5 Ways College Screws Over Poor Kids

Ah, College: America's great equalizer, according to Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education. College is the mechanism by which anyone can be elevated to greatness, given that your average college graduate will earn $1 million more over their lifetime than someone who doesn't attend. A million dollars! A million! Then again, kids from rich families are eight times more likely to graduate college than kids from poor ones, so maybe the college degree didn't play as big a part in that as you thought.

The truth is, college is a really great opportunity for a really small part of the population to get a chance to get ahead. But if you're below a certain income bracket, it's a bit more complicated. Why? Well...

#5. Colleges Go Out Of Their Way To Discourage Poor Kids From Attending

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Some of you may be shocked at the idea that poorer students aren't getting a fair shot, because it seems like college campuses are just chock-full of special treatment for them: They got the FAFSA applications, Pell Grants, Work Study opportunities, and all kinds of need-based scholarships. The problem is that a lot of poorer students get choked out of these opportunities during the application phase -- not by being denied admission but by being hit with "admit-deny."

Admit-deny is when "schools deliberately underfund financially needy students in order to discourage them from enrolling," according to Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation. Acceptance letters usually come with an explanation of how much financial assistance you'll get based on your financial need and academic record -- and, right now, two-thirds of private colleges and one-third of public schools are deliberately offering poor students less than they need so they don't attend. Why? To deal with budget problems: Colleges need money, and the easiest way to get money is to bring in more rich kids who can pay full tuition, and the easiest way to get more rich kids is to tell more poor kids to fuck off. Exacerbating the problem, college tuitions have been steadily climbing, more than doubling across the board since 1982, after you account for inflation.

"But all the college applications say they're 'need-blind'!" Sure, and that pudding container says "instant," but I don't have any pudding when I open it up, do I? Turns out "need-blind" is sort of a myth. Colleges can work that way only if they have endless financial resources, and there aren't too many colleges like that.

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You are unlikely to see this on a budget report.

Colleges are one big gear in the machine of income inequality: They both need it to function (because without the wealth gap, there wouldn't be enough rich kids to keep colleges afloat) and they keep it functioning (if colleges were less selective, the upper-crust wouldn't have the leg up they need to stay the upper-crust).

And speaking of a leg up ...

#4. Rich Kids Get More Financial Aid Than Poor Kids

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"OK, but this is just a harsh reality," some of you are probably saying. "Not everyone gets a fair shot. But the fact that we're giving financial aid to poor kids at all is a step in the right direction, right?" Yes, it absolutely would be -- if students from wealthy families weren't getting most of the financial aid.

Turns out that, for most schools, the majority of financial aid is awarded for athletic and merit-based reasons, not need: One school investigated was giving only a third of its financial aid to needy kids, and another gave just 16 percent. Turns out financial aid is less about giving people a chance who otherwise wouldn't have one and more about rewarding kids for having good grades and being good athletes. Which, statistically, means kids who come from wealthy families in the first place.

And if you think there's nothing wrong with awarding money to kids based on their kick-ass grades, well, there isn't -- except that's not what happens either. According to Don Hossler, a professor of educational leadership, these "merit-based" awards are given out strategically, and the strategy is all about finance: State colleges look at their own academic standings and the academic standings of some smart out-of-staters (but not too smart, because they don't want to have to offer them a lot of money) and factor in the kids' parents' financial situation, figure out the least amount of money they need to give to get them to attend, and then throw the money at them as a "merit-based" scholarship. But the figure they arrive at is not merit-based at all: It's strategy. Which is why that article above has this haunting quote from an anonymous industry insider talking about public universities: "They won't admit it, but they're all looking for the same thing -- smart students who can pay."

Look, it's obvious to say that it's easier to go to college if your family is rich, because everything is easier if your family is rich. But it seems like the system is specifically designed to make this effort gap as big as possible. And it gets worse, because ...

#3. The More Prestigious The College, The Fewer Poor Kids Allowed

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Harvard University is famous for being where they invented Facebook. It's also the richest college in the country: With cash and investments totaling $43 billion, it leads the pack of colleges known as "The Doity Foity," a group of 40 colleges that hold two-thirds of all the college money in the country.

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I made up that nickname, but everything else I just said is true.

But even though The Doity Foity have the most money, and therefore the most resources to invest in their students, they also have the fewest number of low-income students: Only 16 percent of their students receive Pell Grants (federal student aid available only to low-income students), while in the general American studentry, 36 percent are recipients. And every year these colleges get a bigger endowment, more resources, and admit fewer low-income students. Right now, for every 14 wealthy kids at an Ivy League school, there is one student from a low-income family. These are the places where Facebooks get invented, and poor kids aren't even allowed inside the door.

Of course, this whole thing is broken from the other side too: A recent study found that smart poor kids don't even bother applying to The Doity Foity because they don't think it's worth the application fee: Why bother applying when, even if they get in, they won't be able to afford it?

And now we're getting into the really messed-up part, because it turns out that ...

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