The “Better” Shun the Best

This is one of those Monday nights where I thought I had lots of great things to say and share, but then it turns out, I’m just kind of a big happy mess from a week straight of working out/training and getting all hugely re-inspired about what I do for a living.

However, here’s one thing I’ve been pondering all day, but forgive me if this ends up being convoluted–my glasses are in the other room, and it’s just too much of a chore to go get them right now, and I’m a bit tired and rambling.

My good friend over at This is Not Real Life shared her thoughts on this New York Times article. I read her post, and then immediately flooded her poor dashboard with several full-length comments, all in support of her ideas and, naturally, in support of my beloved public institutions.

As a new student affairs professional, I’m still all alight about the role that I have in affecting students’ lives. But I’m not going to analyze what it is that these “elite” institutions need to do to attract the high-achieving poor (I’ll save that for another day). Instead, I’m going to share my story and my ponderings, too, because–as you should know–storytelling is an important aspect in the ongoing development of one’s identity.

There’s no doubt that my parents weren’t rich growing up. We were secure, that’s for sure, but we didn’t live a lavish lifestyle. I got dance lessons and music lessons, and I don’t remember applying for financial assistance for field trips or lunches, but I do remember that my dad questioned me one time as to why I absolutely needed to spend $60 or so on track team sweats.

I also remember that my parents told me not to go to my audition at Cornish, that it would be too expensive if I went there, and I shouldn’t consider it a college choice. While I’m certain a lot of this had to do with the fact that my parents just knew I would change my mind away from music, I’m also fairly certain this also had to do with finances.

Cornish was the only private institution I really considered. It was because, at the time, I wanted to study music; of course, I didn’t even think about the fact that it was a private institution. I just knew it was a music conservatory, and the other schools I was looking at were “just” universities.

The other “real” private institutions had long been ruled out. So had the out-of-state schools. I don’t specifically remember any conversations my parents and I had, but I think I remember saying something about a California school, and Dad briefly scolding me about the expenses involved–something along the lines of, “No way. That’s too expensive; you’re looking in-state.” The only private institution I was encouraged to think about was Gonzaga, although for the life of me, I really don’t know why. (Any insight, Mom? You know, Seattle University is a Jesuit university, too!)

So, long, long ago, I knew that I was going to go to a public institution without even consciously thinking about it. I wasn’t the most in-tune with my identity as a mixed-race female coming from a middle-class family. We were more towards the “not high end” of the middle-class spectrum, although Mom and Dad had so much in order that I never really considered our socioeconomic status. All I knew was we didn’t make enough money to send me to Stanford or Harvard, even though I was one of the smartest and brightest kids on the block.

I wasn’t going to go to an Ivy League school. End of question. My dad knew how financial aid worked. Maybe he was just trying to save me the disappointment of applying to those “highly selective” private institutions and finding out we’d be several thousand short despite PLUS loans and scholarships. (And I had a heck of a time securing scholarships my senior year, partially because I was lazy in writing the essays, and partially because I couldn’t sell my skills and talents and dreams without coming up short against the tri-sport athletes and virtuosos in my hometown.)

Like my friend (whom I eventually met in college), I chose Western. I chose Western Washington University because it was a good university, and because I was accepted into the music program there, and because my parents approved the price tag. I also got a scholarship! Whee! Granted, I was awarded a lot more free aid at Central Washington University, but I was keen on going west, out of eastern Washington and into the big (rainy) unknown. I never regret that choice because WWU became a driving force in my transformation into a much more conscious participant in society and a much more self-aware person.

After reflecting on all this, though, I still wonder about a few things. What if… I had been given the go-ahead to apply to one or two private institutions? Which institutions would I have chosen? My inclination is that I would have applied to Stanford, Harvard, maybe Notre Dame–those are the names that got people recognized, after all. Would I have worked harder to apply for more scholarships? How would I have reacted in finding out that the price tag on those “dream schools” was too much–or worse yet, still too much? Would I have then felt as if I was giving something up in choosing a public institution? Or would I have fought tooth and claw for the chance to go, no matter the cost?

I’m not sure about any of that. I mean, in my town, getting into University of Washington was a huge deal, and I turned that school down after acceptance.

I also wonder if–had the stars aligned in some strange way–would I have felt welcome at an elite institution? Would I have gone through my experience as “the girl here on scholarship?” What would that have been like for a young woman who had never before questioned her SES and was suddenly thrust into not just college culture, but a culture of social elitists and the privileged? I know that we ask those same questions in student affairs programs, but I wonder what’s being done to really help students that do make it to that final step of sending in their acceptance letter, despite all the barriers to their success.

In the end, it wasn’t a lack of awareness that kept me from the highly selective private institutions*. I was not a first-generation college student; my parents had plenty of experience with higher education. It was the reality that, even with a school’s help, there would be a steep price to pay. And as my friend brings up–am I losing out on opportunities because I couldn’t afford to brand my resume with words like “Harvard” or “Stanford?”

I’m capable of good work. I highly doubt that wealthier students my age were any smarter than me; it wasn’t purely brains that got them that Harvard education. The thing that kept this brilliant mind and many others out of those ivied walls were these ideas–no, realities–that an “elite” education has to mean absurd sacrifice for those of us not living lives of incredible economic privilege, and maybe–just maybe–an idea in the back of my head that, in the end, I just didn’t belong there.

I graduated from public school. Take THAT!

I graduated from public school. Take THAT!

*Also, just because something is “highly selective” doesn’t mean it’s the best. “The best” is going to factor in a lot of things, including cultivating meaningful members of society, providing opportunities for critical thinking and learning, etc. I know that if I have college-bound children, they’re going to be spending a lot of time articulating to me why they’re applying to certain schools and why it speaks to them.

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2 thoughts on “The “Better” Shun the Best

  1. Joe Sabado (@JoeSabado) says:

    I love reading your insightful thoughts:) I can relate to your experience. I graduated 3rd in my high school class and I probably would have had a chance of getting into Stanford. Unfortunately, when I visited Stanford with my class, I felt out of place. Just like you, my first thought was that no way my family would be able to afford Stanford. My dad worked two almost full-time jobs as a janitor and even had time to mow lawns / wash windows as his side business. While they were both college graduates in the Philippines, we were clueless when it came to higher education here in the US. For those reasons, I did not bother submitting my application.

    In the end, I chose the right school for me – UCSB. I’m still here after so many years as a staff:) But, if and when we do have kids, I do hope we provide them the opportunity to consider the school they belong in for their merits.

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