A Tale of Two College Processes

With close of the “college application season,” I’m once again reminded of the stark differences in the college application process for students from low income families and that for the 1%. With every blog or article I read, I’m continually reminded how divided America is in every way. Divided informationally. Divided experiencially. Divided economically. Divided racially. Divided educationally. Just divided. This division is no small matter, it’s a chasm that starts with access to pre-k programming, blossoms in primary school, matures throughout higher education, and culminates in the workplace. The college admissions process is not immune to these conditions and concerns (despite its theoretical claims to a meritocracy). In fact, the college application and admission process may be the very nexus of these myriad issues and bring to a head the years-long growth of inequity between the haves and have-nots. But since I can’t address, cure, or understand all the ills of society, I’ll just explore differences between the college preparation and application process for the haves and have-nots (and yes I’ll ignore America’s shrinking middle class).

Membership has its privileges

For families of means, the college admission process begins early, lasts years, calls on expertise, and takes advantage of networks to provide the student every edge. For students of means, the college admission process is a family supported and informed process that begins in utero and targets the Ivy League. For student of means, college and career readiness means getting into the right pre-schools so that you can get into the right primary school, so that you can get into the right middle school, so that you can get into the right high school, so that you can get into the right college, so that you can ultimately continue the family tradition of successfully careers. The family of means will “red-shirt,” “helicopter,” and “shadow educate.” The family of means calls on professional tutors when there is academic trouble, financial gurus to ensure maximum financial aid, and admissions consultants to ensure that the perfect resume is built and perfectly worded essays are crafted and sent to the perfectly selected schools during the perfect application period to maximize the chance of admission. The stress on the family of means is not whether the child will go to college or whether the child can afford college, but rather can the child get into the right college to ensure the right opportunities and networks are created.


Climbing out of the quicksand

Conversely, the low income student, who comes from a historically disadvantaged family, has radically different college application process. For students from low income or underserved groups the college application process is typically an eighteen month sprint from realization of the possibility of attendance to struggling to find the funds to submit a deposit. For the low income student, the college application process involves drawing on the “knowledge” and “experience” of often equally uninformed peers. For low income students, the process is (hopefully) supported emotionally by parents who want the best for their child but who can offer little in terms of social capital (network, connections, perspective, or experience), time, or resources to the endeavor. For low income students, the application cycle draws on understaffed non-profit organizations, overworked public employees, and inexperienced mentors. For low income students, the college process is often full of realizations of opportunities missed, roads not taken, and unequal access. The low income student often has to contend with a fight against the grain of their community, school, and peers. For the typical low income student, the long-term objectives of higher education and future opportunity must bow to the short-term necessities of day-to-day survival. To successfully apply to and attend college as the progeny of a first-generation or low income family means that that student has surmounted enormous challenges, bucked the trend, and excelled in the face of many societal forces working against her.


What about test prep? 

Against this backdrop of vastly differing support systems, educational experiences and cultural capital, it’s important for college access professionals, colleges, teachers, parents and the media to remember that context is key and without nuance their messages are often misconstrued. Far too often the messaging about college admission and access is skewed toward one group (the NY Times and WaPo seem to believe that the only colleges worth writing about are the 66 most highly selective). The test prep 2confusion of this messaging is nowhere more true than in regards to test preparation. Reading what’s written about the practices and flaws of test preparation has convinced me that most journalist (and most academics who conduct studies) have a skewed agenda-driven take on testing and test preparation, coloring their articles and conclusions on personal experience, assumption, and hearsay. This is nowhere more true than when you read articles like this and this. In the zeal to criticize the current culture of over-testing and misuse of test results many have begun to not only blindly toss out the baby, the bathwater, and the bathtub but have also gone on to say that the very notion of bathing is inherently flawed. These “journalist” often suggest an absolute causal connection between the results on the SAT and test preparation (ignoring that test prep is generally 1 – 3 months out of the students 11 years of education). The same “journalist” decry testing as something that is far removed from all things learned in school, without in any way attempting to analyze, research or support that illogical notion.


The Prime Rib of Prep

Test preparation, for those of means, often consists of providing instruction in the efficient application of previously acquired knowledge, narrowly focused on the manner in which that knowledge is tested on the particular test at hand. The popularly discussed test preparation that focus on “tricks” and “strategies” is the test preparation generally designed for those who are informational rich. This preparation continuing to provide means to fine-tune and laser focus previously gained advantages. For the student who’s had the privilege of studying Latin, SAT prep might provide strategies for using that knowledge to discern whether a unknown word on a sentence completion has a “good” or “bad” connotation. For the student who’s taken algebra II and pre-calc (and owns the seemingly ubiquitous TI84 – TI91 calculators) , SAT prep might highlight ways in which you can use your previously purchased $100+ mini-computer to plot the points of intersection of a parabola and a line. For students exposed to problem solving as a varied and complex thing, SAT prep becomes learning new tools to add to your tool box of problem solving tools. SAT prep becomes learning to identify the most efficient tool to for the problem at hand. SAT prep becomes learning to balance the need for speed against the necessity to be accurate. For the student who comes to prep with a strong knowledge base SAT prep is about developing efficiency that allow you to demonstrate knowledge. And in order to gain these advantages families of means will often pay top dollar to hire someone with expertise specifically with the SAT and experience helping students master the nuances of the test.


While many in the media and academia argue about whether test prep is effective well-off families continue to pay for tutoring and test prep. It seems impossible to me that the test prep industry has survived and thrived for 30 years by selling snake oil.


The extra value menu

not all practiceConversely, students of limited means, often receive test preparation from volunteer mentors, college freshmen, and the biology teacher. Students of limited means register for the local free 6 hour SAT boot camp the weekend before taking the test. Students of lower socioeconomic status “take advantage” of the free Khan Academy videos which provide solitary explanations of one question at a time and no overarching testing or timing strategy. Underserved students, as with so many other things in their educational life, are often forced to McGuyver their SAT prep using wit, grit, and prayer, cobbling together a host of hodgepodge resources and less-than-ideal prep materials delivered by less-than-expert instructors.  The test prep “tricks” that are customized by the tutor during one on one sessions are often ineffective for the students who do not have the same knowledge base to support those strategies. The test prep most effective for students scoring in the bottom 50% of test takers needs to begin by redressing an often profound knowledge gap. For students who’ve never taken algebra II the representation of a parabolic function from data in a chart requires more advice than Process of Elimination. For students who’ve not had a second language during high school, using root knowledge will likely not provide any guidance as to the positivity or negativity of the unknown vocabulary words. Test preparation for students who’ve not had all the advantages that money can buy (both in and out of the classroom) often requires more.


And providing more requires… money.


Articles of note:

Newsday – The Terrible Downside of Helicopter Parenting

The Slate – Can your kid hack it in Kindergarten? 

USA Today – Michelle Obama on college counselors

New York Times – Little College Guidance

Wall Street Journal – SAT scores and income

Education Week – How Can We Strengthen Low Income Schools

Research Papers:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.