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...
Colleges Go Out Of Their Way To Discourage Poor Kids From Attending
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.
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 ...
Rich Kids Get More Financial Aid Than Poor Kids
"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 ...
The More Prestigious The College, The Fewer Poor Kids Allowed
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.
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 ...
Minority Students Are Getting Especially Screwed
Every few years a group of dudes somewhere -- usually in Texas, if we're being honest -- decides to launch a scholarship specifically for white men. The idea is that if we have scholarships just for African Americans, just for women, and just for people who made their prom dress out of duct tape, then why not have one for white dudes? Welp, there are two simple reasons they're wrong: One, there are a lot of scholarships available (and specifically) for white dudes, and second, non-white minority students are getting totally shafted when it comes to their college careers.
Let's back up: The whole reason federal student aid for low-income students exists is because the federal government realized that income-inequality is bad for the country and wanted to give everyone an even shot, so on the off-chance that the guy or lady-person who invents the cure for cancer or gum that that can be blown into a pants-shittingly huge bubble is born in Detroit, they'll still get the opportunity to go to college and get a job working on cancer. Hence, student aid -- but it turns out that this isn't working, because a recent study found that students who receive Pell Grants (remember, that's the money that goes to only low-income students) end up having to borrow more money for college than those who don't, meaning they get even more hampered by student loans as they're trying to get out there and get to work on that cancer.
What's this have to do with minorities? It hits them the hardest: Research found that when it comes to job searches, an African American with an associate's degree is roughly on an even footing as a white guy with just a high school diploma. So, statistically speaking, any given black student has to hobble his future with $20,000 worth of student loans just to get the same shot as the white guy who skipped out on Chemistry to smoke pot behind the bleachers.
Of course, this gap shrinks with more education: The more advanced a degree you get, the less your race impacts your earning and job acquisition potential -- but that's kind of the point. When a whole chunk of the population is denied the chance to take that first step, we never get to see how far they would've gone.
But we all have to deal with the consequences.
Poor People Need College More
Here's a fascinating article at the Washington Post that reiterates something I heard a lot when I was going to college: It doesn't matter so much where you go (for undergrad, at least) or what you major in -- what matters is that you graduate. Building the relationship with mentors and peers, learning how to work hard and network, and getting that slip of paper with funny Latin writing on it are the real important parts. What that paper actually says doesn't matter, because, again, it's written in Latin.
"This is just a transcript of that scene from Tombstone."
And that's true! Provided you're white and middle class.
If you're a minority, or poor, or (heaven help you) both, the rules of the game are totally different. In those cases, where you go to school and what you study absolutely make a difference in how much money you make, primarily (the article assumes) because people in those groups don't have the same connections and advantages. So, basically, the poor kids are getting shoved out of college campuses to make room for people who don't even need to be there.
And you'll see this reflected in major choices: Kids from poorer backgrounds are far more likely to choose a practical major like Education, Computer Science, or Law Enforcement, while kids from wealthier backgrounds get silly degrees like English, Communications, or History. Now, before you Communications majors get all defensive (I know how you are), just keep in mind the point this makes about how college works: How seriously you take it means a hell of a lot less than how seriously people take you. And you have precisely no control of that.
For more from Sarge, check out 5 Reasons Everyone Getting Married Can Suck It and 5 Lifehacks For Living With A Terrible Attention Span.