Getting Into College

By Nian Hurwitz and Sol Hurwitz

Susan S., a popular senior, has been on track for admission to a competitive college since her first year at a suburban Atlanta high school. Her parents and counselors have insisted she take the most demanding courses available. She visited several prestigious colleges in her junior year and was interviewed at the Ivy League college she picked for early decision. Her extracurricular activities, summer internships, and travel are evidence of her initiative -- and her financial means and family contacts. Susan has had the benefit of a private tutor and an SAT prep course. In December she was admitted to the college of her choice.

Seventeen miles away, in an inner-city Atlanta high school, Harrison C., an outstanding soccer player with a flair for poetry, is a senior with a good high school record who has resisted thinking about college. Harrison lives with his mother and four younger siblings, who get by on meager government assistance and sporadic work. He has never seen his father. The only adult who ever discussed college with him was his English teacher, who urged him to apply to several small liberal arts colleges. Harrison was discouraged by the lengthy application process and did not ask his overworked college counselor for fee waivers for applications or for help in sending transcripts and filling out financial aid forms. So far the only application he has filed is the relatively simple one to a local community college.

These true stories (the students' names have been changed) highlight the dramatic inequity in access to college admission between suburban middle-class students and their disadvantaged urban counterparts. No longer a luxury for the few, a college education is today considered a necessity for the many. "Our nation cannot afford ... a society sharply divided into 'haves' and 'have-nots' by differences in education and skills," says a 1998 report by the Committee for Economic Development, a private organization of business and education leaders. "Widening inequality threatens social cohesion and stability."

Tomorrow's workforce will be drawn increasingly from a rapidly growing minority population that is poorly prepared to enter the high-wage, high-skill economy of the 21st century (note). But achieving greater equity will not be easy, says Hugh B. Price, president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League. It will require closing "the yawning gap between how inner-city and suburban kids are performing vis-à-vis academic achievement and the skill sets they need to go out and get one of those good jobs or go on to higher education," he says.

The importance of college attendance -- and completion -- is magnified in light of the growing income divide between high school and college graduates. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that average annual income for college graduates in 1999 was $48,517, compared with $26,099 for those with a high school diploma. Beyond income, closing the education achievement gap is a national goal that reaffirms our sense of social equity.
 
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