Do Poor Americans Deserve An Ivy League Education?
A low-income but high achieving American girl named Angelica wanted to go to Emory, a $40,000 a year university that has been deemed “new Ivy” by Kaplan. She initially qualified for financial aid, but it fell through for mysterious reasons, leaving her in the lurch. Her response was to take out a $60,000 private student loan without telling her mother. Her boyfriend cosigned the loan.
I’m sure you know where the story goes. She was unable to graduate and is now saddled with a huge debt while working a job that barely pays above minimum wage. The NY Times shed many tears over her situation, painting it as a trend that is contributing to America’s decline. The article made heavy rounds on Reddit and leftist sites as proof that class divides are becoming more rigid as the oligarchical elite takes control over the country.
Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.
The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.
The first thing I asked myself was, “What was her major?” The answer: psychology. Even if she did graduate, how would that bachelors pay off a $60,000 debt? Last time I checked, the only thing you can get with a psychology degree is an $18,000 a year job in a day care center or clinic. The Times didn’t see it that way. In spite of the fact that she had trouble graduating from a high school that was declared “academically unacceptable,” they saw no reason why she couldn’t be part of the 1% by going to a top-tier school.
“She was an extremely intelligent woman and an unusual one,” she said.
Yet even as Angelica’s work hours grew, so did the rigor of her coursework. Meetings with faculty advisers were optional and Angelica did not consult hers. When it came time to declare a major, she had a B-plus average in the humanities and D’s in psychology. She chose psychology.
By the end of her second year, she felt exhausted and had grades to show it. Her long-distance love life was exhausted, too, and she briefly broke up with Fred. She went home for the summer to work at Target and dragged herself back to a troubled junior year.
I challenge the notion that she was “extremely intelligent” if she got a D in psychology. Class divide had nothing to do with her failure—it was due to being in over her head while making a series of bad decisions, such as…
—Going to an expensive faux Ivy instead of a public college near her home
—Not doing the coursework, or even going to class
—Picking a major that would not have provided her with a good-paying job
—Hiding a huge financial decision from her parent
Blame should also be placed on her immediate circle:
—Her mother, for not knowing that her daughter couldn’t handle a tough college workload
—Her father, for being absentee
—Her boyfriend, for enabling a horrible financial decision that he himself is now burdened with
—Her high school guidance counselors, for encouraging her to aim beyond her competency
While I have some sympathy for her, since she didn’t have a father figure to aid her while the private loan industry preyed on her ignorance, I’d point the finger at just about everyone except “class division.” The Times dares to suggest there’s a new trend preventing Angelicas of the country from getting a good education, but I don’t buy it. Was there ever a time in America where the daughter of a single mom working at a department store could easily get a degree from an Ivy League college?
I went to a state school with a lot of bright kids who had a more stable background than Angelica, and while most of them finished school, some took longer than four years because of the difficulty, and this was with a tuition of $8,000 a year. That money was no small change for me, and I ended up taking out $17,000 in student loans. However, I lived at home, worked part-time for two years, and picked a major (microbiology) where I knew there would be a job waiting for me, just a few miles away in Maryland’s biotech corridor. My first year after graduating I made about $30,000, more than enough to pay my $180 a month student loan bill. While my major was the incorrect choice from a fulfillment perspective, it was a great choice financially. I thank my dad’s advice and my own career research for that outcome.
When anyone with a heartbeat and no money thinks they can easily graduate from an Ivy League school in a worthless major without having to experience difficulty, the problem becomes not one of class divide but entitlement. An elite private education and a $100,000 job is no one’s right, and not everyone is destined for an upper-class lifestyle. Unfortunately, some people–and their boyfriends—have to learn this the hard way.