Imagine two young adults who, despite living in the same city, come from very different worlds.
One is named Ethan—a freshman at an elite college near Austin, Texas, pursuing a degree in engineering. He grew up with supportive middle-class parents who put him in extracurriculars his whole life: Boy Scouts, soccer, track, orchestra. Instead of letting Ethan watch TV and play video games, his dad took him on hiking trips to New Mexico where they would track bears and practice navigation. His father also volunteered as the school orchestra’s bus driver. Ethan’s mom, meanwhile, strived to raise an engaged citizen; she even helped him register to vote when he turned 18.
Then there’s Nicole, who also lives in Austin—though in an area far less inviting than the spacious private housing development where Ethan was raised. At 18, Nicole is a single mother who works in the kitchen at a three-star hotel making a wage that’s hardly enough to cover food, diapers, and clothes from Goodwill. She recently borrowed $9,000 to help pay for a year-long program at a for-profit college, but whether that degree will get results—whether she’ll even complete the course—is debatable.
Unfortunately, it’s hardly surprising that Nicole wound up at this point. She grew up poor—her father worked as a garbage collector, and her mother as a hotel maid and waitress—in a neighborhood that was so dangerous she couldn’t play outside. Instead of hiking trips and and soccer games, Nicole spent her afternoons watching TV at home alone. As a sophomore in high school, after spending her freshman year popping pills with other girls to fit in, Nicole joined the dance team. But that was short-lived: With uniforms and travel for competitions costing $800 annually, she had to quit after a year because her family couldn’t afford it. She eventually wound up pregnant by a man who later became abusive.