the problem with educational equity

From 2016 - 2018 I had the privilege of being tasked to serve in the fight for educational equity. I was 22 years old, and I had graduated from Texas A&M University by the skin of my teeth. With my Political Science degree in hand, I was ready to take on the world. However, I had no income to fund my journey. Out of fear of living out the rest of my days back home, I quickly tapped into the Aggie Network to obtain a job. 

I knew I wanted to find work that helped me make my community a better place, so upon finding a position open with Advise TX, I was confident I found a significant first step in my professional journey. The position called out to me because it was youth-focused. I had spent most of my undergraduate volunteer hours working in youth development, so finally getting paid to perform a task I already loved doing resonated well with me. 

In joining AmeriCorp's College Advising Corps, I had the privilege of serving 1,000 high school seniors enrolled in Eisenhower Senior High School in Houston, TX. As a college advisor, I was tasked with assisting every senior find their best-fit institution, apply for financial aid, register for standardized testing, and promote an awareness of higher learning.

Observing Educational Equity

As the primary source of the most up-to-date information regarding college admissions, I had to wear numerous hats. There were times I was a consultant, wherein parents, students, teachers, and counselors would come to me to ask how to get the students more engaged in college pursuits, oftentimes I was marketing college awareness via events, workshops, lectures, career and college fairs, and incentives to apply for colleges. 

There were even times I was a counselor and confidant, assisting both students and parents in finding solutions to problems and barriers that struck a chord. Educational awareness in underserved communities is almost nonexistent without men and women of authority creating a climate that pushes young minds to achieve more than what they believe they can. In schools like Eisenhower Senior High School, where almost all of the students are members of a marginalized demographic, economically disadvantaged, at-risk of dropping out (over 75% as of 2017), and are enrolled in free-and-reduced lunch programs (over 90% as of 2017), the average student has the desire to obtain a higher standard of living, but has no knowledge of how to do so.

The Results of Educational Equity

Data Highlights (Average of my two-year tenure):

  1. 95% one-on-one interactions, meaning I held a personal face-to-face conference with 95% of my students at least one time 
  2. 76% of my students attended at least one presentation held by a university representative, therefore leading the students to possess an awareness of options post-graduation 
  3. Approximately 80% of students submitted at least one college application. In addition, those same students were accepted to at least one college to which they applied. 
  4. Every student enrolled in Eisenhower High School saved approximately $60,000 in test registration fees and college application fees through the use of waivers. 
  5. Students obtained approximately $7,500,000 in financial aid (grants, scholarships, and institutional aid)

The Findings & Conclusions of educational equity

The conclusions when it comes to students are highly simplistic: students of underserved communities are willing and able to pursue a high standard of living if they are equipped with the correct tools. Students and parents alike require an awareness of their options. Often times in underserved populations, students are simply attempting to keep their heads above water, financially, academically, socially, mentally, and emotionally. 

There is an extremely common misconception that marginalized groups are predisposed to a lower aptitude to succeed academically. However, what these misconceptions (and the statistics that perpetuate similar thinking) fail to illustrate is that there are numerous factors that affect a student's learning. A student's lack of success regarding college admissions is not because they lack the grades or standardized test scores, but because: 

  1. The schools in which they are enrolled in have not properly instilled the desire to attend college in their students. 
  2. There are factors outside of school (financial, emotional, social, etc.) that affect the students’ ability to perform at the highest level academically. 
  3. They were not groomed to possess the knowledge of where and how to look for resources to assist them in attending college. 
  4. They have been forced to believe they are not “college ready” and have therefore been lost in the crowd in comparison to students who appear to be more promising. 
  5. They are first-generation college students, in which a student not only can face the barriers previously mentioned but in addition are not able to seek out assistance at home.

Why The Findings & results of educational equity matter

Understanding why underserved communities fail to achieve educational equity is how we can work to achieve educational equity. It creates a more personalized prescription for the problem at hand. It is important to acknowledge that not every student possesses the same problems. One cannot simply give full stock to the idea that teenagers have universal problems, as many of the common problems teenagers face are superficial at best. There are an infinite number of factors that may cause a high school senior to face barriers when pursuing the idea of attending college. Even within marginalized populations, each student faces different barriers. Simply put, although there were commonalities among my students, every student needed a unique plan to achieve their goals. 

Understanding this as an advisor allows the impact to not only be more efficient but also to manifest much more genuinely. Each student begins to feel more like an individual, as opposed to a number, or a cog in the machine, some for the first time in their lives. The goal is not to treat them as if they need saving, or as if their life story is that of a crisis. Oftentimes, what can definitively be categorized as a troubled lifestyle, or an at-risk lifestyle is simply the norm for the student.

They have not had the luxury of knowing a better lifestyle. If an authority figure were to approach that student with a sense of misplaced urgency, the student would not be able to compute the good intentions of the authority figure because the student was not approached with empathy and understanding. These students do not need saving, they need guidance. They need to be shown their options, equipped with the proper tools, and be allowed to choose their own path. When an authority figure understands this, then they truly begin to understand why the findings matter. The goal is to guide the students and allow them to write their own story.

why strategies = results in educational equity

One of the primary strategies to create a climate of college awareness was to make a deliberate effort to engage with the students personally. The most important factor to remember when engaging with young men and women and attempting to provide them with new information is to make a connection. Marginalized youth are quick to enact a "pariah protocol", in which you are effectively shunned from their attention span.  if they cannot notice similarities of themselves in you. 

A person of authority could have the best ideas and intentions, but if your audience cannot connect with you as a person, they will inherently (if not deliberately) ignore the message. After completing the objective of connecting with the students and winning their favor, I had to make an effort to market collegiate pursuits to my students. By incentivizing students through the use of imagery, marketing, and providing a tangible reward, a person of authority can entice students to fill out monotonous paperwork. In addition to marketing "collegiate propaganda", I had to provide information, and I preferred to give my students information from the source. By inviting representatives from colleges and universities from across the globe, I was able to provide my students with a vision of what higher learning could be from an extension of the university itself. 

Through career and college fairs, presentations from university representatives, and prominent guest speakers, my students were able to know what is out there and understand that the world is much larger than Houston, TX. Lastly, I had to put the students and staff to work. I had to organize workshops, presentations, and training sessions to push the students and staff of Eisenhower Senior High School to fill out paperwork and meet deadlines.

the takeaway: educational equity

The biggest motivator of my time in Houston, TX was the students that I served. There was never a morning in which I woke up and told myself, “I don’t want to go to work today”. I genuinely enjoyed the various personalities of my students. My days would be full of boredom when I was tasked to clock in on a staff training or a student holiday. My main passion was my students and their needs. 

With that said, the lessons the students of Eisenhower High School taught me are invaluable. It’s amazing what can be accomplished with a combination of perseverance, timeliness, and patience. The desire of a determined student is a powerful force. Often times, the school system will fail to cultivate a student’s desire, and the student is either left behind or forced to mold into the status quo. They begin to find themselves fitting into roles and succumbing to naysayers instead of paving their own way. Somewhere along the line, someone sold them the idea of security instead of investing in their dreams. They forget to develop perseverance, timeliness, and patience and instead begin journeying on the road most commonly traveled. 

During my time with Eisenhower High School, I learned to hone and perfect these traits, not only for myself but for the students I was working with. It was important for me to acknowledge early on that the job was not about me, regardless of what goals and desires I had for my students. What mattered most was the impact my guidance had on the students. The bottom line was simple: I had to help these students achieve their post-graduation goals, and do so with perseverance, timeliness, and patience.