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How much does a private university education cost?
I posed that question last week to a group of high school sophomores in Compton, one of the poorest communities in the Los Angeles area. There was a long pause.
“A thousand dollars?” a young man asked tentatively.
“Five thousand,” said another, more assertive.
With a lot of coaxing, I managed to get the class up to $30,000, before giving them the right answer: more than a quarter of a million dollars.
That’s the amount you need to get an undergraduate degree from any of the top private schools in America, including some of those mentioned in the college admissions scandal that broke this week. Many offer generous scholarships, and many students are supported by government financial aid; still, thousands hoping to go there must scramble to come up with mindboggling sums.
I expected gasps when I said “a quarter of a million,” but I didn’t get them. That’s because, to boys and girls growing up in Compton and other poorer parts of southern California — largely subsisting on $25,100 or less per year (the official poverty level in 2018 for a family of four) — a quarter of a million is an inconceivable figure. So is $10,000. So is $1,000 for that matter.
Most of these families have nothing saved up. They belong to the 40 percent of Americans who have no more than $400 in cash at hand or in a bank and the 39.7 million who live in poverty.
They endure stress, fear, uncertainty, unemployment, health issues and mental health issues; they shelter in homes where multiple residents share one or two rooms, where the threat of eviction is permanent, where there’s no private place to study, where free time goes to menial jobs that can help the family finances, rather than to reading or advancing education; they come from neighborhoods where gangs, drugs and crime run rampant, tugging their children with the force of a neodymium magnet away from tenuous promises about a faraway future.
There are no carrots dangled before these kids, no incentives offered for long-term success. Middle-class scions are taught from day one that if they do A or B now, they’ll get X or Y as a reward later; but “later” doesn’t factor in when your goal is simply to get through to tomorrow.
Children who can succeed in this environment do so against extraordinary odds. Because success isn’t a tangible thing: it’s the kind of end-of-a-rainbow possibility they see in movies and magazines, as disconnected from their day-to-day lives as the grand homes and mansions in Hancock Park and the Palisades — which may be just a few miles away, but that distance feels wider than an ocean.
Cynics who object to “affirmative action” have no idea that making it to university when you’ve come from these roots requires exceptional energy and will and a gravity-defying readiness to take on the odds. It requires an inner strength that’s always rubbing up against self-doubt, a willingness to embark on a journey as hazardous as any ever taken by Lewis and Clark.
They have no awareness of the reality such children face — like one teenage girl I met who has to study in bed with a flashlight under the blankets, waking up in the middle of the night to do so because a half-dozen people are asleep in the same room and it’s too noisy when they’re awake. Or another young woman who longs to concentrate on improving her English and would willingly devote two hours or more to reading each evening — the amount an adviser counsels — except she has to help her grandmother clean houses because her father is disabled and her mother’s unemployed.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve encountered many young people like this as I and several colleagues have gone into a dozen or so high schools in south and east Los Angeles, along with others in Compton and Inglewood, to present a new program, the Young Executives Fellowship, that will kick off this summer.
The Fellowship is a joint endeavor between THR, Big Brothers Big Sisters and several prominent media companies (WME, Amazon Studios, Imax, Entertainment One and Starz) that have worked over the past year to address the lack of diversity in Hollywood’s centers of power. Along with three major universities (USC, Emerson College and Howard University), we’ve created a program that will offer a special curriculum for high school juniors and seniors, give them paid internships, college scholarships and eventually jobs. The idea is to lure the best and the brightest teenagers and open their eyes to a wealth of opportunities in entertainment, connecting them with mentors who will guide them on their way — we hope — to the top.
The package doesn’t come cheap. It costs $10,000 or more per student, and that doesn’t count the internships and endless amounts of time volunteers have to donate to each one. You’d think boys and girls would be leaping at the chance to be included.
And yet I’ve been shocked by how few apply. Even with the support of the Los Angeles mayor, the superintendents of the Compton and Inglewood school districts and deeply committed high school principals, only 10 to 20 percent of the students who attend our presentation submit an application. Because by the time they’ve reached the age of 15 or 16, they’ve already come to believe the system is rigged against them. They’ve already, consciously or unconsciously, erected an invisible wall between themselves and success. Sixty-six boys and girls promised to show up at one of our presentations last week; only 16 did. Afterward, the school counselor apologized. “They have so little self-confidence,” he explained, “they won’t take the risk.”
These kids live light-years removed from the progeny of the men and women who are alleged to have taken part in a vast educational conspiracy, bribing officials to get their children into one good college or another. They live in a different galaxy from the one in which an actress can consider giving $15,000 in baksheesh to a con-man just to raise her daughter’s SAT score by 400 points. The idea that a disadvantaged teenager might ever achieve anything like her 1420 score, when he or she has had no guidance, no tutoring, next to no preparation and none of the thought-conditioning that extends for years in advance of these exams, is beyond the realm of most poor teenagers’ imagination.
There seems to be no connection between these adolescents and those from the rich Hollywood clans that have been caught up in a scandal sucking in lawyers, businessmen, fashion designers and investors, all of whom have wealth the residents of poorer communities can only dream of. And yet there is.
It’s not just that, by inflicting their child on a university that he or she has no right to attend, they’re taking a place away from another who fully merits it.
It’s not just that they’re furthering an application process that has a host of problematic aspects — from an over-dependence on the SATs (which tilt toward affluent, middle-class kids) to an acceptance of “legacy” contenders to a rule-bending for sports stars who can barely keep afloat when it comes to actual studies.
It’s because such actions convince an entire social class that the system is rigged. It persuades them there’s no point in fighting, because the fight is already stacked. It hammers home the lesson they’ve been taught throughout their lives: that in this land of equality, some are massively more equal than others.
I hope Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin aren’t guilty (and certainly they deserve the presumption of innocence) because it would break my heart to think that, in trying to help their own kids, they’ve hurt so many others.
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