Achievement Gap a National Crisis

There is a national crisis in American higher education, and it threatens to exacerbate the most pressing challenges facing our nation. Consider this sobering fact: For every 10 African-American students who enter college, only four will graduate. Just four in 10. That is a shameful record, and we cannot hope to address the underlying causes of social and economic inequality in our country if this trend continues.

College enrollment in the U.S. continues to stand at record highs.

Dr. Kim Wilcox

According to the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. colleges and universities enrolled 20.5 million students last fall, an increase of 5.2 million students compared to 2000. This upward trend is likewise true across ethnic categories. Between 2000 and 2014 (the latest year for which we have national data on ethnicity), undergraduate enrollment among African-American students increased a phenomenal 57 percent, and enrollment among Latino students more than doubled.

But, as a college degree has become a prerequisite for getting into the middle class and beyond, enrollment is not enough. In the marketplace, job applicants with some or no college will lose out to a college graduate almost every time. Additionally, students who do not complete their degrees often face thousands of dollars in debt without the means to repay it.

USA Today reported last year that students who drop out of college are four times more likely to default on their student loans compared to those who graduated. If six in 10 African-American students aren’t completing their degrees, it doesn’t take much to see the ramifications for individuals, communities and the entire nation.

Fortunately, there is hope. A report issued earlier this year by the Education Trust, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for academic success, demonstrated that the derisible national data aren’t uniform across the nation’s colleges and universities. Some institutions have demonstrated considerable success in eliminating the achievement gaps across ethnic and socioeconomic designations. While the success stories are heartening, the report shows just how far we still must go. Out of 676 universities considered, only 55 had been able to completely eliminate the graduation rate achievement gap between African-American and White students.

As chancellor of one of the institutions highlighted by the Education Trust as a success story, I wanted to share a few strategies that have helped us eliminate graduation rate gaps across ethnic and socioeconomic categories.

First, we need data. Every two years, the University of California (UC) conducts the UC Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES), a comprehensive appraisal of our students’ experiences at UC. Thanks to the UCUES, we know that our African-American students spent more time working in paid employment outside of their academic interests, spent less time with their families and had more difficulties with food insecurity and finances. These insights are invaluable in building programs and initiatives that result in student success.

Second, universities must understand that cultural identity is a critical component of success. Affinity groups on college campuses provide homes away from home for students. Our African Student Programs office has been in operation for 45 years, connecting students to academic support, mentors and community organizations. Their success has been replicated across the breadth of communities on our campus.

Third, someone needs to be in charge of coordinating the promotion of student success for a diverse student body across campus units. UC Riverside was one of the first institutions to create an administrative position tasked with partnering with all campus leaders and constituents to promote diversity and inclusion.

Realizing student success requires a comprehensive and cooperative approach that deploys resources intentionally across the entire university. Creating that collaboration needs to be someone’s job.

Finally, universities must recognize that our campuses can be inhospitable, and sometimes hostile, to students on the margins of society. Even diverse institutions have to recognize that it is not how many students of color are on campus, it is how they are treated.

The research is clear. When universities do not actively promote a campus climate of inclusion and mutual respect, student success suffers. A few politicians and pundits can poke fun at “safe spaces” and “diversity coordinators,” but their superficial arguments belie their ignorance. Campuses that fail to adequately address concerns over campus climate will be left wondering why some students leave and never come back.

Our nation’s colleges and universities need to do better for the sake of all of our students. Addressing this crisis will require spending precious resources, but fortunately the examples of how to succeed are widespread. Now it is simply a matter of finding the will to make it happen.

Dr. Kim Wilcox is the chancellor of UC Riverside.

California graduation rates continue uptick, as achievement gap narrows


High school graduation rates in California climbed for the seventh year in a row, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, announced Tuesday. The class of 2016 had a record-high graduation rate of 83.2 percent, with significant gains for student populations that have historically lagged behind.

“Graduation rates have gone up seven years in a row,” Torlakson said in a written statement, “reflecting renewed optimism and increased investments in our schools that have helped reduce class sizes; bring back classes in music, theater, art, dance, and science; and expand career technical education programs that engage our students with hands-on, minds-on learning.”

The uptick this year is incremental  – only a .9 percentage point increase from the previous school year – but there been a major shift since 2010. In the seven years of consecutive increases, the graduation rate has increased by 8.5 points.

“It has been quite an impressive increase,” said Estela Zarate, professor in the department of educational leadership at California State University Fullerton. “Particularly if we look at English learners, Hispanic Latinos, and African American students.”

The achievement gap between Asian and white students on the one hand and African American and Latino students on the other has narrowed. The graduation rate for Latino students reached a record high of 80 percent, up 1.5 points from the year before and an 11.9 percentage point increase since 2010. For black students, the rate is 72.6 percent, up 1.8 percentage points from last year and 12.1 percentage points since 2010.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, rates went up 4.8 percentage points to 76.99, from a 72.23 percent rate in the 2014-15 school year. Graduation rates increased by 6.3 percentage points for English language learners and by 6.2 percentage points for African American students.

“If there’s a secret, the secret is out and it’s personalization,” said Frances Gipson, chief academic officer for LAUSD.

Gipson credits the introduction of individualized graduation plans for students starting at the middle school and graduation dashboard to keep students on track.

But observers and experts cautioned that increases in graduation rates mean little if students aren’t graduating ready for future opportunities.

“Yes, we should absolutely celebrate progress, but we have to go further to ensure that all of our students are receiving the opportunity to graduate college with options for a rewarding career,” said Ryan Smith, executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based non-profit.

“A high school diploma should mean that you are being given every opportunity to find a career of your choice and an opportunity to go to the college of your choice,” he said.

Many disparities still persist. Only 50.8 percent of foster youth, for example, graduate on time.

And some researchers are skeptical of the numbers. Morgan Polikoff, associate professor in the education school at the University of Southern California, would like to be able to examine what proportion of the graduates have actually passed the college prep courses, known as A-G classes, and how many relied on less rigorous credit recovery programs.

“That would give you a better handle on the likelihood that these changes and these gap closings are real or fictitious,” Polikoff said.

“We don’t want a bunch of students graduating high school who are not qualified and really shouldn’t be graduating high school,” said Polikoff, “because that would probably water down the value of that degree.”

And as a college diploma becomes even more necessary for most career paths, Zarate notes that the high school diploma no longer holds the same significance.

“I question what its impact will be in terms of achieving economic or social equity given that the goal post has shifted.”

The Gap Within the Gap

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(reposted from the Brookings Institution) 

Researchers and policymakers devote considerable effort to understanding gaps in academic achievement between low-income students and their better-off classmates.[1] And rightly so: the income-based achievement gap is a large and growing source of educational inequality in the United States. The test-score gap between high- and low-income students is 40 percent wider today than it was 25 years ago.[2]

One widely-used marker for poverty in schools is a student’s eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch. But while nearly half of students nationwide are eligible for subsidized meals, only a quarter of US children live in poverty. These two statistics make clear that eligibility for subsidized meals is a blunt measure of economic disadvantage. This rough measure may be perfectly appropriate for determining which children should receive school lunch subsidies, but it may be less useful for other purposes, such as measuring income gaps in achievement, determining the effectiveness of educational interventions targeted to low-income families, or steering resources toward the neediest children. Yet it is, for now, the only measure available to the many researchers and practitioners who work with administrative data to evaluate the effects of educational programs, measure gaps in student achievement, and steer resources toward the neediest children.

We use administrative data from Michigan to develop a more detailed measure of economic disadvantage. Our data contain information on the entire population of students in the Michigan public schools. We leverage the longitudinal nature of these data to document systematic variation in outcomes within the population of children who are eligible for subsidized meals. We do this by counting the number of years in which a given student qualified for subsidized meals, over multiple years of school enrollment.

In Michigan, roughly half of 8th graders are currently eligible for a subsidized meal; in math tests, they score about 0.69 standard deviations below those who are not eligible. By contrast, just 14 percent of 8th graders have been eligible for subsidized meals in every year since kindergarten. These persistently disadvantaged children score 0.94 standard deviations below those who were never eligible (and 0.23 standard deviations below those who were occasionally eligible). This gap is 40 percent larger than that measured using the conventional approach, which considers only current disadvantage.

Demographics differ starkly by these measures of economic disadvantage. In Michigan, 90 percent of those who were never disadvantaged are white, compared to 60 percent of those who were ever disadvantaged and 46 percent of the persistently disadvantaged. Students who had ever been disadvantaged by 8th grade were six times more likely to be black and four times more likely to be Hispanic, compared to those who were never disadvantaged. Students who were persistently disadvantaged by 8th grade were eight times more likely to be black and six times more likely to be Hispanic, compared to those who were never disadvantaged. The persistently disadvantaged are more concentrated in urban areas, while the transitorily disadvantaged are more concentrated in suburban areas.

The demographics available in state administrative data systems are limited. We turn to nationally-representative, survey data to shed further light on demographic differences between children who are persistently disadvantaged, transitorily disadvantaged and never disadvantaged. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999 (ECLS-K) includes information on household income and subsidized-meal eligibility.

In the ECLS-K, about half of 8th graders in 2006-2007 were ever eligible for subsidized meals (similar to Michigan) and about 10 percent of 8th graders were eligible in each survey wave of the ECLS-K (again, similar to Michigan).[3] As in Michigan, persistently disadvantaged students in the ECLS-K are much more likely to be a racial or ethnic minority (73 percent compared to 46 percent among transitorily disadvantaged and 11 percent among the never disadvantaged). They were also much less likely to live with both parents at the start of the survey (51 percent compared to 65 percent among the transitorily disadvantaged and 91 percent among the never disadvantaged) and much less likely to have a parent with any college experience (29 percent compared to 56 percent among the transitorily disadvantaged and 85 percent among the never disadvantaged).

An indicator for eligibility for subsidized meals is often included as a control in a regression that includes other student information, such as race, ethnicity, sex, and school characteristics. For quantitative researchers, a key question is therefore whether these other observables “explain” the larger achievement deficit among persistently disadvantaged students. If other observable characteristics can explain the differences, then an analyst need only include these variables in the regression in order to eliminate biases that may otherwise be induced by unobserved heterogeneity within the population of currently disadvantaged students.

We find that other observable differences between the persistently disadvantaged and other students do not explain their larger test score deficit. When we control for race, ethnicity, and gender, as well as their interactions, the gap between the never disadvantaged and the persistently disadvantaged (0.76) is still nearly 40 percent larger than the gap based on standard measures of contemporaneous eligibility (0.55). Comparing children only within the same school (by controlling for school fixed effects) reduces gaps further, but the within-school gap between the never disadvantaged and the persistently disadvantaged remains 40 percent larger than the gap based on the standard measure of contemporaneous eligibility.[4]

In Figure 1, we plot the relationship between scores and the number of years spent in economic disadvantage and 8th grade scores. There is a negative, nearly linear relationship (this pattern holds after controlling for student demographics and school fixed effects, as described above). A natural interpretation is that this is an exposure effect, with each additional year of disadvantage further reducing scores. However, this linear relationship is nearly identical in 3rd grade, before children have been differentially exposed to five more years of economic disadvantage.

Figure 1. Each additional year of disadvantage is associated with a roughly constant increase in the achievement gap


What explains this pattern? The number of years that a child will spend eligible for subsidized meals appears to be a reasonable proxy for her current level of income. When in kindergarten, the children in ECLS-K who will be persistently eligible have an average family income of $18,000. For the transitorily eligible it is $31,000 and for the never eligible $71,000.  That is, family income in a given year is negatively correlated with the number of years that a child will spend eligible for subsidized meals.

Our results imply that the number of years that a child spends eligible for subsidized meals can be used to proxy for household income. While still a crude proxy, this proposed measure captures greater variation in economic resources and educational outcomes than does the dichotomous variable currently used by researchers, which measures a child’s current eligibility for subsidized meals.

Our proposed measure can be used to estimate heterogeneous effects in program evaluations, to improve value-added calculations, and to better target resources. Two classrooms may have identical numbers of currentlyeligible children but different numbers of persistently eligible children. A value-added measure that does not account for these differences will be biased against teachers of the most disadvantaged children. Our measure of persistence can also be used in program evaluation, in order to estimate heterogeneity in causal effects or as a control to reduce omitted variables bias.

Our proposed measure can also be used to better target resources toward the most disadvantaged children. Many federal, state, and local programs distribute money based on the share of a school’s or district’s students eligible for subsidized meals. In Michigan, schools that have identical shares of students who are currently eligible for subsidized meals vary considerably in the share of students who are persistently eligible (Figure 2). By taking these differences into account, practitioners and policymakers can better target resources intended to support the most disadvantaged children and their schools.

Figure 2. School-level share of eighth graders currently disadvantaged versus share persistently disadvantaged


The authors did not receive financial support from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this article. They are currently not officers, directors, or board members of any organization with an interest in this article.

Footnotes available here.


California Partnership Initiative Registration Open

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The California Partnership Initiative (CPI) is a project of the California State GEAR UP Program. Since 1999, the California State program has enjoyed working in collaboration with GEAR UP partnership projects to reach our mutual goals:  increasing college and career readiness for low income students and improving the college going culture in schools.   CPI was formalized at the National GEAR UP conference in Washington, DC in July 2014.  The CPI planning committee was formed and representatives from the partnership projects met again at the NCCEP CBW in Philadelphia in February 2015.  This initiative brings together the 16 active partnership projects and the state grant to strengthen our efforts for ALL students throughout California.

2017 California Partnership Initiative Conference REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN!

Please click the link below to register your team:


The Racial Gap in Education Is Slowly Shrinking


(from CityLab)

In the long fight to close achievement gaps in America’s public schools, some troubling trends are holding strong. The gap between higher- and lower-income students persists, and race, income, and segregation remain deeply connected when it comes to academic performance. But new research shows that the racial gap, though stubborn, appears to be slowly closing.

That’s a finding from a study released Thursday by the Economic Policy Institute that lends hard data to the progress and continued struggles to put students of different demographic groups on equal footing.

The good news from the report: African American and Hispanic students are continuing to catch up to their white counterparts. The gender gap is also gradually narrowing in math and reading: Female students lag males in math by a smaller margin than they did 10 years ago, and male students are catching up in reading, though not quite as quickly.

The bad news: the gap in achievement between poor and wealthy students is as wide as ever, and the proportion of poor students increased significantly over the period of study. Also bad: the gap has actually grown between students who are still learning English (in this study, that was limited to Hispanic and Asian children) and those who are fluent.

“We are going to have to really understand why the social-class gap is not closing. And that’s for whites as well,” says Martin Carnoy, an author of the report. “Poor kids are not making gains relative to non-poor kids. The average lower social class kid is not making gains. The schools have to put much more effort into this.”

Although test scores are rising overall for every demographic, the gains aren’t uniform across all states. An earlier study showed that many states that posted the lowest gains were ones with minimal minority populations. Others, like Michigan and Wisconsin, were states with “long histories of promoting vouchers and charter schools to stimulate privately managed education, to no avail.” The problem for students in these states, most of whom are white, isn’t that second- and third-generation Hispanics are catching up, or that Asian students are pulling further ahead. “The white students in these states are making lower gains,” Carnoy and García write “because their state governments are not making the kinds of public school reforms made by other states, such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas, Vermont, and, in the 1990s, North Carolina”—reforms like strengthening math curriculum and training teachers.

On a national level, Hispanic and African American students in the United States are making headway despite the odds stacked against them. Hispanic and African American students are more likely to be poor and live in low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods or areas of concentrated poverty. And even when these students aren’t poor themselves, they’re more likely to attend schools with large proportions of poor students. More than 40 percent of black and Hispanic students were in high-poverty schools by 2013, compared to only 7 percent of white students, according to the study.


“These kids, on average, are going to the schools which allegedly should not be very helpful to them to do well, according to what we know about these schools,” Carnoy says. “That means that somehow either our judgment of these schools is incorrect, these high-minority, high-poverty schools, or there’s something happening outside getting them to do better.”

That fact, he says, should temper the condemnation of public schools that has come from many politicians, including President-elect Donald Trump and education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. It could also be a case for not making radical changes based on the idea that schools are uniformly failing their students and communities.

“In terms of these ethnic gaps closing, and kids of color doing well in the system, the public schools should keep doing what they’re doing, making the kind of reforms they’re making, whether it’s trying to improve the curriculum, or as in some states, like California, assigning more money to poor kids, trying to do a better job of getting good teachers into these high-minority, high-poverty schools,” Carnoy says.

But language programs still need to make more progress to help English-learners, and the fact that schools are generally becoming poorer also raises some red flags. Among the eighth-graders they sampled for mathematics performance, the share of schools classified as high-poverty rose from 15.7 percent in 1996 to 24.1 percent in 2013. In that same time, the number of schools with more than half of their students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch rose from 31.2 percent to 48.3 percent.

To reach their findings, Carnoy and García examined fourth and eighth graders in reading and mathematics from 2003 to 2013, and eighth graders in mathematics from 1996 to 2013. They used individual students’ microdata from the National Assessment of Education Progress, which allowed them to separately analyze the influence of English language ability on the academic performance of Hispanic and Asian American students.

Their report is more silver lining than cloud: the racial achievement gap has long been one of the more damning symptoms of inequity in education, and it’s getting better. Economic inequality, however, is not—and its consequences on children will shape the future.

The study concludes with some concrete policy recommendations: investing in early childhood education (particularly by strengthening the math curriculum), strengthening public education, and investing in afterschool and summer enrichment programs. These steps aren’t enough to solve social divisions in the United States, but, the authors write, “neither is doing nothing or implementing policies that don’t work for anyone.”


Partnership Success: Palomar AP Academy


The 2016 Palomar College GEAR UP for Advanced Placement (AP) Academy provided 152 students the opportunity to study advanced materials in-depth and at an accelerated pace, ultimately giving students a head start on the rigorous coursework they will face in the 2016-17 school year.  The academy allowed students to familiarize themselves with AP standards and motivate and prepare them to enroll in future AP courses. Students experienced challenging classes and glimpsed college life through our weekly local college visits.

apacademyvisitplnuThese college bound students collaborated with teachers, administrators, and previous AP students to be better prepared for college level coursework.  Students who successfully completed the AP Academy earned five elective credits and one paid AP exam by the Palomar College GEAR UP program.



California GEAR UP Completes Statewide School Institutes


To support the California GEAR UP model, regional leadership and professional development events were created for each of the 48 California GEAR UP Middle Schools. The purpose is to develop regional support networks to provide opportunities for GEAR UP schools to learn from each other and problem solve together about common concerns and issues.

These events are facilitated by Whole School Services Coaches with content based on advice from School Leadership Team members.  Events are customized to meet the needs of participating schools within each region and in alignment with target areas of growth identified in the GEAR UP School Self Assessment Rubric.img_96951

September 22, 2016 7:30AM-3:30PM  Southern California Riverside Fall Regional Institute

Theme: GEAR UP Leadership Teams, What is your Bigger Purpose? 

Mission Inn Hotel** Riverside, CA


 September 29, 2016 


Southern California Anaheim Fall Regional Institute Theme: GEAR UP Leadership Teams, What is your Bigger Purpose?  Marriott Suites Anaheim,
 November 2, 2016 8:30AM-3:00PM  Northern California Fall Institute

Theme: Focus on the Whole Child—Academics, Social-Emotional Health, Parent and Community Connections 

Courtyard by Marriott —Midtown** Sacramento, CA


5 Tips for Scoring College Scholarships


If you’re a high school senior or a college student looking for scholarships to help fund the cost of school next year, now is the perfect time to begin your search.

Local private scholarship deadlines tend to be in the spring, but applications for some of the biggest national scholarships are due in the next few months.

In fact, November is National Scholarship Month, designated by the nonprofit National Scholarship Providers Association to help raise awareness that fall is the time to start applying.

Unlike financial aid, these scholarships are based on merit, not financial need, though family income can be a factor in some cases.

For some scholarships, you’ll have to move quickly if you want to have a chance. The Elks National Foundation Most Valuable Student Competition, for example, awards up to $50,000 to students who demonstrate leadership. But applications are due Dec. 1.

Applications for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship Program—which gives up to $40,000 per year—must be submitted by Nov. 30th, and the James W. McLamore Whopper Scholarship, from the co-founder of Burger King, gives $50,000 awards to students, but you have to apply by Dec. 15.

How likely is it that you’ll win scholarship dough? Fairly decent, actually.

According to the 2016 Sallie Mae How America Funds College survey, about half of families who responded reported getting some scholarship or grant money. In fact, according to the survey, scholarships and grants covered 34 percent of college costs on average.

Though less than 1 percent of students get scholarships that cover the entire cost of tuition and room and board, according to financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, there are thousands of scholarships that go beyond academic or athletic performance.

Among them are music performance, community service, and entrepreneurial experiences, says Kathy Ruby, director of college finance for College Coach, a college admission and financing consulting service.

Smart Strategies

Here are five ways to maximize your chances of getting money that can make a meaningful dent in your college bills:

Target merit aid. Colleges are one of the largest providers of grants and scholarships, Ruby says. Eager to get a diverse student body, colleges use merit aid to recruit students based on specific characteristics, such as your GPA, your field of study, or where you grew up.

Generally, private colleges offer more merit aid than public universities because they have endowments and don’t rely on state funding. But many state schools, especially in the South and West, offer generous scholarships to out-of-staters with solid academic records.

For example, The University of Arkansas’ New Arkansan Non-Resident Tuition Award scholarship gives up to 90 percent of the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for students from neighboring states who have a GPA of 3.2 or higher.

You can increase your chances of getting merit aid by applying to schools where your test scores and grades place you in the top 10 percent of the class.

Go to the College Board’s website, Big Future, to see how your academic record compares with students accepted at the schools you want to attend.

As you research and visit schools, ask admissions officers whether you are a good candidate for merit aid and what kind of profile students who get merit aid typically have.

“The criteria colleges look for shifts every year,” Ruby says.

Find your fit. Be strategic about applying. Scholarships with few or very broad criteria will have a lot more competition.

Spend your time searching for scholarships that really match your experience and interests. Use free online scholarship search services that can help you find those that fit: Cappexthe College BoardFastweb, and

You fill out a profile to identify what’s unique about you, and the services match you with potential scholarships.

Go big and small. National scholarships are often more lucrative than those in your community, so targeting a few large scholarships is a good way to start.

But your odds of snagging a local one may be better because you’re likely to be competing against fewer students. Talk to the guidance counselors at your school to see which organizations they work with.

Churches, civic organizations such as Rotary Clubs, and local businesses are common sources. Go the extra mile by looking up the winners or going to awards ceremonies to see who scores the awards.

Focus on your career. Some professional organizations offer scholarships to entice people to enter the field, especially in hard-to-fill professions.

Check out the Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop tool, which lists more than 5,000 scholarships for undergraduate and graduate school programs. These include: $2,500 from the American Association of Equine Practitioners for people studying veterinary medicine and $3,000 to $5,000 from the American Concrete Institute to support students whose studies relate to concrete (really).

Then there’s the $5,000 John Kitt Memorial Scholarship from the American Association of Candy Technologists, for college students with a demonstrated interest in confectionary technology.

Start early. You don’t need to wait until senior year to start thinking about scholarships. Begin researching potential scholarships when you first enter high school.

“Then you can start taking steps to meet the criteria rather wait and try to find what box you fit in,” Ruby says.

Posted with permission from consumer reports.


Micro-Barriers Loom Large for First-Generation Students


By the time J.D. Vance got ready to apply for law school, he’d already survived an abusive and chaotic childhood, made it through Marine Corps boot camp and a deployment to Iraq, and galloped through a bachelor’s degree at Ohio State in less than two years. But as he looked over the application for Stanford law, he found himself stymied by a simple requirement — a signature from his dean. “I didn’t know the dean of my college at Ohio State,” Vance writes in his best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. “I’m sure she is a lovely person, and the form was clearly little more than a formality. But I just couldn’t ask.”

He crumpled the form and finished his other applications, the ones that didn’t require help from a total stranger. And that’s why one of the most talked-about books of the year is written by a Yale law graduate instead of a Stanford alum.

In this agitated election year, Hillbilly Elegy has been closely mined for insights about working-class America and the sense of alienation that has roiled our politics and inflamed our public debate. With his Appalachian roots and searing personal story, Vance has become an eager translator across the cultural chasm, unpacking Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” in a New York Times op-ed and talking religion with Terry Gross. Vance’s lessons on college access have gone largely unnoticed, but Hillbilly Elegy has plenty to say about the intangible barriers that make it so tough for an impoverished, first-generation kid to make the leap to higher education.

“That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game.”

That simple form for Stanford law is a perfect example of where a relatively tiny difference in culture can make a huge difference in access. Vance didn’t lack knowledge of the form — he wasn’t suffering an information breakdown, as we so often assume of first-generation students. He simply wasn’t willing to ask what felt like a favor of someone he didn’t know. Self-reliance is a cardinal virtue in Vance’s world, where bonds of kinship and trust take years to develop. “The professors I selected to write my letters [of recommendation] had gained my trust,” he writes. “I listened to them nearly every day, took their tests, and wrote papers for them.” They could be asked for a favor. The dean, both a stranger and a bigwig, could not.

It’s easy to view that as a silly distinction for a student to make, especially for something as important as a law-school application. But from a student’s perspective, requiring the pro forma signature of a random college official probably seems pretty silly, too. Higher education is choked with micro-barriers like that.

Reading Hillbilly Elegy, I thought about how much time we spend imploring students to seek guidance for obstacles of our own devising. We produce bureaucratic hurdles, then ask students to assume good faith and a willingness to help on the part of professors and administrators who don’t always exhibit such openness. Wealthier, parentally enabled students feel perfect freedom to ask for accommodations in exchange for their tuition dollars. But Vance highlights the awkwardness of telling low-income students to be grateful for their scholarships and also empowered to make demands.

He’s especially sharp in describing the opaque corners of the collegiate world, where decisions are made about who gets job opportunities, who makes it into the right student groups, and who gets connected to the most helpful alumni. These are the areas where no amount of diligent rule-following will do the trick, because the rules are intentionally unwritten. “The entire process was a black box, and no one I knew had the key,” Vance writes of his experience trying to join The Yale Law Journal. “I had no idea what was going on.”

A similarly hazy authority holds sway when it comes to summer internships, which matter hugely for a student’s career prospects. Not only is there no manual to guide the uninitiated; there’s also a taboo against direct questions. “There’s no database that spits out this information, no central source,” Vance writes. “In fact, it’s considered almost unseemly to ask.”

That’s because we’re all a little squeamish about the mechanics of networking, and our discomfort comes to the fore when we have to explain the dark arts to a newcomer. I felt the weight of Vance’s incredulity when he describes his first internship search at Yale law. “That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game,” he writes. “They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network.”

Vance was lucky enough to have mentors who offered honest guidance, primers on the unwritten rules of an unseen game, but too few students get that kind of break. The Gallup-Purdue Index puts enormous stock in the value of mentor relationships, correlating them to higher personal well-being and job satisfaction among graduates. But the inaugural survey in 2014 found that barely one in five students had a mentor as part of their undergraduate experience. Outside of niche scholarship and retention programs, we’re not doing nearly enough to help students navigate the unmapped terrain of academic and professional life.

In one particularly vivid example, Vance recounts a recruiting dinner at a white tablecloth restaurant in downtown New Haven. Faced with more cutlery than any sane person needs, he retreated to the bathroom for a phone-a-friend lifeline on fork selection. Reading the details of his nerve-wracking meal — “That’s when I realized ‘sparkling’ water meant ‘carbonated’ water” — I felt proud that my university offers voluntary etiquette dinners for students. It’s easy to criticize that kind of course as outmoded or patronizing, until you read Vance’s very real mortification as he tries to bluff his way through a formal evening. If the world is going to judge you on something, we ought to be willing to teach it.

The biggest lesson of Hillbilly Elegy is just how much there is to teach. As the divides in our culture and our economy have deepened, bridging the distance between Vance’s world and the college environment has become a bigger lift. Our well-mannered discretion about this gap is born of best intentions, but it leaves working-class kids like Vance at a real disadvantage. He makes a persuasive case for more blunt acknowledgment, ending one chapter with a “non-exhaustive list of things I didn’t know when I got to Yale Law School.” It includes gems like, “that your shoes and belt should match,” and my personal favorite, “that finance was an industry people worked in.”

Vance’s story is not universal. He’s white, which affords no small amount of privilege. He benefited from a network of extended family that supported and cared for him, however imperfectly. And he attended a decent public school. None of those things are taken for granted. That Vance still felt such a vast gulf between his world and academe is a measure of our challenge. And it suggests there’s still a great deal our institutions can do to feel less foreign to our own students.

That means not just sharing information and simplifying processes, but also telling stories like Vance’s. It means avoiding the coded politesse that plays down the class divide and benefits of those on the winning side of it. Candor is not a cure-all, but Vance’s memoir makes a powerful case for a more honest accounting of what separates us.

Eric Johnson is assistant director for policy analysis and communications in the Office of Scholarships & Student Aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This essay reflects his personal views.


Smedberg Math Camp Highlights Students Natural Skills


On Saturday, September 24, 2016, Coalition for Educational Partnerships (CEP), a California GEAR UP parnter, hosted a Common Core Math Camp at Smedberg Middle School, located in Elk Grove, CA.

The Camp provided families with a deeper understanding of the State of California‘s adoption of the Smarter Balance Assessment; and how the Common Core Math Practices provide skills and concepts that offer students meaningful opportunities to succeed in college and careers

img_178314The CEP facilitator highlighted the students’ natural skills and abilities in a collaborative, project-based graphing activity. In addition to collecting ideas, families received resources to continue the learning at home with family, friends, and neighbors.


For more information about CEP, please visit their website.