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Class Barriers Widen in Higher Education


American public schools and universities have always been engines for social mobility. But too often, those educational institutions help reinforce and even widen the gap between the rich and poor. So argues Peter Sacks in his book, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education. The author warns that this inequality threatens the survival of the middle class, the American dream and our democracy itself.

Gender and race are the barriers many education experts see when they look at the problems of American education. But Peter Sacks says class is just as important.

"It's becoming increasingly true that if you happen to be born into a family of affluent and well-educated parents, the system will treat you very well," he says. "You will go to college, get a degree and find a good job. But if you happen to be born to parents who were not educated themselves, who are struggling to pay for basic needs in life, the chances are increasingly small that you will be able to go to college, to get a good job and to participate in the full middle class American life that is necessary for the entire country to thrive, economically and socially."

And the statistics make it obvious that higher education is not accessible for all students.

"Only about 12 percent of students from the lowest quarter of the social and economic strata in America are able to get a Bachelor's degree," Sacks says. "Even when you look at the middle class, only about 15 to 17 percent of lower middle class students get a Bachelor's degree." But 73 percent of students from higher income families go on to get a Bachelor's degree.

"When you talk about the best American colleges and universities," Sacks says, "only about 3 percent of students at these universities come from the lower-income families, whereas 75 percent come from the upper income families."

In his book, Tearing Down the Gates, Sacks tells stories of young people as they struggle to negotiate the educational system, like Ashlea, a high school student his wife was mentoring.

"One day, when she saw one of her brothers being taken out of the school in handcuffs, she [Ashlea] decided that she did not want to end up like her brothers and she wanted to go to college," he says. "Neither of her parents had gone to college. Her dad had never finished high school, her mother was a high school graduate. They were military veterans struggling to make ends meet as a low-income family."

Even when a student from a low-income family recognizes the importance of getting a college education, their parents often don't know how to help them get it.

Sacks recalls that he and his wife wanted to help Ashlea by setting up a college scholarship fund for her as long as she maintained a certain grade point average. "Wen we broached the idea with her dad, he asked us, 'What do you mean, what is the GPA?' That made me realize that the things that middle class and upper middle class families take for granted, the linguistic tools of the educational environment -- GPA [Grade Point Average], SAT [Scholastic aptitude test], GRE [Graduate Record Exam], Advanced Placement courses -- a lot of these ideas and notions are completely alien to lower income families. So there is a cultural divide. Part of the class divide is a cultural divide."

High school counselors and advisors can help low-income parents understand the educational process and the importance of investing in their children's education, Sacks says, and that is part of the solution. Colleges and universities, he adds, also have a role to play in promoting educational equality.

"Colleges and universities need to do a better job at re-evaluating their notions of 'what is merit,'" he says. "Test scores are very important in the American meritocracy, SAT scores and the like. These tend to be very punitive to students who come from lower-income families, who are quite capable and quite talented, but those talents do not show up in the admissions office when they're looking at the test scores."

Sacks notes that over the past few years, some colleges have started to de-emphasize test scores and develop other measures that better assess the potential of disadvantaged students.

"For example, at Oregon State University, they determined that the SAT wasn't doing a very good job at predicting the success at the university, particularly for some of its minority and lower income students," he says. "So they implemented a structured questionnaire as part of the application process that's backed by years of research."

Michelle Sandlin, Director of Admissions at Oregon State University, says the questionnaire is called the "Insight Resume." One of issues it addresses is adversity. "It asks the student to describe the most challenge that they faced and the steps they have taken to address it. Who did they turn to when facing a challenge? What role did that person play? How did they grow from it? What did they learn? The richness of the responses that we get from students totally amazes me. Our priority was to bring students that could be successful."

Sandlin says the success of this approach over the last three years has inspired other colleges.

"Since we are the first in the country to move in this direction, other schools have asked our permission to use our Insight Resume and are actually using it," she says. "Washington State University has been doing it for 2 years. I recently made a trip to Missouri State University. They are using the Insight Resume for their honors students. De Paul University in Chicago is looking at doing the same kind of thing.

Other schools offer financial aid that gives qualified low-income students an equal opportunity. Thyra Briggs is Dean of Enrollment at Sarah Lawrence College, an expensive private school in New York. "We offer only need-based financial aid. So our commitment, first and foremost, is to giving our financial resources to the families that actually demonstrate need, not to families that don't," she says.

While he applauds these efforts to provide equal educational opportunity, Tearing Down the Gates author Peter Sacks says more is still needed. He says if the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students continues to widen, it will jeopardize not only the middle class, but also American democracy.

"What this means for the future of the republic, when a representative democracy is represented only by those who come from the most well-educated and elite families, that means that those at the bottom of the society may not truly be represented ever," he says. "Their interests will always take a second fiddle in terms of public policy debates."

Confronting the class divide in American education, Sacks says, must start in the early grades. If all American children are prepared adequately – in writing, math and science – he says they will all be attractive candidates for colleges and universities.

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