A Rural School District Rattles the Ivy Cage
“The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High Achieving, Low Income Students” reports on a sad, longstanding educational reality: high-achieving low-income students, many who reside in rural areas and many others who are ethnic minorities, do not apply to Ivy League and other exclusive universities. A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, “The Missing ‘One-Offs,” further shows that a vast majority of the high-achieving, low-income students who do gain admission to top universities reside in just 15 urban areas, among them New York City, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.. Students who live outside those metro places seldom apply to the most prestigious universities in the country.
These findings were picked up in NPR’s recent story “Elite Colleges Struggle to Recruit Smart, Low Income Kids.” And articles on the same subject have appeared in Education Week and the Washington Post, based also on data in the National Bureau of Economic Research paper.
As a long-time teacher in rural South Texas who has worked directly to help low-income Mexican American students gain admission into Ivy League universities and schools such as Stanford and MIT, I agree with many of the findings of the study. I agree that high-achieving, low-income students generally do not know anyone in their schools or communities who attended an Ivy League college.
I also agree that students typically don’t find opportunities to talk with admissions counselors from Ivy League universities. This is particularly disheartening because those universities often offer more competitive financial aid packages than do the state schools that these students typically find themselves attending.
But I believe the problems are much deeper than students’ gaining exposure and access to recruiters and information. I think the issues are systemic and historical; they are matters of institutional commitment.
I have worked with teachers, parents, and students since the early 1990s to help more than 100 youth from a rural South Texas high school gain admission into places such as Yale, Stanford, Brown, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, and Georgetown; of those students, 98% are Mexican American and most come from low-income, working class homes. Even though the curriculum at our local high school hasn’t always been the most rigorous, nor has the instruction necessarily been as high quality as for students in some of the metro areas the research article describes, people in our community have always been committed to helping our youth pursue the best higher education opportunities this country has to offer. We have built the local infrastructure to create a story around a college-going culture.
Photo courtesy of the Llano Grande Center
We initiated the college placement work at Edcouch-Elsa High School located in Edcouch, a Texas-Mexican border town with a population of 3,000 residents; neighboring Elsa has another 5,000 residents. After five years of placing local students in Ivy League schools, we came to the realization that we were participating in the ubiquitous “brain drain”: our work had been helping kids find a way out of their rural community. The problem was that we had no plan to get them back, if they indeed wanted to return home after college.
Our response was to create a nonprofit organization, the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development, through which we reinvented our college prep work by shifting the focus to a community-based program. Through Llano Grande we teach students to engage in community-based research, to conduct oral histories and ethnographic studies, and to investigate their personal, familial, and community stories.
Soon our college prep work had a community based identity, and slowly we began to see Ivy League graduates return to South Texas. Their coming back home has been significant because we're building a more robust middle and upper middle class partly comprised of Ivy-League-educated locals who serve as new role models that both value the history of the community and push for innovation in local life.
Unfortunately, our story is an anomaly. We succeeded because we took control of our college prep work, not because the Ivy Leagues came looking for our students. I know of no recruiter from any Ivy League university who ever came to our school before 1993, the first year we placed one of our kids in an Ivy League college (a first in our 75-year history).
We placed one student at Yale in 1993, another at MIT and a third at Georgetown, but those placements followed a year and a half of planning and travel, including a cross-country trip in a 15-passenger van filled with students to visit the Ivy League schools. We financed the trip by selling tacos and pan dulce daily in the school cafeteria and by appealing to local businesses to help defray some of the costs. We did not get substantial assistance from Ivy League schools for this trip, or for the dozen subsequent trips we have taken, other than pleasant campus tours and the occasional meal in the campus cafeteria.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, because we do appreciate that admissions officers have returned calls, made meals available while we are there, and helped in other ways. I also don’t want to minimize the efforts of a few admissions folks who committed themselves to our students and even made frequent visits to our rural high school to recruit. Those acts of generosity and progressive recruiting practices have happened in our experience with Ivy League universities.
But they have not been the common practice or mode of operation. We’ve had to make it happen, with minimal resources but steadfast commitment, plenty of enterprise, and large doses of persistence. Our Ivy League record is really due to the agency of one community rather than the agency of the Ivy League schools.
Here are some working assumptions, vis-à-vis our story and the story of communities that look like ours -- perhaps most communities outside the 15 metro areas referenced in the a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.
First, there are thousands and thousands of high-achieving, low-income students in this country; there is no shortage of top students who are rural, who are Mexican American, Native American, African American, and who represent other historically marginalized communities.
Second, many isolated communities have good people and high-achieving students but they often lack the basic infrastructure to generate a college-going program such as we have created. Llano Grande came out of our quixotic imaginings, our dreaming about possibilities that our community hadn’t previously considered.
Third, I am not convinced that Ivy League schools are committed to high-achieving, low-income students in rural and other out of the way places. If they were, they would already have put their massive endowments to work to help local communities figure out more effective ways to get their kids to see that an Ivy League education is possible.
Harvard, Yale, and Stanford talk about their progressive financial aid offerings, but as the National Bureau of Economic Research paper argues, those scholarships are mostly set aside for the metro kids. From a public relations standpoint, that’s typically fine for the Ivies because they can recruit enough high-achieving, low-income students from those urban areas. They can show the numbers.
What they can’t show is authentic diversity within their student bodies, and they can’t show an investment in helping historically marginalized communities build infrastructure and tradition so that kids back home will see that others like them are able to attend Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.
Photo by the Llano Grande Center
There are some exceptions, such as Mercedes Domenech, the Brown University recruiter who made the personal commitment to our school and community. Because of her dedication -- and ours, of course -- at one point 16 kids from our high school were enrolled at Brown at the same time. There’s also Monica del Toro, the Edcouch-Elsa alumna who earned an undergraduate degree from Stanford and a graduate degree from Harvard, and is now a Harvard recruiter herself. As such, she takes trips to her old high school and also makes frequent visits to other schools like ours, which in my estimation is part of the new approach Harvard and other Ivies should be taking. But it seems that to make this happen they have to find someone like Monica.
As the National Bureau of Economic Research article argues, high-achieving, low-income students tend to do well in Ivy League schools. The success of our students supports that argument. Our kids have become medical doctors, teachers, university professors, engineers, nurses, lawyers, school board members, non-profit leaders, school principals, and entrepreneurs. And they’ve become role models for younger kids in the community. Applying to Harvard is very acceptable in our community, and so are getting admitted and earning a degree.
But it’s happened because of us, not because of Harvard, and as long as the Ivy League schools continue to perpetuate the same recruitment practices, the sad lack of real diversity on their campuses will continue. They have to make a commitment to doing things differently.
Francisco Guajardo is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Texas Pan American (UTPA) in Edinburg, Texas. He was born in northern Mexico, raised in Elsa, TX, studied at the University of Texas at Austin, and taught at his alma mater, Edcouch-Elsa High School. He is a founder of the Llano Grande Center, the Center for Bilingual Studies at UTPA, and the Community Learning Exchange, and a board member of the Center for Rural Strategies.