The Fantasy of Achievement
In the article, author David Zax—who graduated from Yale in 2006 and who says that he is a typically well-to-do Ivy League alumnus—is careful to clarify that it is the “high-achieving” poor student that Yale desires. Like most elite universities, Yale has a very specific view of what that means: high GPAs in “demanding” high schools and extraordinary character-defining extra-curricular activities. By the time I applied to Yale, I had been groomed as a scholarship student in majority-affluent feeder schools to succeed in conditions that guaranteed healthy GPAs. My attentive teachers in small classes delivered a curriculum that emphasized critical thinking skills, leadership capacity, and participation in mainstream institutions. Athletics and creative activities, studying in well-resourced libraries, and sessions with a seasoned well-connected college counselor were all required of me. Unsurprisingly, these nurturing environments allowed me to gain the credentials elite universities require. By society and the job market, I continue to be seen as a “high-achiever” in essence because I was never set up to fail.
No other kid from my block in East Flatbush was so lucky. At their truly public schools (not charters, not magnets, but common schools available to every family in the neighborhood), they routinely faced atrocious conditions including gun violence, overcrowding, and a curriculum that emphasized obedience over innovation. As outsiders to the college-prep “feeder system,” which includes a small number of competitive high schools including Philips Academy and Trinity, the students who persevere despite these formidable demands and manage to graduate, are rarely seen as “high-achieving” by schools like Yale. From the perspective of prep schoolers who have no grasp of the challenges presented by economic scarcity, the Collegiate Honor Roll Lacrosse captain easily surpasses the Benjamin Banneker High B+ student who lives in a shelter and works at Target after school to help out her single mother and younger siblings. The fantasy that all young people are running the same race blinds many university trustees, administrators, and admissions committees to the reality that they undervalue students who always have to run uphill.
The Rarefication of the 'Low-Income' Family
My family was only poor by Yale standards. Although my father was incarcerated when I matriculated, my mother was highly functioning, held a white-collar administrative position in the federal government and owned her own modest condo. In his article Zax notes that 69 percent of this year’s freshmen are from families with annual incomes of over $120,000. However, the median U.S. household income is $52,700. Rather sizable groups of Americans who are both well below the median and experiencing income declines include people who did not graduate from college and Southerners. Given that elite universities increasingly view themselves as global institutions, it is also worth mentioning that the international median household income is $10,000.