So here we are after five years of college conversations, endless videos and virtual tours, real tours, career exploration, AP hyperventilating, strategizing and ignoring strategy, 13 essays, frequent anxiety and unhappiness, a full-ride summer program, college classes in high school, and more in application fees than I care to think about: my kid’s going to the red-state flagship three miles away where I work. Waitlisted at a couple of top schools with major endowments, but most likely she’ll be here.
If the local U were as good as it was 18 years ago, and if it had maintained a similar price given inflation, I doubt we’d have put ourselves through all this. Years ago it was a bargain with excellent opportunities; after decades of state cuts it’s definitely not. But since I’m a single mom with below-median HHI and her grades are good, she’s been offered enough aid to make it a decent deal. (There’s no employee discount.) Since most of the aid is need-based, she won’t have to panic about her grades in order to keep the scholarship, and will have freedom to roam around trying things, also enough money for a summer internship somewhere and a study-abroad summer, and unless things really go sideways she’ll come out without debt. There’s an honors program and she’s in it, but it’s pretty low-stress, too. Also, since she’s not interested in STEM, doesn’t want to be an academic, and almost certainly won’t have $150K+ for grad school, there’s no reason for her to panic about grad school admissions. She’ll probably be going BA → work, and if she does go back for more school, the reason will probably be clearly vocational and possibly employer-funded.
I’m not altogether sorry we went through this, though. It’s been a real eye-opener for her, and a less dramatic one for me.
For her: we live in a college town that’s a last vestige of 20th-c middle-classness, with lots of public everything. The only private high school is a Catholic school – the public schools are fine, so no one bothers (we can leave the achievement gap for another discussion). Recently the city gave me a very low-interest loan so I can put solar panels all over my roof and install other green equipment, we’ve bought electric buses that will probably be free to riders, and people who could drive to work ride them. There’s a lot more inequality than there was 20 years ago, and the racism is now on full display, but there isn’t overtly exclusive anything. Nothing is gated; there aren’t private swim and golf clubs. Her friends are dual-doctor-family kids, immigrants’ kids, single moms’ kids, farmers’ kids, it’s a mix. There’s huge participation in local government, and the local U has an admit rate of over 80%.
So to run up against a system as starkly demarcated by wealth and privilege as college admissions are has been a shock, and she sees that this has effects that last far beyond college. She sees that to get to the elites, you need some combination of wealth, an excellent-to-spectacular resume of a type that comes with a wealthy childhood, and box-ticking qualities that happen to be useful to the elite schools at the moment. While she saw into that world in her summer program – she was the only kid there who wasn’t wealthy – and has read about it, this was shaking hands with the real thing.
She also sees that the elites and expensive specialty programs are feeders into the internship and grad program pipelines to exciting places where a bright kid might want to have a career: newsrooms, federal offices, prestige arts arenas, city biz skyscrapers, research universities, etc. It’s a real societal stratification, and it’s pushed her politics further left.
I’ve told her it’s possible for a kid to go from state flyover flagship to one of these places, but if the kid isn’t rich and doesn’t have well-connected family wherever she’s trying to go, the odds are tough. Either she’ll be competing with kids from elites or she’ll be trying to make something new. So if she’s ambitious, even if she just wants to get out and go somewhere else, she’ll have to fight long and hard and be very clear about what she’s after. I’ve seen that much from the employee side: you get these very bright kids, first-gen usually, they have no idea how to pace themselves, no real clue where they’re going, and no people waiting for them on the other side. All the profs and admins want a piece of them because they’re rewarding to teach and lucrative to show off, and if they’re not super-focused and rock-steady they implode.
As for me, I’ve worked in higher ed for years, went to elites, friends went to elites (some came from working-class families, some started out rich), and I thought I knew the game. But I only sort of knew the game. The “act like a business” idea in a lot of academia is amateurish, but in undergrad admissions it’s a pro game. That’s a tight machine. The way those slices fill, Questbridge, ED1, EA, ED2, RD…that is some finely calibrated stuff. It’s made me question my approach in education. Part of what I do here has to do with first-gen and immigrant kids, making explicit the societal codes that gate opportunity in academia, in professions. Important for the upwardly mobile. But I’m newly appreciative of how tightly the top quintile – less than that, really – have those things locked up again for themselves and their kids, and am wondering if I actually do my students a service by teaching them to do these gavottes. I rather suspect that I do not. What I’ve seen through this process says to me that to an extent much greater than I’d appreciated, the doors to anything on an elite level are closed to the kids who aren’t already in. Maybe what I need to be teaching isn’t “how are you, individual student, going to get there and get in,” but “how are you and your peers going to force them to notice you and take back access to that territory.”