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Leveling the playing field for low-income students

An interview with an elite private school counselor who quit for a job in the inner city

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Higher Ed Watch

Joshua Steckel

Joshua Steckel

In 2006, Joshua Steckel left his job as a college counselor at an elite private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to take a similar job at the Secondary School for Research, a public school in Brooklyn that primarily serves low-income, inner-city students. (The Secondary School for Research has since changed its name to Park Slope Collegiate.)

In the book Hold Fast to Dreams (The New Press, 2014), Steckel and his wife Beth Zasloff write about his experiences helping students—many of whom never thought they’d go to college—at the Secondary School for Research pursue a higher education.

I recently talked to Steckel—who left the Secondary School for Research in 2009 for a college counseling position at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies—about his transition to the public-school system, and the lessons he’s learned about the state of college opportunity in this country. Here is an abridged version of that conversation, edited for clarity.

Question: Why did you decide to leave a ritzy private school to work at an inner-city public high school? Did your former colleagues at Birch Wathen Lenox think you were nuts?

Answer: I guess they did think I was a little nuts. At private schools, the college counselor is a very important person. For families who are paying tens of thousands [of dollars] in tuition each year, the outcome of the college admissions process can feel like the final word on the value of their investment. People wondered why I would leave for a public school nobody had ever heard of.

I left because I grew increasingly uneasy with my role in a system that was so clearly structured to favor the privileged. The longer I spent in the job, the more clear it became to me what a tremendous impact quality counseling and advocacy had on where students applied and where they got in. The idea that our college admissions system functioned as a meritocracy—or even resembled one—seemed more and more empty. The playing field was anything but level. And I felt like I was playing for the wrong team. It wasn’t that the students and families I was serving didn’t need help, but that the system was set up in such an unjust way: those who already had the most advantages in life were getting a leg up, and those whose life circumstances made them the most vulnerable and the most in need of support were getting the least.

Q: What were your expectations when you arrived at the Secondary School for Research? What surprised you the most when you got there?

A: When I arrived, I was surprised by how little the students knew about college. I was surprised by how few students thought college was actually a possibility.

I was surprised by how low students’ SAT scores were. I was surprised by how all over the place the grades on many students’ transcripts were. And in light of these things, I was surprised to be meeting so many incredibly talented, smart, insightful and resilient kids every day.

I was surprised to learn of the indignities that kids endured in their day-to day experience: having to unbuckle and remove their belts as they shuffled through the metal detector each morning; the pizza place across the street that refused to serve students from the school at lunch; the cops who shooed them out of the neighborhood at the end of the day. I was surprised to learn of the outrageous inequities that defined students’ lives. I surprised to learn from students how often their academic records were a clearer reflection of a history of trauma or of ongoing instability in their lives than of their ability or achievement.

Q: How were the attitudes of students and families about college different than at Birch Wathen Lenox?

A: For students and families from Birch Wathen Lenox, college was an entitlement. The question was never whether they would go to college, but which college would they go to. Or, more specifically, how they would get into the “best” college. Affordability was almost never part of the conversation.

Students and families from the Secondary School for Research generally understood college—and its promise of social and economic mobility—to be something that was not for them. To work against this, they felt, required extraordinary effort, exceptional ability and luck.

Q: In your book, you talk about how important it is for a college counselor not only to counsel students but to advocate for them. Did you feel that this was a much harder job at the Secondary School for Research than it had been at Birch Wathen Lenox? Did the admissions officers you had worked with in your previous job treat you any differently once you moved to the Secondary School for Research?

A: Colleges were less responsive to my advocacy when I moved to the public schools. The issue wasn’t so much that I was treated differently as it was that my students and my school were simply off the radar.

Related: A ‘promising’ way to help low-income students to and through college

So it was definitely harder. Some admissions officers thought I was crazy for the number of emails I’d write about particular students. Even when I had their ear, I felt like I had to fight harder to get colleges to really hear students’ stories, to understand their strengths and character and recognize the value they would bring to campus. I had to push admissions staff to read applications in ways that felt unconventional for them. This meant being able to connect the dots when a dip in grades was the result of (all-too-common) catastrophic changes in life circumstances, and not assume it to be a reflection of ability or work ethic; or learning to look away from SAT scores and rigor of transcript (usually measured by the number of AP courses) to find indicators of potential and promise.

Q: I think some readers will be surprised to learn that the students you worked with at the Secondary School for Research were academically prepared to go to elite private colleges. Did you worry at all that you were setting students up for failure by pushing many of them to go to those schools?

A: I felt a lot of anxiety about this when I began working in the public schools. So many of my most promising and impressive students also had deficits in writing or math, and all had limited exposure to highly rigorous coursework.

What has been striking to me, as I’ve followed students over the last 10 years, is the incredible rate at which students can grow academically and intellectually, given the right college environment. Nkese Rankine, one of the first students I met at the Secondary School for Research, was a sophisticated, adept analytical thinker and an effective youth leader whose essays were simplistic and full of grammatical errors. By the time she graduated from Bates College in 2011, she had submitted a 120-page thesis, drawn from her experiences studying abroad, that explored concepts of whiteness in Afro-German identity. She attributes her success to writing tutors and other academic supports within a rich and challenging academic environment; well-developed mentoring and peer-support structures; and an institutional commitment to cultivating community understanding of economic and racial difference.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a college say they don’t want to “set students up for failure” as a justification for rejecting my students’ applications. Colleges should be asking instead how they can help low-income students succeed. Students often fail for reasons that have little to do with their ability or academic preparedness. In general, colleges don’t do nearly enough to address this. It is hard to do well on a test when you are hungry. It is hard to find the hours of concentration to write a good paper when you are worried about issues at home—violence, threat of eviction—that you know no one else on campus can really understand or relate to. It is hard to contribute to classroom conversation when you are having to absorb daily micro-aggressions that undercut your sense of self and identity.

Q: Do you think that some colleges are more apt to enroll a less qualified wealthy student than a highly qualified lower-income student? In other words, do dumb rich kids have a leg up over smart lower-income kids?

A: Yes, definitely.

I remember how steamed I was when I learned, at the end of my first year in the public schools, where the Birch Wathen Lenox seniors were going to college. I knew those kids well, because I’d worked so closely with them the year before. My least successful students at Birch Wathen Lenox had been accepted to and were planning to attend colleges where many of my highest-achieving, most compelling students at the Secondary School for Research had been rejected.

Related: Are public universities becoming bastions of privilege?

The reality at most admissions offices is that student financial need matters, a lot. Financial aid resources are limited, and admissions directors are often responsible for tracking the status of the financial-aid budget as the admissions staff moves through decisions in committee. It is not unusual for admissions staff to come into committee on a given day with guidelines about the number of “full-need” students they can put in the accept pile, or the number of “full-pay” students they’d have to admit to make these offers possible. And while it is not necessarily the case that an admissions committee will dip—i.e., lower their standards—simply because a kid is full-pay, it is absolutely the case that there is a higher bar for kids with high need, because scarcity of resources means more students competing for fewer spots.

Q: When it comes to financial aid, you talk about how surprised you were about the extent to which colleges “gap” students (leaving students with a large gap between the amount of money the government says they need to go to college and what they actually receive). Is this a problem you run into a lot?

A: All the time. It is standard practice among private colleges.

The conventional wisdom communicated by private colleges about financial aid is not to let the high “sticker” price keep you from applying: the sticker price is never the “real” price, so just apply and see what kind of aid you get, because you never know. This is bogus. Only a tiny percentage of private colleges are able to meet families’ full need, and we know exactly which ones those are. Those few colleges get a lot of play in major media outlets, and have an outsized impact on the general public’s understanding of the higher education landscape. Ironically, media coverage of their policies around aid, many of which are admirable, often functions to perpetuate the terrible fallacy that low-income kids somehow have it easier and that college costs are not really a problem

Related: Which college will replace Wash U. as the least socioeconomically diverse in the country?

At this point, I don’t even allow my kids to apply to those places where we know they will be gapped, unless it is under the auspices of a program or partnership through which there is a commitment to meeting students’ full need.

It was heartbreaking, that first year, when I hadn’t yet gotten it. The students had made it through a grueling marathon of a process, motivated in part by the faith they had invested in me and in what I told them was possible. Students came into my makeshift office ready to finally celebrate their acceptances, and I had to say: “No, that’s not a real choice. You can’t afford to go there.”

Q: What do you think is the biggest obstacle that low-income students face in terms of going to college? Academic preparation? Lack of finances? Lack of guidance? Familial obligations?

A: Any large-scale solution to increasing college enrollment and attainment must address the deep structural inequalities that shape the lives of low-income students.

There are also critical systemic problems which must be addressed within the field of higher education. Funding and cost structures, for example, are very poorly conceived, if we really do believe their purpose is to make higher education possible for all students and families, and allow it to function as an engine of mobility.

But if we’re talking about meeting students where they’re at right now and intervening in a way that can make a big difference, I think there’s nothing more important than quality college counseling.

One of my former students, Mike, said it this way: “It’s not something that a student can do alone. Kids need someone to really work with them, to let them know that even though things haven’t been so great in their life so far, they can go on to do great things.”

Students need counselors to stand beside them and look into the future with them, and they need counselors who can offer the intensive support and advocacy required to navigate the process. Counseling for strong college “match”—to help students connect with institutions where they will have access to adequate funding and robust support structures, designed to meet the particular needs and challenges faced by first-generation and low-income college students—is critical to increasing college enrollment and attainment. “College-readiness” means little in the absence of a quality college match.

A ridiculously small percentage of the students in our country’s public schools currently have access to quality counseling of this kind. Most school counselor education programs do not offer training that is specific to counseling for college access and success. One in five schools in the country does not even have a school counselor. An average caseload for a school counselor nationally is over 400 students, and in some states, like California, it’s one counselor for every 1,000 students.

Q: Your book does a fantastic job of showing just how complicated the lives of low-income students are. Do you think that policymakers, higher-education researchers and the news media appreciate this?

A: I think there is so much amazing work happening right now in policy, research and journalism around inequality and higher education. I feel very hopeful.

I do think that a great deal of this work is happening at a very high altitude—at 35,000 feet, as they say. It is critical that we’re using big data to better understand students’ choices and outcomes; that we’re trying to imagine ways to bring policies to scale and to use technology to impact the largest number of students.

Related: Hillary Clinton should acknowledge that tuition tax breaks don’t work

But we miss some really important stuff from all the way up there. This is why we wrote Hold Fast to Dreams. This work, if it is really going to be about equity, must be rooted in empathy, on the ground with students where we can hear their voices, value their stories and see their experiences in granular, close-up detail. Otherwise it can be too easy for our own assumptions and paradigms to frame our way of thinking about things. And then we miss the smallest, most important things.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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