Clarise McCants is a field assistant at Education Trust.

Poverty has deep roots in America. There is no simple way to eradicate it. Some look at our nation’s have-nots and say, “Oh, they’re poor and uneducated. Let’s give them money so they’ll have an equal chance at success.” The ability to afford college is important, but insufficient: without providing those who struggle economically with adequate preparation, education or other supports that approximate the circumstances of those standing on firmer financial terrain, poverty persists.  And when it does, many observers blame its victims. “How could we have expected success from these people?” they say. “Guess they’re meant to be janitors after all.”

A recent Washington Post series about the “Seat Pleasant 59,” offers a pungent example of this soft bigotry and misplaced blame. The series looked at what became of 59 fifth-graders from an elementary school in Prince George’s County who, back in 1988, were promised college scholarships if they graduated from high school. The benefactors were two rich white guys with noble intentions: Abe Pollin, a former District of Columbia sports entrepreneur, and Melvin Cohen, a successful businessman.

Only 11 of the 59 students Pollin and Cohen promised to help actually went on to graduate from college. Some ended up in jail or dead. Many of the others are still struggling. But as I read their life stories and the reader reactions that appeared in the newspaper soon after, I couldn’t help but sense that “college isn’t for everyone” sentiment churning just below the surface. And as someone who grew up in circumstances similar to those profiled in the series, I was offended.

Many of the Seat Pleasant 59 who enrolled in college, did not graduate, but it wasn’t because they didn’t try to “make something of their gift.” They failed because they lacked the preparation and support needed to succeed in college. Just like many low-income students today, the Seat Pleasant students got low academic expectations, poor instruction, and a watered-down curriculum that didn’t equip them for college. The way I see it, the Post series let the education system that failed these students completely off the hook.  

As a kid growing up in North Philadelphia, I was forced to jump hurdle after hurdle to make it to where I am today. Along the way, I’ve had to overcome the poverty that often accompanies having a single mother, as well as the cycle of drugs, abuse, and illiteracy that plagued not only my community, but my family. I was lucky enough to attend public magnet schools. Today, I’m working my dream job at an educational advocacy organization here in Washington, D.C., and in May 2013, I expect to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

However, my story’s not the norm in my community. Many of the friends and family members I grew up with didn’t go to college. Some couldn’t attend for financial reasons, some claimed that “college wasn’t for them,” and some went to vocational schools and got certificates because they wanted a “guaranteed career.” The paths their lives have taken look somewhat similar to the Seat Pleasant 59. A good number of them have been in and out of jail, one of my cousins was recently shot to death, and most of them have dead-end jobs or no job at all.

For students like me, education is the surest passport to freedom. People who walk into our public school classrooms saying “college isn’t for everyone,” are really saying “college isn’t for any of you.” They may not mean to, but they’re undercutting our future choices. In today’s tough economy, even college graduates who find themselves unemployed have better odds of success than people without a degree.  And, it’s not that one can’t build a decent life without a college degree or that everyone must go to college. However, society must give everyone an equal chance at succeeding in college before it starts removing their options.

When they’re young, we tell children “the sky is the limit,” but by high school — especially if they are poor, black or brown — the low expectations of “alternative pathways” bring that “limit” down to the ground. Affluent students don’t have that problem. Sure, a few opt to skip college — Steve Jobs or Bill Gates come to mind — but most eventually do go to college: The sky remains their limit.
We can’t create the perfect scenario for every single low-income or underrepresented kid of color. But, we can work to break down the systemic barriers that close off their options. One place to start is by overhauling the education pipeline that fails the majority of them every day. Philanthropists promising kids scholarships without ensuring that the supports are in place to prepare them for success, is like sowing seeds on rocky ground and saying “germination isn’t for all of you.” Directing their generosity other ways might actually yield real growth for students.

“College isn’t for everyone” is yet another way to imply that one group of people is inferior to another group of people. Not to sound like George Bush, but that seems a lot like soft bigotry to me. And, it’s a form of oppression because it denies people like me the chance to reach a level that everyone — not just the privileged — should be entitled to. Uprooting poverty takes more than good will. It means transforming our nation’s schools, so they really work for everyone, no matter what their race or income.

Clarise McCants is a field assistant at Education Trust


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