The Arcane Rules That Keep Low-Income Kids Out of College

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The labyrinth surrounding scholarships and admissions doesn't account for the messy realities of poor families' lives.

walker-high-top.jpgScenes from a college fair (O. Perry Walker High School)

One spring afternoon, O. Perry Walker High School Principal Mary Laurie made her way to the school's courtyard, where a lone student sat at a picnic table with a large stack of papers in front of him and a frustrated look on his face. Laurie recognized the student as a shy senior with one of the highest GPAs in his class.

The documents, it turned out, were all from Tuskegee University. Tuskegee had accepted the 18-year-old, offering him a full scholarship. But they required a $500 deposit within the next few days if he wanted to secure his spot. The student had no idea what to do.

"If that's where you want to go, let me know," Laurie said. "I'll try to get the five hundred dollars."

The student said nothing.

"You want to go to college, baby?" Laurie asked gently.

The young man nodded and wandered off, a confused look on his face.

If one of Walker's top students was struggling to navigate the college-admissions and financial-aid maze, Laurie worried about how less-motivated students were faring. Earlier that winter, she had decided Walker needed to do a better job helping its students sift through the process. Now she saw how far the school still had to go.

Walker employed two college counselors, but they had their hands full helping caseloads of hundreds. Laurie wanted someone to create a comprehensive data system so the school knew, at any given moment, how many of its students had taken the ACT, been accepted into colleges, and qualified for the state's main college scholarship program, known as TOPS.

Data had not always been Walker's strongest suit. More intangibly, Laurie hoped to do a better job ensuring "everyone was speaking the same language" when it came to college admissions and financial aid.

She hired Andrea Smith Bailey, the wife of assistant principal Mark Bailey, to help with these new tasks. Andrea, who was finishing a master's degree in counseling psychology, began working at Walker part-time. But her job could have kept a team of full-time employees busy.

Creating a data system was the easy part, even though new information about college acceptances, ACT scores, and grade point averages poured in daily. Translating the "language of college" proved far more difficult. The labyrinthine rules and processes surrounding scholarships, loans, and financial aid did not account for the messy realities of poor families' lives.

One senior, for instance, qualified for a state scholarship that provided full tuition at a two-year technical or community college. The student couldn't access the money, however, because he lived on his own and had no parent or guardian to sign for him. Bailey tried to register him as "homeless" so he could sign his own forms.

She discovered it took mountains of paperwork even to qualify as homeless--particularly since one of the boy's grandmothers had falsely claimed him as a dependent on recent tax forms. "We have a lot of kids who just don't fit in the federal government parameters of what's a family, what's a parent," Bailey said.

The scholarship parameters also weren't designed with a thorough understanding of what low-income students are up against. TOPS promises qualifying students a free ride if they earn a 2.5 grade point average and score at least a 20 on the ACT. But the scholarship fails to cover numerous expenses, and this keeps many low-income students from even starting college.

One Walker student planned to attend Louisiana State University through a state scholarship. But the grant did not cover the $150 he needed to get on a wait list for a dorm room, or the housing deposit. Bailey delved into the student's financials, trying to figure out when his next paycheck from Taco Bell would clear so he would not miss the deposit deadline and find himself homeless in Baton Rouge.

The communication barriers extend in all directions: The federal and state government bureaucrats little fathom the complexities of low-income students' home lives. But the students, most of them first-generation college aspirants, often do not understand what a "loan" or "interest rate" means--much less how to make sure they maximize their TOPS and Pell Grant payouts if they qualify for both. (For reasons that were nebulous to Bailey, some students receive full payments from both while others do not.)

Bailey had worked as a family case manager for Habitat for Humanity between several education-related jobs, a position that frequently required her to delve into clients' finances. Several times, she encountered applicants with outstanding student debt who never realized they had even signed for a loan. She grew convinced Walker needed to include "college-going skills" as part of its curriculum. And senior year was too late to start those conversations.

She discovered it took mountains of paperwork even to qualify the boy as homeless--particularly since one of his grandmothers had falsely claimed him as a dependent.

Even Walker's best students struggled to find their way through the financial aid maze. The student bound for Louisiana State University, for instance, had previously considered Morehouse College, an all-male, historically black institution in Atlanta. He asked Bailey if he could borrow her phone one morning "to make a couple of calls about college scholarships."

Bailey agreed, and a few minutes later she heard him asking someone at a college in New York for a scholarship to Morehouse. Bailey put the pieces together after some investigating, realizing the student had read something about a college in New York that was giving out scholarships. He had assumed that meant they were awarding grants to any college.

"He was just trying to do whatever he could," she said.

Walker had already forged a strong relationship with one beleaguered local university, Southern University at New Orleans. Several of the school's graduates enrolled there each year. Unlike others who dismissed SUNO as subpar--a destination only for those who could not get in anywhere else--Laurie saw the historically black university as a viable option for many of her students. In her eyes, the school's proximity to students' families, homes, and support networks was an asset for many. "This is a small town," she said. "People don't always leave."

***

Arriving upstairs one morning, Walker's upperclassmen encountered a gigantic banner from SUNO. Peppy university cheerleaders wearing short skirts in the school's gold-and-blue colors greeted the Walker students with smiling faces at the recruiting fair.

It was Walker's first SUNO Day, part of the growing partnership between the two schools. Table after table offered students information about the university's admissions and financial aid, degree programs and extracurricular activities, along with free giveaways including Skittles packets and coin purses. Staff from both Walker and SUNO wore T-shirts honoring the two schools' mascots. The leaders of both institutions--SUNO chancellor Victor Ukpolo and Mary Laurie--circulated in the background, lending the event an official air. Laurie paced behind the tables where Walker students gathered information, shouting each time they approached a dean or official, "Ask those critical questions! Ask those critical questions!"

SUNO is a part of the Southern University System, the only historically black university system in the country. The school opened in 1959 during the last gasp of school segregation--a final victory for advocates of Jim Crow. Construction began two years after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education declared that separate was not equal.

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Sarah Carr is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the book Hope Against Hope.

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