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“Dream big, work hard and you can do anything.” This is what students often hear about what it takes to get into college and pursue their dreams.

If the recent alleged admissions scandal proves anything, though, it’s that this isn’t always true, especially if you are a student of color, a first-generation college student or someone from a low-income community.

As a first-generation college graduate, I have experienced the myth of the American meritocracy. True story: I got into my dream school, New York University, and was ecstatic. I flew from Chicago to LaGuardia Airport all set to start school, and immediately turned around when I realized I didn’t have enough money to get from the airport to campus. In my mind, if I couldn’t afford the ride, I would not be able to afford the tuition and the books and food. This was the sign that NYU was not for me … it must be for someone else, someone smarter, someone more prepared, someone richer and whiter.

I felt the psychological toll of impostor syndrome. When I enrolled in college, I questioned if I deserved to be there. I had started high school in a truancy program where the police would occasionally pick me up at my house to drive me to school and lecture me about how I was on the road to nowhere. A teacher in high school told me I was not smart enough to be in his class. Many people implied that I wasn’t really qualified to attend NYU. They said I only got in because I “checked the black box.” All of these experiences sent signals to me that I didn’t belong. They only confirmed what I had already been directly and indirectly told: “You should just be proud that you finished high school.”

Even after overcoming my initial disappointment at not enrolling in NYU, I summoned the courage to enroll in another college; however, one semester later, I had to pack my bags and leave campus. I put in the work. I earned a 4.0 grade-point average. But because I did not have a wealthy parent to clear the financial hold on my account, I was told it was time to leave.

So while this latest revelation of celebrities allegedly buying their children’s ways into various colleges is disappointing on many fronts, it’s certainly not shocking. Growing up as a black woman outside of Chicago, I was told I’d have to “work twice as hard to get half as much.” Potential and talent may be equally distributed, but access and opportunity definitely are not.

Growing up as a black woman outside of Chicago, I was told I’d have to “work twice as hard to get half as much.” Potential and talent may be equally distributed, but access and opportunity definitely are not.

The reality is that our country’s education system is designed to privilege the few, not the many. Only 22 percent of students from low-income communities earn college degrees, compared to 67 percent of their peers from high-income areas, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. This recent news only illuminates how the exercise of privilege by individuals exacerbates the already-massive educational divide created by an inherently inequitable system.

We cannot afford to continue to operate in ways that reward pay for play. We cannot continue to widen the gap between low-income and high-income students.

What can we do about it? The good news is that we are already doing the work, but we need others to join the fight for educational equity. Here are five ways to help:

First, acknowledge our students’ brilliance. Nearly identical percentages of 10th-graders from low- and high-income communities aspire to obtain college degrees; however, students from low-income communities — particularly students of color — are more likely to be tracked into lower-level courses; attend schools that are under-resourced and don’t have AP courses; can rarely afford SAT courses; and are less likely to have parents who earned college degrees and can help them navigate the complex college application and financial aid process. We must acknowledge the resilience and brilliance of students who are persevering in the face of these challenges, and ensure that colleges see the assets our students bring to campus.

Second, recognize the danger of a single story. If you are a high school teacher, parent or mentor, it is time to acknowledge that most images, movies and stories about what it means to “go to college” are outdated. College students are not just recent high school graduates who join fraternities or sororities, use their parents’ credit cards, party all night and sleep all day — only to wake up late on the last day of finals to pass the exam and get the degree, job and car. We need to debunk these myths and normalize the struggle in a way that helps students see that there’s a problem with the system, not a problem with them.

Third, meet students where they are, not where you want them to be. Part of our work at OneGoal, a national college access and success organization, is serving as co-pilots rather than the holders of knowledge. We’re not telling our students what to do. We are there to help them excavate their strengths, connect their educations with their career aspirations and life goals, and find the best paths for their unique contexts.

Fourth, connect our education systems. Our K-12 and higher-education systems are disconnected from and unaccountable to each other. K-12 is focused primarily on shorter-term outcomes like high school graduation and college acceptance, but preparing to succeed in college must start in high school (if not even earlier). Moreover, colleges and universities are rarely accountable for the successful matriculation, persistence and degree completion of students, a reality most deeply felt by first-generation and low-income students. What if these systems worked together to support all students from cradle to career, not just those deemed “smart enough” or otherwise worthy of higher education and the opportunities that come with it?

Fifth, make high-quality colleges more equitable and “student-ready.” We need to simplify the FAFSA and prioritize items in the federal education budget that create more equity rather than perpetuate the current system. When our students enter college, they often find themselves at campuses that aren’t prepared to meet their financial, academic, social or emotional needs. And, no, the “center for students of color” on campus isn’t enough. Our students need and deserve a support system that is fully integrated into the experience of college. Their professors, advisors and deans all need to assume responsibility for the success of underrepresented students, catering to the whole person and not just offering surface-level solutions.

We cannot leave an entire generation of brilliant students behind. It’s time to work to implement these changes and finally close the equity gap.

Our students deserve nothing less.

This story about college access was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Melissa Connelly is chief program officer for OneGoal, a national college access and success organization.

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