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Jay Mathews: Do You Know a High-Achieving Student Kept From College Over Money?

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By Jay Mathews
Monday, July 27, 2009

Itry to stay away from the New York Review of Books. It is a trap for aimless readers like me. I may enjoy a piece on the last Khan of Mongolia. But that makes me want to sample a letter about derivatives or a review of what Titian thought of Tintoretto. Pretty soon it's bedtime and I have forgotten to do important stuff like talk to my wife and watch "The Closer" on TNT.

Yet I couldn't resist a piece in the May 14 issue by Columbia University humanities professor Andrew Delbanco about the sorry state of American higher education. In most respects, it was a splendid analysis of what ails our universities: bad investments, recession, elitism, etc. But on one crucial point he lost me. That was his conclusion that "a great many gifted and motivated young people are excluded from college for no other reason than their ability to pay, and we have failed seriously to confront the problem."

I noticed he did not identify even one person to whom this had happened. Like many writers in the review, Delbanco was observing from the scholarly heights. His was a wide-angle view, full of national statistics and global analysis. That was one of the pleasures of reading the piece, to see all these issues in historical and social context.

What troubled me as I read his conclusion was this thought: In 27 years of reporting on urban high schools, the sort of places where you would most likely encounter gifted and motivated kids denied a chance at higher education because of money, I have never found a single student who fit that description.

If I had, it would have been a great story. An impoverished student with an A average who could find no way into college would have grabbed my editors' attention. Letters of indignation at our society's failings would have flooded the editorial page. Big checks and offers of scholarships would have poured in from businesses and colleges to ensure that this student realized his dream.

Maybe I am not nearly as a good a reporter as I think I am. Maybe I just missed those stories. At the end of this column, I will ask your help in testing that thesis. For the moment, however, let's put aside my inadequacies and consider what I have observed, many times, that is keeping potentially gifted and motivated young people out of college. It has little to do with their ability to pay.

Delbanco's conclusion rests on data from the 2002 "Empty Promises" report by the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. The study authors estimated that more than 160,000 students with annual family incomes below $50,000 were qualified for college admission but did not attend even a two-year community college because of financial barriers.

The report didn't identify any of those students either, and its data don't make Delbanco's case. The report's definition of college-qualified -- a 2.7 grade point average or an 820 combined math and verbal score on the SAT -- did not match Delbanco's portrait of gifted and motivated applicants.

I am convinced that the problem is not colleges putting up too many financial obstacles in the way of bright kids, but public school systems failing to give our many potentially successful high schoolers -- and their elementary and middle school siblings -- the academic skills and working habits they need to be ready for college.

Average reading and math achievement for 17-year-olds is like my patience with traffic jams: It has not noticeably improved in the past 30 years. Low-income students with good brains continue to perform poorly in large part, I think, because they attend high schools run by people who don't believe such kids can learn very much and who don't try very hard to teach them. Educators who do believe in their potential find it difficult to get the resources they need because too many policymakers, politicians, voters and taxpayers do not share that optimism.

When the poor but gifted and motivated students Delbanco describes materialize, they are treated like 6-11 power forwards looking for athletic scholarships. College recruiters underline their names. High school teachers load them up with awards. Counselors decide which of many interested colleges might be best for them. I can name scores of Washington area educators, and organizations like the DC College Access Program, who make sure students like that are not overlooked.

Staying in college is still a challenge for them, but at the moment we are assessing the notion that they can't go at all. Even in the worst of circumstances, their teachers and counselors find community colleges for them and help them stay on track to a four-year college. Doing anything less, given the rarity of such students, would be inconceivable to the educators I know.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, as Delbanco says, we are ignoring many accomplished but poverty-stricken young scholars. Help me test that theory. My e-mail address is at the bottom. Send me the name and contacts of any gifted and motivated students you know who have been unable to go to college because of money. If their stories check out, I will confess my ignorance, tell why this happened to them and help them get where they want to go.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com


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