Do More with What You Have
By Lisa Cowan is the Vice President of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. This article was originally published by The Brooklyn Community Foundation on May 6, 2019.
Last week my 6’3 baby boy officially committed to the college that he will attend next year. Yet in the wake of the college admission scandal, the mixed emotions of this moment have given way to how the decks are so obviously stacked for him and against low-income families.
The college admissions scandal made news on the same day that this year’s high school seniors, including my son, were getting their first admissions emails (the days of skinny and fat envelopes are long gone). Around me, in person and on social media, parents complained of the illegal and unethical means taken by the 50 or so families charged in the college admissions scandal. Many of my friends took this as an affront to their own kids, who did things the “right way.” And they are correct that Lori Loughlin, William E. McGlashan Jr., and the rest of the parents charged in the scandal used methods that were illegal and unethical—not to mention terrible parenting.
But beyond the bribes that Loughlin and others used to get their children into college, the scandal has made me even more conscious of all the benefits and resources my son and his peers have enjoyed that made him college-ready, and just how many kids don’t get them.
Although he went to public school, we made sure that he got into the best ones for him, even when it meant leaving our zoned schools. We sent him to private preschool, as well as countless after-school programs to match his changing interests. He went to summer camp, had SAT tutoring, and got whatever books he wanted to read. He had college-educated parents and friends and relatives who “knew people” at schools that he wanted to attend.
Even though my son and I are playing by all the rules, he is the beneficiary of a horribly broken system.
The higher education system in the United States is just one of many places that the inequality of opportunity and access associated with racial and economic disparity come into sharp focus. There is no lack of educational resources available in the United States, but their distribution is wildly uneven and inequitable and has deep consequences for social mobility through education. Despite 95% of all high school students wanting to go to college, nationally 83% of high school graduates from high-income families enroll directly after high school while only 67% from low-income families do so. Furthermore, while 58% of 24 year olds from high-income backgrounds have attained a Bachelor’s degree, only 11% of 24 year olds from low-income backgrounds attain the same.
Those of us from high-income families must acknowledge our own privilege and power and work to fix this broken system. We cannot continue to benefit from this inequity when it is our kid’s turn to go to college, and then leave it all behind.
This month, along with a few friends, my family committed to put $5,000 a year towards a College Opportunity Fund at the Brooklyn Community Foundation during the years that our children are in college and we are inviting anyone else who is also concerned about this inequity to join us. The fund will support carefully vetted organizations working to level the playing field like College Access: Research and Action, which confronts the gap in post-secondary guidance faced by first-generation college students in New York City; and NYC Kids RISE, which expands economic opportunity and equity by providing families, schools, and communities with ways to work together to save for their children's education.
Through my work in philanthropy, I know there is no quick fix to tackling these systemic issues. But this is the moment that we shouldn’t look away from the privilege that propelled our kids to colleges across the nation. Those of us with additional resources have the opportunity to support organizations that are driving the changes in higher education that are so obviously needed. For the future I want for my son and for the hundreds of thousands of other 17-year-olds across the country, we must all do more.