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May 25, 2019

The strivers and the fraudsters: What low-income college kids think of the rich-and-famous scammers

March 14, 2019
A crowd watches students dance on the campus of Columbia University in April 2017. Columbia University in New York City is one of the oldest higher education institutes in the United States. (iStock)

The admissions scandal over the privileged but not-that-bright students is a story worth telling from the flip side: How do the students from low-income families who won seats at these universities see it?

As someone who has spent the last two years interviewing those students for a book about what it takes for first-generation students to earn degrees, I think the answers are not always what you might expect.

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Their first reaction — beyond amazement over learning that Stanford University actually has a sailing team that draws preferred admissions — is an eye roll. They know all about entering universities where the student body looks and acts like they are in a soap opera set in America’s wealthiest towns.

Get used to being the only minority student in a classroom and expected to articulate the minority point of view on any topic, they told me. Get used to hearing classmates talk about European ski trips taken over holidays. And get good at coming up with excuses to avoid expensive outings.

Parts of the book tracks alumni from KIPP Gaston College Preparatory, a charter school in a very rural part of North Carolina. Almost all the alumni of that school are the first in their families to go to college.

One of those students, Chevon Boone, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013. She recalls many occasions when, after a big test or a hard week, fellow students would suggest heading to a downtown restaurant to celebrate. “Ordering from that menu would equal a week’s worth of my expenses, so I would casually tell them I had other plans.”

One student suggested: “Hey, just have your mom wire you some money.” Actually, Boone was sending money back to her family, funds earned from campus jobs.

Get used to being one of the few students left on campus over Thanksgiving when everyone but you can afford a plane ticket home. And get used to the awkward silences.

One student I interviewed, Yaritza Gonzalez, grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles, graduated as salutatorian at her high school and landed a spot at Dartmouth. When classmates asked about her background, she would tell them about growing up with parents who picked strawberries when she was young and later took jobs as servers in a restaurant in Inglewood.

The other students simply had no way of responding to a life so different. Best to say nothing than to say something wrong.

Interestingly, the students don’t blame the universities. These elite universities may take in far too few first-generation students, but their graduation rates for these students are stellar, roughly as good as for wealthy students. At least in recent years, they have learned how to take the extra steps to make sure these students succeed.

That contrasts with where most first-generation students end up: community colleges where depressingly few ever go on to earn a bachelor’s or local “commuter” universities that take their tuition money yet post graduation rates no higher than 25%.

The biggest challenge at these elite universities is coping with the I-don’t-belong-here syndrome.

KIPP Gaston co-founder Caleb Dolan, who now oversees KIPP schools in Massachusetts, has been listening to scandal conversations.

“They are saying, ‘We are not surprised but we are still outraged.’ Many first generation kids and students of color feel a constant questioning of whether they ‘deserve’ to be at these schools. It’s infuriating to know how hard they had to work to get into these schools and thrive there while these rich kids bought their way in.”

That worry can cause harm, because it means not seeking help from professors out of fear they will conclude you were an affirmative action admit not truly worthy of a seat.

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What this scandal does, however, is reaffirm that she truly belonged on that Penn campus, said Boone, compared to the scammers: “We worked our butts off to be on that campus.”

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