The Conversation: Joshua Steckel and Andrew Delbanco

In the fall of 2006, Joshua Steckel left his job as a college counselor at an elite private school in Manhattan for a public high school in Brooklyn. His new work, guiding low-income students, put him on the front lines in the effort to bring more socioeconomic diversity to the nation’s selective four-year campuses. Far from assuming that college was a choice, many of the students who entered Steckel’s cubicle had internalized the message that higher education was a world from which they were excluded.

Steckel’s book, Hold Fast to Dreams (New Press, March 25), folds his students’ stories into a larger social perspective on the barriers that exclude low-income teenagers from the nation’s colleges. The book, a collaboration between Steckel and his wife, the writer Beth Zasloff, follows ten of Steckel’s students as they apply to and then enter college.

The students’ challenges are vast and varied. Mike lives in a homeless shelter, caring for his younger brothers while his mother, struggling with abdominal cancer, looks for work. Aicha and Santiago are undocumented immigrants, restricting the already-limited financial aid they can receive. Rafael is a manager at a pharmacy in Brooklyn; his family, which depends on him, wonders why he is considering college at all. Nkese, a student at Bates College, chafes at the casual racism she experiences from her roommates and in the classroom. Ashley is accepted to Williams College only to realize, at the end of her freshman year, that she can better achieve her goals—and stay closer to her mother—at a community college in Manhattan. But eventually, and in different ways, the students thrive.

Andrew Delbanco, the Mendelson Family Professor of American Studies at Columbia University, wrote of the vanishing ideal of democratic education in his 2012 book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Delbanco traces the notion that college, rather than being simply a credentialing process, is a crucial time for character formation, when young adults develop an independent sense of ethical responsibility. When selective universities increasingly accept only the children of the wealthy, this mission is lost. As a result, our democracy—which relies on college to expose its young citizens to new points of view—suffers.

Steckel and Delbanco’s exchange has been edited for concision and clarity. —Amelia Thomson-Deveaux

Joshua Steckel (left) and Andrew Delbanco

Andrew Delbanco: Hold Fast to Dreams was an eye-opening book for me. You give such a vivid sense of the obstacles that low-income kids are up against when they’re applying to college, as well as once they get there. It’s especially valuable because, along with all the legitimate anxiety today about the affordability of college for the middle class, there’s a prevailing view that poor kids get a special break in the college sweepstakes—that they will qualify for big scholarships. I often hear people say, “Oh, once upon a time it was tough to be a minority kid, but today it’s an advantage.” Yet your book shows how students of color who don’t come from privileged families face difficult cultural problems along with financial barriers in getting to and through college. Sometimes the barrier can even be the attitude of their own parents, as in the case of the mother of Nkese, the student who decides to attend Bates College, in rural Maine. Nkese’s mom had heard about drinking and date rape, which are very real problems on America’s campuses, and so from her point of view, sending her daughter off to Bates was to send her to an unsafe place. But of course from the white, middle-class, suburban perspective, the place where Nkese grew up—inner-city Brooklyn—is the dangerous place, and they think of college as a safe zone.

Joshua Steckel: When I spoke with Nkese’s mom, Peggy, about this amazing opportunity Nkese had at Bates, she pointed out that Maine is 97 percent white. My assumption had been—why wouldn’t you want to get out of East Flatbush? I had to understand that Bates is a campus and a lifestyle that is totally separate from the world in which Peggy brought up her daughter. This story isn’t just about me or just about Nkese. It’s an illustration of a vast national gap in understanding the experiences of low-income kids, even after they get to college. We wrote about a young man named Rafael who went to another selective liberal arts college; often during his first year he would be stopped by public safety and asked what he was doing there. Another student, Angelica, spoke about a time when an African American friend was asked—in all seriousness—if his mother was like Tyler Perry’s Madea.

At Columbia University’s American Studies program, we have a partnership with a campus organization called the Double Discovery Center, which helps mostly minority kids from families where nobody’s gone to college to not only get into college but also through it successfully. We sponsor conversations between high school students and the college students who’ve already gone through the program, and one of the most persistent themes they bring up is what you were just talking about: how to adjust to a community where most people are white. 

That’s why when these students find their place on campus they ultimately have so much to contribute. Nkese had a difficult first year at Bates, and it was not at all clear that she would continue. But by the end of her time there, she had the ear of the Board of Trustees, and they made some powerful policy changes to ensure that the campus was a more equitable place. It’s not an exaggeration to say she reshaped the conversation about difference within that campus community.

That idea’s at the heart of what the American college is about—to be a place where students can learn from each other as well as from their teachers and their textbooks. The opportunity here is not just for the kids you’re writing about—it’s for their fellow students, because they bring a set of experiences that those other students are never likely to encounter. We can only be true to that mission if we take this concept of difference and diversity seriously. Difference and diversity can so easily become empty buzzwords. Every college puts out a brochure with pictures of students with different skin tones, but that visual diversity doesn’t necessarily speak to the kind of diversity that you’re writing about.

Yes, and that’s tied to something you talk about in your book—how central it is for college to provide real connections between students whose life experiences and ways of looking at the world are so different from one another. It’s an engine of our democracy. It has the power to shape and preserve the values that we think of as distinctly American.

The big challenge we all face is to wake the public up to the fact that this danger to our democracy is real and growing and needs to be addressed. We do not want to be a society where a significant number of our citizens feel hopeless. It seems from your book that it’s hard for these kids to push themselves, because they look around at their friends and families, and it’s a big stretch for them to believe that dreaming and trying will lead anywhere.

That’s the crux of the problem. At the end of the book, we tell a story about my five-year-old nephew Noah, who came home from school one day and told his mom that his five-year-old classmate asked him where he’s going to college. Noah was pretty stressed out and said, “Mom, do I have to go to college?” She said, “No,” and he replied, “Will you call and let them know I’m not coming?” Even in an unconscious way, he knew he had a reservation. My students feel the opposite of Noah. They feel like getting to college takes extraordinary efforts, and they understand even then how much of an effect serendipity has in determining their educational outcomes. One of the students we wrote about, Mike, shared his feeling that it was all an extremely difficult thing to do alone, especially when you’re a kid who feels like you don’t have a lot going for you. You have to have someone else who can see possibilities you wouldn’t otherwise see and help guide you through the process. But it also wasn’t about me. There’s nothing that I am doing that other people out there aren’t doing and that can’t be institutionalized. The kids who need that support the most are getting it the least. They need the intensive advocacy and support that our most privileged students receive every step of the way.

The contrast with the world you left—the Upper East Side private school—was also powerful. I was struck by that moment when you took some of your students to meet with a college admissions counselor at a private school in Manhattan and when you walked into that plush lobby, one student looked around in confusion and said, “Is this a school?”

At the private school where I used to work, my office was adjacent to the headmaster’s office. It was clear how valuable the position of college counselor was. At my new public school in Brooklyn, my office was a cubicle full of boxes and broken furniture, three floors away from most of my students. When I brought these three young women to the Hewitt School—well, it’s a beautiful school in an old townhouse. Immediately, we ran into one of my former students, wearing a tweed sports jacket. It was so clear how difficult it was for the young women from the public school to make that transition into this environment and still try to be themselves. Would an admissions counselor be able to hear what was so compelling about a kid if they spoke a different way or their application didn’t have the same packaging? They didn’t always, and there were moments when I felt extraordinary frustration and a sense of deep injustice. At the end of that first year, I remember feeling that my most compelling students were getting denials at colleges that my wonderful but less-high-achieving kids in the private-school world were gliding into.

But we also need to acknowledge that for most private colleges, if they undertook a determined effort to admit and support a significantly greater number of low-income students, it would be tough on their budget. It would require some fairly fundamental rethinking of priorities. Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that we’re not seeing that in most cases.

The budget issues are real and huge. But I also think that there is a lot of rhetoric that makes it sound like money’s not the issue, that the problem is with the kids’ qualifications. So many times, I’ve heard admissions officers say, “We don’t want to take kids and set them up for failure.”

I run into that a lot when I’m out there speaking about college and the challenges our institutions face. People will say this is just idealistic liberal dream talk, and the qualified applicants from poor neighborhoods simply are not there. That is total nonsense. Most of our colleges just aren’t looking hard enough for them—in rural areas as well as in the inner city. Part of that is because test scores are a poor measure of the capacity to perform in college and to contribute to college and beyond. The only thing that test scores reliably align with is family income.

We need to rethink what those test scores mean when talking about this specific population of students. Skidmore brings in 40 to 50 kids each year through their Opportunity Programs, and those kids’ average SAT scores are 300 points lower than the college’s average admitted student. And those kids are actually graduating at a higher rate.

It’s clearly benefiting the colleges too. A lot of people would expect that kids of the sort you are advising would be totally focused on their post-college employment prospects. But in fact the students you write about are also awakening to other possibilities and are eager to learn things that they didn’t know anything about—like the young woman who gets fascinated by German literature, of all things. College in America is supposed to be about self-discovery and enlargement of the mind and heart and spirit, not just getting a credential that enables you to succeed in the job market. There’s this insidious sense that liberal education—that’s for the privileged class, that’s for people who can afford to spend some time thinking about what they want to do with their lives. It’s not for young people who come from families worried about meeting their expenses. In fact, liberal education must be for everybody if we’re going to sustain a democracy, and your book conveys that’s what these kids want for themselves. They don’t just want to be slotted into a particular job track.

When Beth and I began this project, we were focused on documenting students’ experience with the process of applying to college. But then we had the opportunity to stay with the students for a longer period. We saw how consistently they were striving after education as a pathway to value and meaning in their lives. No matter how vocational or pre--professional they wanted to be in their education, that theme cut across all their stories. Ashley, the young woman who starts at Williams College and ends up at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, even after she’s decided to do nursing, it’s amazing how much personal, spiritual, and intellectual growth there is for her at the community college.

Yes, often people think—oh, all that personal-growth stuff, that’s what adults preach, not what college students really want. It’s true that more and more students, even at our elite institutions, are opting for fields like business or economics, which they see as a direct road to a lucrative career. But what your book conveys is that the desire for a broader education, a surprising education, comes from within these kids—it’s not something that somebody’s telling them they need or ought to want. It’s something they want to find for themselves. In your book, you’re quite focused on trying to get your advisees into selective residential liberal arts colleges. Those are great institutions, but those colleges are never going to be able to accommodate all the kids who deserve a mind-opening college education. So it’s critical that we focus on our public institutions, including community colleges, and make sure they are places where young people can have mind-opening experiences because inevitably, many more people are going to attend those institutions than the small residential colleges. Public institutions must continue to be bridges into the middle class and into democratic citizenship.

Absolutely. We can be doing a much better job of making sure that the kids who are populating our community colleges also have the opportunity to grow intellectually and personally. Especially since as we divest funds from our public institutions, they’re getting a lot less support.

Yes, at least we’re looking for solutions—cost savings, efficiencies, finding private support to close some of the gap left by declining public funds—but I’m not sure we’ve looked in the right places yet.

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