College is For Rich People

“It used to be that kids from the city couldn’t even sit in the Cadillac,”  the man behind the desk said with a proud smile. “They knew they had to settle for the Honda. Now, with some of these scholarships, they get to take the Cadillac for a test drive.”

He crossed his arms and leaned back on the flexible back of his chair as if he were dropping his microphone, or whatever the stuffy financial aid office equivalent is of dropping the microphone.

He loved his car analogy.

This was the kind of guy who wore short-sleeve button down shirts and spoke with a thick Pittsburgh accent. This was the kind of guy who understood his job and how financial aid works for students. Unfortunately, especially for the two high school students sitting beside me, he was not the kind of guy who understood how to be a decent person.

He thought the private Pittsburgh-area college that he represented was kind of a Cadillac, and he thought that some of the other public universities in the area were more like a Honda. It seemed appropriate for him to tell the two students beside me, both of whom attend a neighborhood public high school in the city, that they should be thankful that they are even getting to sit in the Cadillac. And, though it may be less important, he felt the need to take a shot at my fuel-efficient and generally practical Civic that had gotten all three of us to his office that day. It took some time, but I shook off his cheap shot at my Honda. I just haven’t been able to shake the other part of his statement as easily.

It bothered the students too. We stepped out of the office, and one of them started venting his palpable frustration.

“Boll- I might just punch one of these people in the face.”  

His anger was uncharacteristic, so I played along.

“I get that. Who should we punch? Maybe that guy,” I said as I nodded toward an awkward kid who was probably rushing toward his Freshman philosophy class. “We should be ready to run though. Which might make it kind of awkward when we have to stop at the little machine in the parking garage to pay.”

I was trailing off, acting like I was really thinking about how we would get away smoothly after we had fulfilled his desire to punch some innocent college kid in their unsuspecting face.

He is used to my games.
“Boll- I’m serious. Today would be the day I decide to go get some girl pregnant and dropout of high school. That’s how wreckless I’m feeling right now.”

“What! Some girl? You have a girlfriend! If your thinking about child rearing I think you need to discuss that with her first. Seems a little rash. Plus, if you punch somebody in the face- that could be an assault charge. Then your kid is growing up with a dad that dropped out of high school AND is in trouble with the law.”

I trailed off again, mumbling something with sarcastic annoyance about today’s generation. The other kid was laughing, so the angry one told us that he hated us both. We stopped playing around.

“What’s up man?” I finally snapped into adult mode. “Why are we punching people in the face and making questionable sexual decisions?”

“Did you hear the way that guy just talked to us? He basically told us that if you aren’t both rich and smart that you are out of luck for half of these schools”

I told him he was right, and that I thought the guy was kind of an ass. Then I told him that I thought the car analogy was annoying and I asked him to elaborate.

“We did everything right, we worked hard, we pushed ourselves, we got high SAT scores,” he counted the accomplishments on his fingers. “But if our parents don’t have money it’s over for us.”

He was right. He and his friend, two of the most amazing young men I have had the honor of teaching, had “done everything right.” They earned substantial scholarships to the school we were visiting. However, when all of their grants, loans, and scholarships were calculated, they were left with some difficult realities. When some students encounter this, they apply for what is called a Parent Plus loan. This is basically an easy way for a student’s parents to loan the money for them. If a parent is denied for that loan, there is an additional amount that can be added to their federal subsidized loans, but that still may leave them short of the money they need. Their only option then is a private loan. There are no private lenders giving loans to parents with bad credit or kids with no credit.

In short, if you are poor in this state, and probably this country, there are some substantial limits to where you can go to college. Both of these students have done well enough that they will be able to go to that school if they are willing to live at home, but this glaring disparity still remains.

This problem isn’t completely new to me. Earlier this year, a student from a previous year had called me to tell me that she was probably going to have to come home from a school in Philadelphia. She was doing well, had a strong GPA, was enjoying college, but she didn’t have the $3500 she needed to finish the semester. She wanted to get a loan, but couldn’t find a co-signer with the credit needed to get anyone to give her the money. With some luck, some generosity, and a GoFundMe page, that student was able to stay in school. But it was that conversation that led me to ask these two students this year if we could take a drive to a financial aid office to learn a little more. I didn’t want them to be stuck with a bill that would push them out of college.

According to people in all the financial aid offices that I have grilled in the last 6 months, this kind of thing happens every year. The lucky students realize it before they start, and choose another school. However, like the student from Philadelphia who called me this year, the unlucky ones get stuck at colleges with bills they can’t pay and come home with their transcripts being held ransom until they get the money.

So they pinch every penny, apply for every scholarship, and spend their nights at college crying on their dorm room floor wondering why this whole system that seems to work for everyone else isn’t working for them.

As is so often the case with injustice, our inaction propels this reality forward. We choose to believe, like I did years ago, that there are countless options for good students from low-income families to go to college for free. It’s a lie that is propagated on almost every comment thread in an article about access to college. This simply isn’t the case. There are certainly some options, but like the unsympathetic financial aid advisor, we are asking kids to settle for the fuel-efficient Honda, while the heated leather seats of luxury remain an elusive dream.

This unequal reality can be fixed. We have the money, and many colleges are sitting on massive endowments while they watch students grapple with $3000. We just have to decide that we care about this enough to get a little bit louder. Maybe that means we all go out and by our Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris shirt. Maybe it means we make some phone calls and some facebook posts. Maybe it means that when we visit colleges, we ask them how many of their students are PEL grant recipients, demonstrating their willingness to make it work for low income students. Maybe we could start by listening to this podcast, and the one after it.  

I hope it doesn’t mean that we keep starting GoFundMe’s and selling candy bars.