When we think about college in this country, top-tier institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford come to mind, in part because there is no shortage of media coverage of college rankings and admissions at the top. In the last couple weeks alone there were two separate stories about high school students who got accepted to all eight Ivy League schools. On April 5, 2017, CBS News reported “17-year-old New Jersey teen accepted into all 8 Ivy League schools,” and CNN posted “North Dakota teen gets accepted by all 8 Ivy League schools.” On the same day, news outlets posted a story about four brothers who were accepted into Harvard and Yale as a “package.”
Coverage of the means that students from wealthy families employ to secure admission to these bastions of privilege and opportunity is also ample. In “How I Learned to Take the SAT Like a Rich Kid,” a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, a student from a family with a modest income provides an illuminating peek into how the rich train for admissions to our nation’s most selective institutions—like athletes training for competition. We have read enough articles, profiles, and interviews to know about the private schools, expensive tutors, test-prep services, private college counseling agencies, and experiential learning opportunities, such as gap years, that the wealthy routinely deploy to assure admission to the hallowed halls of our nation’s most exclusive colleges and universities. But we have little sense of how the rest of America, particularly students from low-income families, experiences college.
Portrayals in the press or popular media of college for everyday Americans are few, even though 5 million students—close to half of all the undergraduates in America—are enrolled in our nation’s community colleges. While these students’ family backgrounds and the educational experiences that precede college may lack the glamour of wealth and privilege, their quest for a college education and upward economic mobility is no less compelling than their upper-income peers’ efforts to get into a handful of highly selective colleges.
One story need not replace the other. It’s a question of balance. Alongside stories about the efforts that the most privileged students in America put into distinguishing themselves from each other to get into their colleges of choice, we should see stories of what it takes for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to get into and stay in college. We need to hear about how the millions of community-college-bound students go about assessing their skills and career interests and selecting the college options that will allow them to earn a degree that can help them get a job and begin to climb the income ladder. Real-life stories.
The decision points that economically disadvantaged students face when trying to make smart choices about college are intriguing and complex. What programs of study are right for them? When and where do they get their information about what to study? How do they prepare for college? What do they do if they are assessed as academically underprepared? What supports are available to help them earn a degree? Which programs are best if they want to transfer to a four-year institution? Which degrees are best if they need to get a job right after college? What does it take to stay in college when life intervenes? Most of these students have only one shot to get it right. Do-overs and stop-outs lead to dropouts.
More media attention directed to how low- and moderate-income students navigate college would bring some reality to our popular imagination about what higher education looks like for millions of people. Such coverage would help give Americans at the bottom rungs of the income ladder more information about what they might do to make smart choices about college to maximize their probability of moving up. If there were more attention on the college experience of the many and less of a fixation on the few who attend our nation’s elite colleges, students from low-income families might have a more realistic sense of how to make the most of their shot at college. Stories about academic superstars and the most privileged students make for entertaining reading. But it’s time to balance these entertaining stories with ones that increase public knowledge about how economically disadvantaged students can make the most of their more limited options to earn a degree.