By Miranda S. Spivack
Sunday, August 8, 2010; W05
They are the great equalizers, the nation's public universities, many of which offer a relatively inexpensive, high-quality college education for students of diverse backgrounds and financial means.
That's how Wheaton High School's Julie Castaneda is going to have a chance at the American dream. Julie, the daughter of Latin American immigrants in blue-collar jobs, graduated this past spring from Wheaton High School's engineering program and will soon head to the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where she hopes to continue her engineering studies. Most of her tuition, room and board will be paid through grants and her earnings from a part-time job. Her parents plan to buy her a laptop but won't be able to contribute much else.
Neal Lerner, a graduate of Wootton High School in Rockville, also will head this fall to a public university: the University of Maryland at College Park, where he plans to study business. His parents, both college-educated professionals, will handle many of the expenses, and he will contribute to his living costs.
Julie and Neal were profiled in a story that appeared in the magazine's April 2009 Education Review about the challenges high school students of all backgrounds and financial means face trying to get into college. College admission has gotten progressively tougher in the past two decades, partly because of demographic pressure from the baby-boom echo (the children of post-World War II boomers) and partly because some high school students apply to many more colleges than previous generations to enhance their chances of getting in.
Studies show that children of college-educated parents tend to do well in the race to college, but students whose parents may not be as familiar with the process also can manage if they get help from supportive adults.
Neither Julie nor Neal navigated the application morass on their own. Getting help is pretty standard these days, says Nancy Leopold, a founder of College Tracks, a nonprofit group that assists low-income students at Wheaton and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools with the applications and financial aid paperwork. Many, like Julie, are the first in their families to go to college.
Neal, who follows two older brothers to college, knew a bit more about how to get ready for college entrance exams and fill out applications. But unlike Julie, he and his family were not eligible for need-based programs, such as College Tracks, which provides free advice and exam prep to students who otherwise could not afford it. Instead, like many middle-class families, Neal's parents paid for several weeks of tutoring.
Both students won many honors during high school and were accepted into several colleges. Both also have summer jobs: Neal in the bag room of a golf course, and Julie as a receptionist at a doctor's office. They recently attended their college orientations.
"We got to spend the night in the dorm and signed up for classes. It was fun," said Neal, who also met with his academic adviser.
Thanks to advice from an engineering professor, Julie hopes to room with other aspiring female engineers. "It will be like having our own learning community," she said.
She also says she will try to get home often on weekends to visit her parents and three younger siblings. She has never even been on a sleepover at a friend's house. So far, the longest she has ever been away from family is three days.
"My parents are very strict," she said, with a shrug and a smile.
Read the original story: The Admissions Gap