Is the National Education Equity Lab Going to Pay for their Students to Join a Dining Club Once They Get to Princeton?

Getting into an “elite college” is at best, half the story. Ask me how I know.

Every morning I read the news, and today I was struck by the promise of the National Education Equity Lab to “prove” that students from any walk of life can excel in Harvard and other “elite” college classes. The group seems out to prove more of a point to elite schools rather than to take on the full spectrum issues of being from what people mean when they euphemize “every walk of life.”

How do I know? Back in the dark ages, I learned about where to apply from the listing of colleges and college majors that was, at that time, in the back of the Farmer’s Almanac. Yes, that’s right. The weather predicting book used to be a sort of catch all of lots of info and when I asked my dad where I might find college info and addresses (this was pre-internet), he said he thought the Farmer’s Almanac listed them.

As my high school guidance counselor had literally only offered me two state schools as options, I sent off little postcards to 15–20 “elite” schools. Later, in my 20s and early 30s I taught secondary school in communities from El Barrio in New York to Huntington Park in Los Angeles (right next to Compton). Excuse me — so, DUH! I had very bright students everywhere I taught…who certainly could “compete” anywhere. But there is a fallacy in our “elite” college system also about place, and I will get to that in a minute.

Two things struck me immediately upon my arrival at Barnard back in the ancient year of 1989: 1. The folks in my classes were no smarter than my friends back in West Virginia, who largely consisted of the smarter kids in my county — of a mix of D & D player build your own computer types and/or wanna be suburban/rural punks — the kinds of kids who wore their Misfits T-shirts with ironed jeans. Again, just like in high school, and this included the classes I took across the street at Columbia, only a few of us really participated much, asked questions, and to my surprise much later in life, actually no questions-asked read and did all we were required to do.

Even in college, I didn’t know anyone that did not do all their work or go to class with enthusiasm — which means my friends at college were mostly upper middle class kids, who also saw their schooling as an “opportunity” rather than a birthright or, even, a step down.

The second thing I immediately learned at Barnard: 2. Whoa, are a lot of these people loaded and they go and do things I could never consider — from working internships for free to winter breaks abroad — and their parents often paid more for their high school education than they were paying for their college one. I soon found my escape out on the gritty streets of New York, where I could legitimately interact with people, like myself, from “all walks of life.”

Only over time did I realize what all I lost going to a school far away from where I was from, and, did I realize ALL of the things going to that kind of school meant socially, that is, all the things I was supposed to do that I didn’t know I was supposed to do. Let me tackle the latter first.

Whereas I thought I had won the lottery going to Barnard, at the end of my college career there, I didn’t have high powered connections. I hadn’t known I was supposed to make any. Hell, people around me were taking the GRE and LSATs and I didn’t even know, really, what graduate school was. Doing and knowing those things came from a family or class culture — and all I knew was that Michael J. Fox on Family Ties in Ohio not far away from me in WV was applying to college, and the women at Spellman on TV went to a women’s school — I didn’t know how they did what they did after that. That took mentoring I did not receive.

Upon applying to college I had thought I wanted to be a journalist, because, as I learned later when I worked in Hollywood, LOTS of young women of my generation of “all walks of life” thought that was a great job option because those were the only women we saw on TV that seemed to be doing something other than being a mom, a wife, or teaching us the letters or colors. I had wanted to be Linda Ellerbee. The Asian women I met later when I worked in Hollywood had wanted to be Connie Chung…. A stint in college around some international journalists quickly left me disillusioned, and, I ended up working in nonprofits in education and later, teaching — all of which prompted my former sharecropper mother to quip: you had to go all the way to New York City just to become a teacher?

Barnard had a program where you could work in nonprofits as a student and get paid, and, to this day, I am still somewhat in that career path I had as an option in college. Yet, there may have been 100s of other careers suitable to me — I had no funnel at college or family leading me to them.

Many years later after my stint in Hollywood in nonprofit also left me disillusioned (surprise surprise on that one), I found myself thinking about what I wanted to do next. I had spent years in my “real” career writing fiction about where I was from — fiction that showed us as the complicated people we are now, not some caught in diamonded coal biscuit-baking fiddle-playing Dolly Parton Christmas special.

I decided to pursue a PhD to “do” something about where I am from. On this journey, I encountered scholars asking questions I had never considered: why do “good” students go away to school? What responsibility ought colleges and universities have to the communities around them? In Puerto Rico, the community was rallying around the students protesting, because, in PR the students go to school where they are from. The community, higher education, and students were linked.

I also worked for a summer in West Virginia in something called College Summit — creating a pipeline to colleges kids from “many walks of life” would not have considered otherwise. Its co-founders visited us — I was told by management not to greet them with the local vernacular “hi-dee” which is sort of a reflexive version of “howdy” that many of us say. We were, I guess, to hide the rural about ourselves.

I did, however, challenge its founders, who stared at me blankly. See, I said, if you are urban, you can come back to the city you are from and get a job in that city, maybe not directly in your neighborhood, but at least, in your city. But in West Virginia, see, you are only exporting talent. You are contributing to the brain drain. You can’t come back to a small rural place disappearing that literally offers you no job related to what you study, no means of financial support even while you try to invent a new world. To quote Chrissy Hynde, which I often do, you come back and feel “my city was gone.”

And, once you as a student also get gone, what about when your family needs you and they won’t leave? You come in from far away and have no adult professional connections. You are distant, disdaining maybe, with a different eye — Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. You have to start all over, and, you don’t have all the social capital you need to do that — maybe not from where you went, or, now, where you are.

A couple of years ago I did a summer gig teaching “gifted” students science and technology policy at Princeton University. A few Princeton students also worked the program that summer…and one young man and I were talking about these issues above. He was the kind of student College Summit and the National Education Equity Lab hails — that ends up in their fundraising materials — African American and he got into the school of his choice. We were chatting about connections, and he seemed to tow the line of how proud Princeton is that it has no fraternities.

So, I asked, how then do students sort themselves out, make connections? We were in one of the cafeterias, and, I have to say, I was appalled at how bad the quality of the food was. Did snooty Princeton kids really eat this? I asked.

The young man let me know — no, only the kids that can’t afford dining clubs. Princeton has dining clubs and you have to pay to belong.

Oh, that is where the real function of Princeton remains. You can get in. You can do well in classes. But you can still come out of Princeton and go through without the needed social capital to go on to “do anything” promised you by winning the lottery of acceptance and scholarship at such an institution.

So, while you are promised you get there and you can be anything, you may not get the success promised without the connections to it or mentoring for it.

So, you may not be able to take your fancy education back where you are from, where you have social capital, because the education you have does not match with the skills needed to thrive locally.

So, what happens when you need all the social and family support to help you during your education? Very frankly, in high school when I got back the application packet from Berkeley I wrote away for I set it aside. I knew I would have to pay my own way back to visit my family, and, well, taking the bus three days there and back did not appeal to me. You could get to NYC from Charleston, WV by train, or bus, within a day. That seemed reasonable and attainable on my own nickel. Yeah, I know. Cry me a river. But I also came back to where I am from, because, from. The one other high school friend who went to a fancy school dropped out after his first year — because, from. He returned to Appalachia before I did. Because, from also matters.

What do we do instead?

Support the communities WHERE the students live to ALSO have and host elite institutions.

How about this — what if ALL these elite schools turned to the “all walks of life” kids in their backyards, connected with them, and tried to get THEM all up to speed and matriculatedso they don’t have to leave their communities, so they have social capital where they are, so going away to school is not a choice between family and community and education?

Because, see, for rich kids — their parents can pay for them to come home, support them while they intern, and, their parents don’t rely on them in anyway, for care, support, money, or community.

We need to work against brain drain, not encourage it.

Okay, New York Times, you recently asked what does West Virginia really need? You know what our top issue is?

Not poverty. Not opioids. It’s depopulation due to automation of single sector economies. I asked our regional commission to investigate that — depopulation devastates communities. They have not done that yet.

Because to do that puts many models of industry in our country into question. It pokes hole in the myth of leaving where you are for “opportunity” is always better than figuring out how to make where you are tenable.

Our communities here are not alone in needing support.

Smart kids from “all walks of life” ALSO deserve support pipelines through college, AND, communities that are viable and thriving to return to, if they so choose.

Farmer, writer, STS researcher, social entrepreneur, systems rethinker

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