Monday, May 26, 2014

Who Gets to Graduate?

For as long as she could remember, Vanessa Brewer had her mind set on going to college.

The image of herself as a college student appealed to her - independent, intelligent, a young woman full of potential.

But it was more than that; it was a chance to rewrite the ending to a family story that went off track 18 years earlier, when Vanessa’s mother, then a high-achieving high-school senior in a small town in Arkansas, became pregnant with Vanessa.

Vanessa’s mom did better than most teenage mothers. She married her high-school boyfriend, and when Vanessa was 9, they moved to Mesquite, a working-class suburb of Dallas, where she worked for a mortgage company. 

Vanessa’s parents divorced when she was 12, and money was always tight, but they raised her and her younger brother to believe they could accomplish anything. 

Like her mother, Vanessa shone in school, and as she grew up, her parents and her grandparents would often tell her that she would be the one to reach the prize that had slipped away from her mother: a four-year college degree.

There were plenty of decent colleges in and around Dallas that Vanessa could have chosen, but she made up her mind back in middle school that she wanted to attend the University of Texas at Austin, the most prestigious public university in the state. 

By the time she was in high school, she had it all planned out: she would make her way through the nursing program at U.T., then get a master’s in anesthesiology, then move back to Dallas, get a good job at a hospital, then help out her parents and start her own family. 

In her head, she saw it like a checklist, and in March 2013, when she received her acceptance letter from U.T., it felt as if she were checking off the first item.

Five months later, Vanessa’s parents dropped her off at her dorm in Austin. She was nervous, a little intimidated by the size of the place, but she was also confident that she was finally where she was meant to be. People had warned her that U.T. was hard. “But I thought: Oh, I got this far,” Vanessa told me. “I’m smart. I’ll be fine.”

And then, a month into the school year, Vanessa stumbled. She failed her first test in statistics, a prerequisite for admission to the nursing program. She was surprised at how bad it felt. Failure was not an experience she was used to. 

At Mesquite High, she never had to study for math tests; she aced them all without really trying (her senior-year G.P.A. was 3.50, placing her 39th out of 559 students in her graduating class. She got a 22 on the ACT, the equivalent of about a 1,030 on the SAT - not stellar, but above average).

Vanessa called home, looking for reassurance. Her mother had always been so supportive, but now she sounded doubtful about whether Vanessa was really qualified to succeed at an elite school like the University of Texas. “Maybe you just weren’t meant to be there,” she said. “Maybe we should have sent you to a junior college first.”

“I died inside when she said that,” Vanessa told me. “I didn’t want to leave. But it felt like that was maybe the reality of the situation. You know, moms are usually right. I just started questioning everything: Am I supposed to be here? Am I good enough?”

There are thousands of students like Vanessa at the University of Texas, and millions like her throughout the country - high-achieving students from low-income families who want desperately to earn a four-year degree but who run into trouble along the way. 

Many are derailed before they ever set foot on a campus, tripped up by complicated financial-aid forms or held back by the powerful tug of family obligations. Some don’t know how to choose the right college, so they drift into a mediocre school that produces more dropouts than graduates. 

Many are overwhelmed by expenses or take on too many loans. And some do what Vanessa was on the verge of doing: they get to a good college and encounter what should be a minor obstacle, and they freak out. They don’t want to ask for help, or they don’t know how. Things spiral, and before they know it, they’re back at home, resentful, demoralized and in debt.

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