is to boost her already impressive GPA that much more, to better ensure she can obtain admission to a university that will, importantly, pay for her to attend.
This particular student was struggling with what many extraordinary low-income students struggle with: attending college for free or not attending at all. She’s crying because she knows how much work this extra class will be, and that she already feels the weight of a seemingly impossible demand – to gin up the approximately $200,000 she’ll need to attend college.
Yes, student loans exist. I cannot in good conscious counsel such a student into shouldering 10 to 20 years of such burdens. If current trends continue, her generation will have more student loan debt than any previous, with the graduating college class of 2015 saddled, on average, with more than $35,000 in debt. (The average in D.C. is even higher.)
Nor can I counsel her to forgo college altogether. Women, particularly women of color, generally need to earn a bachelor’s before they out-earn their white male counterparts with high school diplomas. Unemployment sits at 2 percent for those with bachelor’s degrees, and more than double that for those only with high school diplomas.
Such advice would be an insult to this student. We all have students like this – students for whom we want to open every door, or rather, students for whom we want to shake the world so that doors that open easily for others rattle open for them as well. And here she was, valuing herself by fractions of a number that, ultimately, could but should not determine her outcome in life.
Here was a student who, despite having gone above and beyond what any adult could reasonably expect from her, came to value herself for only what she could accomplish in very narrow terms. And here I was complicit in that valuation, because for her, those terms dictated her future.
I’ll be the first to admit that I ask a lot of kids. I want them to know and to be able to do things, to read critically and write passionately and science the snot out of things, to paraphrase The Martian. I want them to accomplish more than they thought themselves capable of, to walk on the hot coals of their own intellects, to dream and to think and to do beyond the four windowless walls of my classroom.
Most teachers I know bristle at the labeling of students that our seemingly perpetual state of testing engenders. We define educational attainment through a tiered labeling system that lauds some students as ‘advanced’ and damns others as ‘below basic.’ Why not be honest, and label students ‘haves,’ and ‘have-nots,’ since those labels are essentially proxies for students’ socioeconomic circumstances? The United States’ PISA scores reflect this: If you examine only low-poverty schools, the US’s rankings jump from ‘troubling’ to ‘remarkable.’
We can soften these terms even further and designate students not ‘college or career ready,’ without, of course, answering the more difficult question of what we as a society have done to make them more college and career ready.
What, then, does my crying student have to do with all of this? She has likely scored ‘advanced’ on every test given, an exception to an unfortunate rule about students living in poverty. I am lucky. I teach many such exceptional students.
What strikes me about the interaction is that hers is the American dream in microcosm: The idea of bettering yourself through perseverance and good humor, to be justly rewarded for effort. And all of her work, her effort, might be meaningless if the universities she’s applying to take her income-level into account in her application. Not every college is ‘need-blind’ - that is, many colleges have to balance the challenge of having a diverse incoming class with their own financial concerns - and with recruiting students who otherwise would attend more prestigious universities through ‘merit’ scholarships. These scholarships disproportionately go to upper-income students.
Taking on a low-income student is, in many ways, taking on the cost of that student’s education, so colleges can sometimes reject otherwise worthy applicants due to the fact of their circumstances alone. The reality is that even ‘need-blind’ schools can discern if a student is low-income or not based on other materials in their application. As an administrator for enrollment management told the Hechinger Report: “All of those things conspire against a kid who doesn’t have a college counselor who knows him, who doesn’t know you have to proof the essay seven times, doesn’t know he has to get on the track for AP courses. Every single factor in that file screams privilege or wealth or poverty or lack of opportunity.1”
In essence, through her success - she did proof her essay and took numerous APs - she’s working to conceal who she is in the hope that a college will not weigh her qualifications against the cost of her education and find her wanting. We should be celebrating the accomplishments of such a student rather than telling her to hide herself. What could be more valuable, more American; than this: Working to overcome, to dream boldly, to envision a better life for yourself and to labor toward that?
And yet, we tell her to hide, to diminish, to minimize, lest her exceptionality is not be found to be exceptional enough. We celebrate authenticity, so long as it’s not authenticity that might be expensive or demanding. The reality is that socioeconomic mobility is a rare thing, and that college acceptance, and college attendance and graduation are not one in the same, particularly for low-income students. Not every ‘need-blind’ college that admits students offers enough aid to cover their education. Approximately 92 percent of public universities are need-blind, but only 32 percent fully meet students’ financial needs. (The numbers are worse for private colleges - 82 percent are ‘need-blind’ but only 18 percent meet full need, and many are moving away from being need-blind to stay fiscally solvent.)
So, after working twice as hard, she may get half as far - and our current system looks at the the load she took upon herself and adds another weight to that burden. No wonder she’s crying.
We have a generation facing staggering debt, an economy increasingly divided between those who have and those who don’t, and a waning public commitment toward remedying these disparities, particularly in terms of public funding for college. I’m cognizant of the fact that the world isn’t fair, though I bristle when it’s said frequently and flippantly by those with their thumbs on the scale. Of course the world isn’t fair - we made it that way.
We are complicit in systems that pore over each application with microscopic detail, that leaves exceptional, extraordinary students asking if they’re enough, and yet fail to apply those same standards to ourselves. We allow a system in which we fail to meet the needs of children, from the one in five children who is food insecure to the two-thirds of public college students whose financial needs aren’t met, then wonder why our test scores are low and our debts high. We evaluate them over and over and over, without answering more difficult question of when we’ll stop evaluating students and start valuing children.
If I had an answer to what it’s important to teach students, it’s this: You are more than the labels and designations society gives you, more than circumstances that you’re born into. Dream. Strive. Walk on the hot coals of your own intellect.
We made a bargain; if you work hard and pursue happiness, you’ll be supported, rewarded, celebrated. We have, in most meaningful ways, failed at holding up our end. If there’s anything to teach you, it’s that the world is unfair and the only way to make it more fair is to reshape it. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry that you have to.
What happened with my crying student? She didn’t take the extra class. She did get into a top-choice college, one with need-blind admissions. It’s too early to know how her financial situation will shake out, and I hope that the university meets her financial needs. She’s got the right tools for her future, and a drive and motivation to achieve whatever she wants to – and now, possibly, the money with which to achieve it. She’s both talented and deserving, two things we have a tendency to confuse with ‘lucky.’ I have to believe she’ll be fine.
It’s the rest of us I’m more worried about.
1. Marcus, J. (2015, December 18). How one top college bucked a trend to take more poor and nonwhite applicants - The Hechinger Report. Retrieved May 30, 2016, from http://hechingerreport.org/how-one-top-college-bucked-a-trend-to-take-more-poor-and-nonwhite-applicants/ ↩
Sydney Bergman teaches biology, AP Biology, and research at School Without Walls SHS, a public magnet school in Washington, DC. She is a recipient of the Rubenstein Award for Highly Effective Teaching and the Kim Foglia AP Biology Service Award. She holds leadership positions at her school and in D.C., and is a STEM Ambassador for the DC STEM Network. In her (ha!) spare time, she reads, writes, cooks, obsesses about sports (Let’s go, Nats!) and Hamilton, and co-parents the world's most poorly behaved cat.