How Helpful! College Advice for Rich Kids!

There’s been a spate of news coverage lately offering college advice for people worried about the expenses associated with going to school, and thinking about how to develop more competitive applications. The cost of college attendance is skyrocketing at the moment, and competition for spaces at elite schools is also very ferocious. People interested in pursuing a college education are up against more now than every before, so you’d think I would be excited about more publications discussing strategies for developing strong college applications and dealing with student aid matters to help kids afford four years of college, ideally without having to attempt to work full-time at the same time to cover their costs.

And I would be, if these columns were actually designed to help anyone interested in going to college achieve that goal. But they’re not. This college advice is primarily focused on the experiences and needs of wealthy people, which makes it tremendously unhelpful to many people who will be struggling with college costs this year and into the future, let alone people who aren’t even thinking about costs yet because they’re still trying to get in.

Most college entrance and funding advice comes from people starting from a base assumption that lower class people do not go to college, apparently. Because it’s focused primarily on middle class and wealthy students, who already have a number of advantages when it comes to higher education. They are more likely to have attended good schools, which gives them an edge on applications, for example, even if they don’t pursue the recommendations in these columns, which I will be getting to in a moment. They also have more money, and more access to money, which means that while college costs can be tough in some families, they are not unthinkable; there is also a cultural assumption within such families that of course kids will be going to college, so they need to figure out how to enable that.

These columns inform students that they should pursue a wide range of extracurricular activities to appear well-rounded, and should strongly consider tutors and other support for entrance examinations. Both of these golden nuggets of advice assume that students have both time, and money; you need time to do things after school, you need money to pay for tutors. For that matter, if you want extracurriculars to count, you need to engage in them through a sanctioned and approved system that gives you credit.

Thus, volunteering at a hospital or veterinary clinic can give you credit. Providing care to a sick family member does not, even though you may be getting similar experience. Tutoring low-income children in your community is considered charitable community service that should qualify you for extra credit; helping the children in your neighbourhood with their math homework, however, doesn’t count, because it doesn’t take place through a formally structured system.

While students can get credit for working, volunteerism and the pursuit of extra classes seems to be preferred, at least according to the suggestions in these columns. A student working a minimum wage job in an attempt to save for college or bring in extra income for the family isn’t viewed as favourably as the student who spends a summer volunteering at a camp for disadvantaged children. There is, in the grounding of volunteer work over other forms of work, also a certain element of patronisation; you should help those less fortunate than you, and in so doing, develop credit you can use to apply for college. Meanwhile, the ‘less fortunate’ who may be helping their own families and communities don’t get credit for it.

And they certainly can’t afford to take expensive elective classes, spend spring break on an outdoor leadership expedition, pursue art education outside of school so they can develop a strong portfolio for an art school, or similar activities. Instead, middle class and wealthy students get to take advantage of such programs, developing even more of an edge to make themselves ‘competitive.’ They compete with each other, effectively shutting out low-income students who apply to college and simply can’t hope to beat those kind of transcripts.

The financial advice in such columns is shockingly unhelpful for low-income students. Most of them seem to be guides on how to hide your assets and some border on encouraging people to lie about assets in order to access more student aid. For people with assets, such advice is, I’m sure, very helpful. Low-income families don’t have any, though, or if they do, they are not in forms that can be easily hidden. They can’t up their tax deductions to reduce their declared taxable income to make themselves eligible for more financial aid. They can’t claim capital losses, or any of the other tricks used to reduce the appearance of income, because they have no income.

Reading these columns gives me a certain sense of hopelessness for low-income students thinking about college. Higher education is growing out of reach for so many people, both directly in the form of costs and indirectly in the form of a system where competition has reached the point where someone who has completed a decent public school education and scored reasonably well on entrance examinations may not get accepted. And if that person is, it may be impossible to get the financial aid needed to attend, because that student’s family has no money to juggle, no way to hide income, no method for making a financial aid application look more appealing. A person coming from a family that makes more may end up with more financial aid, all because money creates the ability to hide, shift, and move money so you can look poor on paper.