Apodaca: Trying to fix the glaring inequality in education

In a single week last October, 11 colleges sent representatives to Newport Harbor High School, providing a diverse geographic and academic sampling for students to peruse.

The visitors hailed from prestigious four-year schools, such as Pomona College, New York's Barnard College and Middlebury College in Vermont, as well as from local campuses, such as Orange Coast College.

By the end of January, nearly 100 colleges had sent recruiters to meet with interested Newport Harbor students. A similar number visited Corona del Mar High School.

Meanwhile, Costa Mesa High School has received about 22 college visits since the start of the school year. And at Estancia High School, only six colleges had representatives on campus during the first half of the school year. During the entire 2012-13 school year, just 12 colleges showed up.

Here we have yet another example of the glaring inequality that exists in education.

The troubling pattern isn't unique to Newport-Mesa. That was made clear in a Los Angeles Times survey of public and private high schools across Southern California. Published in December, it found that schools in affluent communities scored vastly higher numbers of visits by college recruiters than their counterparts with larger proportions of low-income and minority students.

There are a few possible explanations.

Some schools — largely the wealthier ones — have college counselors and coordinators, often paid for by parent donations. These specialists develop relationships with colleges and play a key role in getting admissions people to visit their campuses to meet with students.

For their part, colleges tend to return to the same schools where they've had success finding qualified applicants in the past. They know the schools, the curriculum and the communities, and are rewarded with a ready pool of relatively high-achieving applicants to pad their admissions numbers.

It's probably also no coincidence that the high schools college recruiters favor tend to have students who are less likely to require financial aid.

Does the discrepancy matter?

After all, there are so many ways that inequality reveals itself throughout education, including the lack of access to quality pre-school, enrichment programs and academic support. When the deck is stacked against you, does one more bad card make that much of a difference?

The short answer is yes.

It would be easy to shrug off this one example of haves vs. have-nots. But when students who have probably gotten the short end of the education stick their entire lives find themselves marginalized and overlooked yet again, in such an obvious way, it's only right that we ask if the imbalance can be corrected.

The main reason it's important to bring college representatives to underserved high schools is that the students at these schools are typically the very ones that most need this kind of contact.

These are often the students who are less familiar with the college admissions process, are less aware of all the choices that might be available to them, and are less able to travel to college campuses.

Compare that to the experience of my two sons, both CdM graduates. Like their classmates, they grew up understanding the advantages of a college education. I was able to take them to visit colleges across the country, where they went on tours, met with admissions personnel and talked to enrolled students. They checked out dorm rooms, ate at campus dining spots and spoke to officials of programs they were considering.

Both attended summer programs for high school students at elite universities, which gave them a taste of college life and possible areas of future studies, as well as impressive items for their college applications.

Back at school, my sons took advantage of every opportunity to attend sessions that CdM offered to meet with college recruiters. They learned more about the schools, shook hands with the officials and added their names to lists of interested students, all of which they were told would help demonstrate their enthusiasm come admissions time.

Now imagine a student without those opportunities. Perhaps they're the first in their family to consider college. Their parents know little about college admissions, and they can't afford a private college counselor or trips to campuses outside the immediate area.

This student can attend a districtwide college fair, a packed event where representatives from many schools man tables, hand out literature and answer questions. They could follow up by checking out college websites — when they're able to access a computer, that is — and perhaps even chat online with college personnel.

It's a start, but it's hardly a match for the resources available to the kids at more affluent schools.

It's surely no coincidence that the schools with more colleges visiting also tend to have higher graduation and college admissions rates. And while it must be acknowledged that college isn't necessarily the right choice for everyone, and that community colleges can offer an excellent path for many students, why would we hold kids back from exploring all the opportunities that might be available to them?

Persuading colleges to send people to visit with students at high schools not currently on their lists might not seem like much. But every step toward overcoming the entrenched bigotry of low expectations and unequal opportunity that persists throughout education is a step we must take.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World