June 10th, 2019
Just A Leg Up? A Reflection Inspired by the College Admissions Scandal
Jennifer Lynne Morazes, PhD
On the day I received my acceptance to Harvard University, my mother cried. These tears conveyed not joy, but the fear and frustration of a single-parent who worried that my acceptance was a tease. There was no way, with our background and income, that the acceptance would translate into the reality of a Harvard education for me. My mom had raised my brother and me on less than $20,000 a year, and I would be the first in my family to attend college. Starting with Harvard appeared too optimistic.
Yes, I completed Harvard, but it was at a time before the term “first-generation college student” had gained traction and before full tuition offers. I felt an outsider due to my class background, yet my experience of “other” was not purely due to finances. Students with college-educated parents appeared so much more prepared, easily talking about the pros and cons of different professors and secure in either knowing or not knowing their path. According to a recent national study, one-third of first-generation students dropped out of college after three years, compared to 14 % of their peers whose parents had earned a degree, and first-generation students are less likely to complete their degree in four years, encumbering more of a financial burden.
Later, my mom would again express concern when I announced my plan to move across the country for an MSW/PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley. First-generation PhD students also face considerable challenges. Why was I doing this again? Shouldn’t I just “go to work”?
My answer - given my background, education meant a promise of stability. However, an unanticipated health event during my PhD program threatened this promise for me. Although I recovered from the initial manifestation of my condition and completed my degree, I was confronted with the fact that I would now live with a mental health disability going forward. Unfortunately, this fact would mean an additional disadvantage for my trajectory. Twice as many students with disabilities drop out of higher education, and only 30% of working-aged people with a disability are employed.
Peering over the challenges of education, wealth and health, I had reason to worry about my future self. When I think of those that are wealthy and/or educated, the advantages are apparent. Those with means can travel extensively for college trips, can afford fees for standardized tests and applications, can hire tutors, can network with family and friends with college and professional experience, and can leverage their cultural capital as the in-group for opportunities.
The playing field is already skewed. So, it is difficult for me to understand the rationale of an additional “tip” – just a leg up as has been described - in the university admission process for wealthy applicants when it is already tipped in favor of those from college-educated backgrounds without disabilities. And employment after graduation even with a BA or higher favors those that are “able-bodied.”
Even more painful for me is considering the misuse of disability accommodations by those seeking an advantage. Not only do I have my own lived experience, but I work in an agency staffed by people who are Deaf, those whose mobility is only made possible by wheel chairs, those who have experienced brain surgeries for epilepsy, have other neurological differences, or are blind. Accommodations are not a loop-hole, they are a way of making society fair. We are no less capable, yet access and support in education and employment can be difficult to find.
Luckily, the tears of my mother watered seeds within me, but not without strain, and unanticipated hurdles. She now beams with pride for my achievements. However, my road sometimes felt full of potholes and without a guardrail. Education and meaningful work were not assumed or guaranteed. So, when I think of my educational road and career path, I think more of the relief in my mom’s eyes rather than a desire to get “ just a leg up.”