From the New York Times
By Jason DeParle
December 22, 2012
GALVESTON, Tex. — Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“I don’t want to work at Walmart” like her mother, she wrote to a school counselor.
Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.”
Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.
Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.
“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”
Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.
Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.
The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.
“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”
The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.
Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.
While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead.
Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes. Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.
In placing their hopes in education, the Galveston teenagers followed a tradition as old as the country itself. But if only the prosperous become educated — and only the educated prosper — the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge.
“It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.”
No one pictured the teenagers as even friends, much less triplets. Angelica hid behind dark eyeliner, Melissa’s moods turned on the drama at home, and Bianca, in the class behind, seemed even younger than she was. What they had in common was a college-prep program for low-income teenagers, Upward Bound, and trust in its counselor, Priscilla Gonzales Culver, whom everyone called “Miss G.”
Angelica was the product of a large Mexican-American family, which she sought both to honor and surpass. Her mother, Ana Gonzales, had crossed the border illegally as a child, gained citizenship and settled the clan in Galveston, where she ruled by force of will. She once grounded Angelica for a month for coming home a minute late. With hints of both respect and fear, Angelica never called her “Mom” — only “Mrs. Lady.”
Home was an apartment in a subdivided house, with relatives in the adjacent units. Family meals and family feuds went hand in hand. One of Angelica’s uncles bore scars from his days in a street gang. Her grandmother spoke little English. With a quirky mix of distance and devotion, Angelica studied German instead of Spanish and gave the fiesta celebrating her 15th birthday a Goth theme, with fairies and dragons on the tabletop globes. “Korn chick,” she fancifully called herself, after the dissonant metal band.
But school was all business. “Academics was where I shined,” she said. Her grandmother and aunts worked at Walmart alongside Mrs. Lady, and Angelica was rankled equally by how little money they made and how little respect they got. Upward Bound asked her to rank the importance of college on a scale of 1 to 10.
“10,” she wrote.
Melissa also wanted to get off the island — and more immediately out of her house. “When I was about 7, my mom began dating and hanging around a bunch of drunks,” she wrote on the Upward Bound application. For her mother, addiction to painkillers and severe depression followed. Her grandparents offered her one refuge, and school offered another.
“I like to learn — I’m weird,” she said.
By eighth grade, Melissa was at the top of her class and sampling a course at a private high school. She yearned to apply there but swore the opposite to her mother and grandparents. Protecting families from their own ambition is a skill many poor students learn. “I knew we didn’t have the money,” Melissa said. “I felt like I had no right to ask.”
New to Upward Bound, Melissa noticed that one student always ate alone and crowded in beside her. “She forced her friendship on me,” Angelica said.
Bianca joined the following year with a cheerfulness that disguised any trace of family tragedy. As the eldest of four siblings, she had spent the years since her father’s death as a backup mother. To Bianca, family meant everything.
She arrived just in time for the trip at the heart of triplets lore — the Upward Bound visit to Chicago. While they had known they wanted more than Galveston offered, somewhere between the Sears Tower and Northwestern University they glimpsed what it might be. The trip at once consecrated a friendship and defined it around shared goals.
“We wanted to do something better with our lives,” Angelica said.
Ball High was hard on goals. In addition to Bosco, a drug-sniffing dog profiled in the local paper, the campus had four safety officers to deter fights. A pepper spray incident in the girls’ senior year sent 50 students to the school nurse. Only 2 percent of Texas high schools were ranked “academically unacceptable.” Ball was among them.
Melissa now marvels at what a good parent her mother has become to her younger brother after she stopped drinking and was treated for her depression. But when she returned from the high school trip to Chicago, the conflicts grew so intense that Miss G. took her in one night. “I really put her through a lot,” said Melissa’s mother, Pam Craft. “Everything she did, she did on her own — I’m so proud of her.” Miss G.’s notes variously observed that “there are limited groceries,” “student is overwhelmed” and “she’s basically raising herself.”
While faulting her mother’s choices in men, Melissa made a troubling choice of her own with her ambitionless boyfriend. Among the many ways he let her down was getting another girl pregnant. Yet as many times as they broke up, they got back together again. “He is going to bring her down,” Miss G. warned.
Despite the turmoil, Melissa earned “commended” marks, the highest level, on half her state skills tests, edited the yearbook and published two opinion articles in the Galveston newspaper, one of them about her brother’s struggle with autism. Working three jobs, she missed so much school that she nearly failed to graduate, but she still finished in the top quarter of her class. It was never clear which would prevail — her habit of courting disaster or her talent for narrow escapes.
Returning from Chicago, Bianca jumped a grade, which allowed her to graduate with Melissa and Angelica.
Angelica kept making A’s on her way to a four-year grade-point average of 3.9. “Amazingly bright and dedicated,” one instructor wrote. A score of 1,240 on the math and reading portions of her SAT ranked her at the 84th percentile nationwide. When the German teacher suddenly quit, the school tapped her to finish teaching the first-year course.
Outside school, Angelica’s life revolved around her boyfriend, Fred Weaver, who was three years older and drove a yellow Sting Ray. Fred was devoted — too devoted, Mrs. Lady thought, and she warned Angelica not to let the relationship keep her from going to college. Fred’s father owned a local furniture store, and everyone could see that Fred’s dream was to run it with Angelica at his side.
Senior year raced by, with Miss G. doing her best to steer frightened and distracted students though the college selection process. Despite all the campus visits, choices were made without the intense supervision that many affluent students enjoy. Bianca, anchored to the island by family and an older boyfriend, chose community college. Melissa picked Texas State in San Marcos because “the application was easiest.”
Angelica had thought of little beyond Northwestern and was crestfallen when she was rejected. She had sent a last-minute application to a school in Atlanta that had e-mailed her. Only after getting in did she discover that she had achieved something special.
Emory cost nearly $50,000 that year, but it was one of a small tier of top schools that promised to meet the financial needs of any student good enough to be admitted. It had even started a program to relieve the neediest students of high debt burdens. “No one should have to give up their goals and dreams because financial challenges stand in the way,” its Web site says.
Plus an unseen campus a thousand miles away had an innate appeal. “How many times do you get the chance to completely reinvent yourself?” Angelica said.
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