Route To the Dream Doesn't Follow an Equal Path

Jan 11, 2018

The American Dream is built on the belief that as long as you work hard, you will achieve your dreams. It also gives people the thought that we are all created equal and have equal opportunities. Although, as time goes on, you hear people say, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

Hard work is no longer all you need to succeed. The college admissions process is the first time in many people’s lives that they realize what the American Dream has become. 

The admissions process can be stressful for any student. However, the challenges that each student faces are not the same. I want to shine a light on a topic that does not get discussed nearly enough: the struggles and challenges that low-income minority students face when applying to college. 

When I was 16, I went to a TED Talk in Derry, New Hampshire. One of the speakers was Maribel Duran. Maribel is a teen mom from the south side of Chicago and her parents are Mexican immigrants. She became the chief of staff in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education. One the statements she made that stuck with me was that it is hard for kids to become someone who they do not see.

Minority students from low-income backgrounds are generally not surrounded by people or parents who emphasize higher education. This may be because a lot of these children have parents who never went to college and thus the kids are not very motivated to focus on their education. If a student has parents who went to college and they are in a community that promotes and encourages higher education, then that student will naturally be more interested in college. A student will have a hard time pursuing their ideals if nobody around them shares the same ideals. Even if a low-income student does overcome the challenges of a hard background, the sheer issues involved with money are always present. 

Everybody knows about the cost of applying to colleges. Application fees, sending test scores, and the CSS profile are difficult for low-income students. These are the ways money can directly affect college admissions. The indirect ways money affects applying college are rarely talked about. Lots of students can use time after school to participate in extracurricular activities and do things that will appeal to colleges. Students from a low-income background often have to work another job to supplement the family income or stay home and take care of siblings while mom or dad works extra hours. When you take these responsibilities and then add the additional workload of trying to take challenging classes and complete college applications, it does not balance out nicely. 

Often times, high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds do not even bother trying to apply to elite colleges like Stanford, Princeton, or Yale because they do not think they fit the profile of a “typical” student at these schools.

Although many colleges pride themselves on diversity, students at top institutions have been and still are predominantly wealthy, white individuals. According to The New York Times, the median family income of a student from Brown University is $204,200, and 70 percent come from the top 20 percent ($110,000). Nineteen percent of students at Brown come from the top one percent ($630,000). This means that nearly one in five kids at Brown come from families who make 12 times the national average income. As far as diversity goes, Brown is 53 percent white. When you look at all these numbers, can you really blame a low-income minority student for thinking they have little to no chance at getting into these schools?

As difficult as it is being a low-income minority student, you will be happy to know that top colleges have taken many steps to make themselves more available to such students. One of the programs that I personally had the pleasure of experiencing was a fly-in program. Each college has their own unique name for it: Rice has SOAR and Bowdoin has Explore Bowdoin. They all have the same general structure. It is a 3-to-4 day program generally intended for students who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education. The college covers travel expenses and room and board. You stay with a current student and get to experience the campus firsthand. Programs like these are beneficial to students who would otherwise not have the money or resources to visit the school. 

Programs like Questbridge and LEDA have also been created specifically with the intention of helping talented low-income minority students get into the nation’s best colleges. Students who apply to schools through Questbridge are waived of application fees and have the chance at receiving full four-year scholarships. Although these benefits are wonderful, the most valuable thing to me about Questbridge has been meeting other like-minded students. I mentioned earlier how talented low-income minority students are generally not surrounded by people with similar mindsets. As much as I love the state of Maine, we are not the most diverse state.

In fact, if you run a Google search and type in “Why is Maine so…” the first word that pops up is “white.” Being part of Questbridge has allowed me to connect with students across the country that can relate to my personal experiences. We share our stress around trying to keep our grades up, not getting enough sleep, and trying to write college essays and supplements. These are students who are incredibly talented but would have never even considered applying to a top-tier college if it were not for programs like Questbridge and LEDA. 

My guidance counselor once asked me if she thought that our school should try to have more foreign-exchange students to have more diversity. I told her that I did not think it was necessary. I never really encountered racism or felt that I was being treated poorly simply because I was Asian. I encourage schools around Maine and across the country to always create a community that welcomes students regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or income. It is useless to try to force diversity into a community that is not ready for it. 

I am not saying the American Dream is dead by any means. I still like to believe that if you work hard you will be able to achieve your dreams of attending that school, getting that job, or meeting people who make you happy. However, I don’t think that everybody is born equally. Anyone can achieve their dreams if they work hard enough, but some people do not have to work nearly as hard. 

Channing Wang is a student at Wells High School.