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Maureen Lane

Balancing Mission and Standards

The idea of the perfect student is very alluring to many colleges—their reputation thrives on it. Schools spend hours culling essays, grades, and test scores to find students who will thrive at their universities, make them look good, and possibly give a little something back to their alma mater after graduation. One group of students usually overlooked by college admissions counselors are students with potential not revealed by grades and SAT scores, specifically those who have overcome poverty in order to graduate from high school.

This group of students is now getting attention from an extraordinary group, College Summit. College Summit helps students get into college who show promise and are capable, but who would not otherwise be able to attend college. These students lack the intricate knowledge that college admissions sometimes requires; College Summit bolsters their skills and guides them through the grueling admissions process. Their efforts pay off: seventy-nine percent of College Summit students attend college, while less than half of low-income students nationwide do.

Meanwhile, the City University of New York system (CUNY) seems to be losing interest in students whose potential is not reflected in test scores, and is planning on raising its admissions standards in a move to increase the reputation of CUNY schools. This short-sighted vision of improving reputation may leave struggling students high and dry. CUNY was founded to serve students who would not usually be admitted into colleges, but that still desired the opportunity that higher education provides. A preoccupation with the cachet that schools have erodes away that founding mission, and may leave disadvantaged students with nowhere to turn for higher education. CUNY administrators and professors support the plan, saying students will be better prepared for college if the minimum SAT score required is raised. While certainly schools must do a better job of preparing students for the world of work and higher education, a policy in which standards are tightened without improving elementary and secondary education will not adequately serve students who struggle in high school. Additionally, a policy of raising minimum test scores without taking into consideration a student's grades, life experiences, and goals does not foster true education, but only a limited vision of what a "good college" should look like on paper.

We at the Welfare Rights Initiative certainly have seen the many barriers that low income students find in applying to and attending college.

A recent WRI graduate notes, "Everyone deserves a second chance when it comes to education, especially for people who are going through economic difficulties. Many would say that High School is the place where students are supposed to work their hardest, and that HS is essentially where 'honor students are born'. What many people tend to look past is the fact that in this world not everyone has the opportunity or support necessary to do extremely well during their High School years, which can be very stressful and difficult for students for many different reasons."

"As a student, I always thought that going to college was the best way to improve my education. There have been many times where I've witnessed students coming from High School with less than perfect grades and have been able to turn themselves completely around and place themselves at the top of their class. These are the students who are overlooked and not rewarded for their progress or efforts or their own achievements for that matter."

Putting up immobile barriers that prevent students from having the chance to turn themselves around does little to foster quality education. College should be the opportunity for students to grow and develop in many ways, including academically; being able to create an honor student should be as important as sustaining one.

Everyone should have equal access to opportunity. When it comes to education, there should not be a separation of who colleges do and do not believe are likely to succeed. All students who graduate high school should be able to go to college and obtain a degree, if they desire—not just those students who might have started off on the right foot or who perform well on standardized tests. Historically, CUNY has been a vehicle for the less privileged of New York to move to the middle class and obtain affordable and valued degrees. Organizations like College Summit are doing wonders to help poor students across the country, but they must be supported by good policy on the part of institutions of higher education. College education should not be a zero sum game: if you graduate from a well-resourced high school with good scores you are in…if you don't, you are out. It may not be that simple of an equation yet, but decisions like tightening the CUNY admissions are one more step in that direction.

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Posted at 11:00 AM, Aug 02, 2007 in Education
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