Inequity also found on the path to college
Students in under-funded districts don’t get same college readiness resources as wealthier districts
By EMMA RESTREPO |
February 27, 2022 at 8:00 a.m.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of four articles written by Emma Restrepo, reporter for the disParities Media Project of Children First.
Ivianna Littles graduated from Norristown High School in 2017.
The road was not easy. The stress levels were high — bullying from classmates, a grandparent’s death, a father’s alcoholism, the financial struggles of her single mom who had Ivianna at 16 years old.
Littles had a good relationship with her teachers and principal at that time. She had a mentor in a group called Young Scholars, which supports students from all kinds of circumstances, seeking to guide them towards higher education. That group helped Littles surmount what she calls a “generational bar,” not having parents who finished high school.
Once it was time to apply for college, she experienced more stress, along with some success: “I applied for over 30 scholarships. I think out of the 30, I got 10 or 15. And, Temple gave me a lot of [aid], but I even did work-study because I had to work during college.”
Littles’ mother also took out a parent federally backed PLUS loan for her. All of it – scholarships, aid, loans, work-study – was needed to pay for her tuition. Despite the challenges, she made it. Littles, 22, the first in her family to attend post-secondary school, recently graduated from Temple University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
“I think in our community we do face certain circumstances, and we don’t always finish college because we often experience a bump in the road,” Littles said.
For parents and children, post-secondary education beckons as a path to escaping generational poverty, to building a future sustained by a living wage. But multiple barriers stand between students of color and that happy outcome. These systemic barriers can be quite subtle, but they are so substantial and durable that they can make hope feel like a pipe dream.
Where someone grows up can be a big determinant of whether they attend college, said Laura Perna, a GSE Centennial Presidential Professor of Education, and Executive Director at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The wealth of a community plays a huge impact on available resources at a school,” she added, “which in turn, relates to a student’s college readiness.”
When assessing college success, three statistics tell the tale: enrollment rates, retention rates, and graduation rates. For students of color, the tale told by all the numbers is concerning.
The Pell Institute, a government-sponsored research institute on educational opportunity, and PennAHEAD found the percentages of Hispanic and Black 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education are lower than the percentage of Whites: 27 percent for Hispanics, 37 percent for Blacks, and 43 percent for Whilte.
The same report found that retention and graduation rates for Hispanic and Black students lagged behind those for Whites.
In a separate report, Excelencia in Education found a 12 percentage-point gap (51 percent to 63 percent) between graduation rates for Hispanic and White students.
Affordability, or the lack of it, is a big factor behind those numbers, Perna said, “Pennsylvania ranks 49th out of 50.”
According to the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, Pennsylvania cut funding to its state university system by more than a third between 2008 and 2018. Students were expected to pick up the slack by paying higher tuition.
Beyond that, Perna said, Pennsylvania has work to do in terms of preparing all its high school graduates to handle college-level work. The resources just are not there in some school districts to achieve that goal, particularly considering the challenges some of these students confront in terms of home stability and food insecurity.
Norristown and Pottstown are a reflection of Pennsylvania as a whole. According to Children First, access to postsecondary education has increased by 53 percent in Norristown and 66 percent in Pottstown. In Norristown, of that percentage, 70 percent were White, 49 percent Black, and 43 percent Hispanic. However, retention is still low.
Daniela Castañeda, 17, is a senior at Norristown High School. She hopes to enroll in college this year and to go on to earn a degree. But, as a first-generation student of color, Castañeda is experiencing some of the subtle barriers to success.
For example, she has struggled with how complex and cumbersome the college application process can be.
“I didn’t realize how much information [the application] actually needed about my life,” Castañeda said. “They asked about my family size, how much money they make, type of house, if it is rented, how old are my siblings, if I am part of a club, and if my friends graduated. Whoa!”
Additionally, Castañeda felt unprepared for some of the expectations built into the admissions process.
“I always knew about how hard [getting into college is], but I never knew how much,” she said. “I have an average GPA. I’ve always been told I’m on the right path but turns out lots of scholarships and schools require a little bit more of a GPA than I’ve been told and pushed to have.”
Castañeda believes the minimal college preparation guidance she’s received in K-12 is due to a lack of close relationships with her teachers. She felt a lack of comfort and trust to turn to them for support.
“I did not put myself out there because of just the way the system was at school,” she said. “If you weren’t part of the council… if you weren’t popular… if you weren’t White, you wouldn’t really get the spotlight you wanted. That’s called disadvantage.”
Perna says Castañeda’s experience underscores the work that higher education has to do to think about equity in practical terms, not just platitudes.
“What are the criteria that we are using to award scholarships and other types of benefits to different people?” Perna asked. “Or what are the variations in the types of clubs and opportunities that are available to different students? I hope that we are moving to a place where there is more understanding about a cultural wealth perspective.”
By cultural wealth, she means in part “sources that are available in a high school to help promote college-related knowledge and the availability of counselors who can have the time and the resources to talk with students about college options. You could probably say (the opportunity) starts at birth.”
Both Littles and Castañeda found guidance and support in applying for colleges from an out-of-school organization, CCATE, a non-profit based in Norristown.
Littles chose her career path based on her experiences growing up in a community of color. She said she wanted to use her criminal justice training to help people who otherwise “are not going to be represented fairly.”
Similarly, Castañeda is thinking about seeking a degree in psychology or social work.
“I want to help because, personally, I have seen people struggle. (My) mom has always told me, ‘Hey, you should ask to translate or ask if they need help or something,’” Castañeda said. “As I grew up, I kind of started to understand why she would tell me to do that because my mom was in that situation.”
Neighborhood context often is critical to the career choices of students of color. This might be why there isn’t greater participation and diversity in the fields of science, engineering, and technology.
A Center for American Progress report, “The Neglected College Race Gap,” observed, “If Black and Hispanic bachelor’s degree recipients were as likely to major in engineering as White students, the United States would have produced 20,000 more engineers from 2013 through 2015.”
The country would also have 30,000 more teachers of color if students of color entered that profession at the same rate as Whites.
Perna draws a direct line between lack of accessibility to higher education and the persistence of poverty in some communities, noting how accessible education opens the door to so much else: more civic engagement, better health, higher earnings, better quality of life, and a more significant contribution to society.
“We are missing a lot,” Perna said. “A well-educated population makes for a better society.”