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Education Opinion

Counting the Cost

By Susan Graham — January 18, 2010 3 min read
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When I laid out my concerns about Houston’s YES Prep program, the issue that concerned me most was not the loftiness of the vision, but rather to question to whom that vision belonged. My question is whether we fully consider the potential damage that can be caused by imposing our own dreams and ambitions on impressionable young people. I must admit that I was surprised that no one accused me of not having “high expectations for all learners.”

So, since no one else asked -- I’ll offer the question I expected from others of myself: “Should any student be denied access to college?”

No, college is an opportunity to enrich the mind and the pocketbook. I liked it so much that I keep going back. In my dream world, I’d spend my first year of retirement at Oxford. But we are more likely to hear the argument that it increases the odds for a better income and thus, “entrance into the middle class.” The promoters of college-for-all regularly reference the 2002 report based on data drawn from the 1998 census That study projects average lifetime earnings of $2.1 million for college graduates. The earnings of a high school graduate are projected at $1.2 million. Those holding an associates degree could expect to earn $1.6 million, while the average high school graduate’s projected income was $1.2 million. The study does not attempt to address other factors that might impact the attainment of lucrative employment such as personal goals, ambition, or connections to the larger community.

That an inner city minority student, the son of a hard working carpenter, could go to Cornell because he set high goals and worked hard certainly embraces the American Dream. Like Rocky Balboas of the classroom, we want to to see these students buck the odds, Stand and Deliver, and show proof that Yes, We Can.

That’s all great, but it is a huge jump from “no student should be denied access” to “every student should aspire to enrollment in a four-year university upon graduation from high school.”

As I read about the YES Prep seniors and their quest, I noticed that there seemed to be a pattern of applications to out-of-state and private colleges, and I wondered about that. I noticed that one student spoke of an out-of-state school as her “back up.” As we know, private and out-of-state enrollment greatly inflates both the cost of tuition and the peripheral costs that come with being farther away from home. Would it be so awful to go to Rice University or even my alma mater, the University of North Texas? Of course, there is financial aid, and FAFSA applications were part of the Senior Seminar. And, yes, these are minority students from low-income families who are likely to qualify for Pell grants. But then I read

Pell Grants now cover only about a third of the average costs at a four-year public school, compared with 42% in 2001-02 and 57% in 1985-86. The same trends can be seen for four-year private schools, where the grants now cover only 14% of expenses, compared to 26% in 1985-86. The Congress last increased the maximum annual Pell grant in 2003-04, when it was increased by a mere $50 to $4,050. Meanwhile, college costs (average published tuition, fees, and room and board [TFRB] charges) at four-year public colleges are up by about 25% from five years ago.

Does this explain the push toward privates? Some of the most prestigious schools practice need-blind admission policies and have large endowments that can be tapped to bridge the financial gap. But all over the country, public high schools, charter schools, and even private prep school scholarship students are competing for acceptance to the same schools. And the “need-blind” policies may be shifting. It was discouraging to read in The Washington Post that

[W]hile about two dozen of the country’s top-tier colleges and universities -- schools such as Harvard and Princeton, Williams and Amherst -- are maintaining these policies and, in a few cases, expanding their financial commitments to low- and moderate-income students, at schools just below this tier, admissions are becoming more “need aware.” These schools are now making some admissions decisions with an eye to an applicant’s ability to pay, and some are unofficially reserving new seats for those who can pay full freight.

I hope everyone one of the YES seniors get into the school of their choice. I hope everyone of them gets all the funding they need to go there. I hope they beat the not so great statistical odds of college completion and all graduate with honors. I hope that after graduation they fulfill the Youth Engaged in Service vision and come back to make Houston, Texas a better place where more children will be able to achieve their dreams and build a better life.

But I fear that with the best of intentions, caring and committed people sometimes impose their dreams on young people without calculating the price of making dreams come true. Sometimes our vision leaves us blind to repercussions and even potential harm that could result from our attempts to do good.

I do not say these things lightly because I speak from personal experience. I hope that next week I can summon the courage to tell you about Rosemary, my former student, for whom I had a dream.

I meant well.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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