The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Students on both ends of the economic spectrum face challenges in college

Actress Lori Loughlin at a federal court in Boston on April 3.
Actress Lori Loughlin at a federal court in Boston on April 3. (Charles Krupa/AP)
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Barry Glassner is an author and former president of Lewis & Clark College. Morton Schapiro is an economics professor and president of Northwestern University.

Many of the students repopulating campuses at the nation’s most selective colleges this time of year grew up at opposite ends of the income ladder. One group comes from low-income communities and often from families in which they are the first to attend college. They typically pay little or none of their tuition and living expenses. The second group: children of privilege, usually coming from families with generations of college graduates. They typically pay full tuition. 

The first group has had limited opportunities to succeed. The second has seldom been allowed to fail.

If the recent “Varsity Blues” admissions-bribery scandal showed the disturbing lengths to which some wealthy parents will go to ensure that their children are admitted to top schools, a couple of statistics make clear the limited resources of families at the other extreme. In 2017, 2.9 million households with children were “unable at times to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children,” according to the Agriculture Department. In the 2015-2016 school year, 1.4 million students in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools were reported as homeless, the Education Department reported. Those disadvantages don’t miraculously disappear even when some beat the odds and earn admission to a name-brand school.

Colleges need to do more to properly serve both the advantaged and disadvantaged groups. As professors and administrators who have worked with both populations of students over many years, we know something about the challenges they face.

When colleges admit low-income students but provide insufficient financial support and mentoring, they set them up for failure. And when colleges allow well-off students to sail through to graduation without experiencing any setbacks, they do them a disservice by leaving them unprepared to cope with failure in the world beyond college.

Most first-generation students attend under-resourced high schools. Few have had the opportunity to take Advanced Placement college-level courses, writing-intensive classes or science classes with well-equipped labs. If they come from homes in which no one had previously attended college, they’ve heard little about how to choose classes, find internships or successfully reach out to faculty who could guide them. While many of these students come from low-income backgrounds, some students from middle-income families face similar challenges.

But ironically, privileged students are challenged by their backgrounds, too. How can they be expected to learn resilience while growing up when so many forces have shielded them from failure? Their parents might have hired tutors and private guidance counselors. The elite public and private high schools they attended likely made it next to impossible to flunk a course, as the schools’ reputations depend on how many of their graduates get into premier colleges.

How should colleges approach students with such disparate experiences?

For first-generation students, provide pre-college bridge programs that help fill in for what their high schools couldn’t afford to offer. Go beyond financial aid to ensure that no student is food insecure or cannot afford winter clothing or business attire for job interviews. In this era when unpaid summer internships have become almost mandatory for post-collegiate success, replace the summer earnings that the students and their families depend on; taking an internship then becomes feasible. And pair the students with specially trained advisers who can help them navigate both the academic and social terrains. We have found an eagerness among alumni, donors, professors and staff to contribute generously to such efforts. 

For students from affluent backgrounds, motivating them to take classes or choose majors in which they could fall short isn’t easy. Their parents might well disapprove, and veering from what seems like a clear path to success goes against everything they’ve experienced before college. 

But the world in which their parents thrived is slowly vanishing. Artificial intelligence, robotics and the likelihood of not just multiple employers but multiple careers are transforming the future of work. Colleges need to prepare these students for flexibility and failure. Young people should be required to take courses in which failure is part of the learning experience. Steer engineering students to enroll in improv classes, and persuade creative writers to take a coding course. If the possibility of lower grades scares away students or alarms their parents, allow the courses to be taken pass-fail. 

Majors that attract large numbers of upper-income students, such as pre-med, might build these experiences directly into the required curriculum. Take seriously Michael Jordan’s observation: “I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

The relatively brief but essential time that students spend in college might be the first and last opportunity they’ll have to live and work beside people from markedly different socioeconomic backgrounds. It is the duty of colleges to find the particular way that each can be helped to succeed in school and in life after graduation.

Read more:

Robert J. Samuelson: Here’s how to fix the college admissions system. Warning: You might hate this.

Meghan Kruger: We shouldn’t be doing more on college admissions. We should be doing less.

The Post’s View: The college admissions scandal should prompt broader soul-searching

Elizabeth Bruenig: The college admissions scandal isn’t fair. Nothing about our social mobility system is.

Molly Roberts: The college bribery scandal is all about a myth