How we respond to disparities between high schools

July 2, 2014

By hammersmith

While I was in graduate school, I lived in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., a few miles down the road from two of the most prestigious public high schools in the United States.

We were renting, but families that bought homes in the surrounding neighborhoods paid eye-popping premiums for proximity to the two schools–often hundreds of thousands of dollars more than they would pay for a similar home beyond Fairfax County. Why? Because parents believed that attending George Mason High School or Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology gave their children better chances to move on to the nation’s elite universities.

This is the pattern with which Lois Weis, Kristin Cipollone, and Heather Jenkins grapple in a starkly titled essay recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Class Determines College Admissions.” They contend that many premier high schools perpetuate inequality of opportunity, enabling some students to be “packaged” for admission to highly competitive universities, while other students are left out. Describing a program that places students from low-income families in schools similar to Mason and TJ, they write:

Lucky for them, they were now at a school that explicitly articulated the rules of college admission and offered the coursework and experiences needed to help them be competitive candidates. Along with admissions counselors with small caseloads, these benefits let them make up some ground. But think of all of their peers—all the smart, talented students—that do not have the fortune of finding their way to a top-tier high school. They are at a serious disadvantage, and all the more so as top secondary schools become better at packaging students for college admissions—as the competition stiffens.

A few days ago, I discussed this essay with a Flinn Scholar alum who was the first in his family to attend college. By his senior year of high school, he said, he wasn’t disadvantaged in terms of family income, but he nevertheless lacked the “family knowledge” to approach the college-application process most effectively. He was fortunate to have a high-school college counselor with a small caseload, but still he only learned about the Flinn Scholarship just before the application deadline.

For hundreds of potential Flinn Scholarship applicants, this scenario will surely sound familiar. And so I want to offer this reassurance: We’re keenly aware of the challenges that such students—and their college counselors—face.

Each spring, we meet numerous Flinn Scholarship Semifinalists and Finalists who represent high schools with long histories of producing Flinn Scholars, sometimes three or four in a single year. But we also meet Semifinalists and Finalists who are the first students in their teachers’ and counselors’ memories even to apply for the Scholarship. And each year, a few schools produce their first-ever Flinn Scholars. This year saw the first Scholars from Chandler Preparatory Academy, Northland Preparatory Academy in Flagstaff, and River Valley High School in Mohave Valley.

It’s unfortunate and undeniable that there are indeed unspoken “rules of college admission” that some high-school seniors understand and others have never been told. Here in the Flinn Scholars Program, one of the steps we take to meet that challenge is to present information sessions around Arizona where we can share details about how the Flinn Scholarship application works and offer suggestions that will benefit students in every college and scholarship application they complete. Our goal is to make our process as transparent as possible, so applicants have the best possible opportunity to articulate their achievements and potential.

Further, we assess candidates holistically, knowing that merit is not measureable with a single data point. Once we receive the applications, we instruct our teams of reviewers to assess the merit of candidates in the context of the resources and opportunities available to them. For instance, a high-achieving senior at 59-student Seligman High School, 75 miles west of Flagstaff, is going to have a very different profile than a high-achieving senior at 3,600-student Hamilton High School in Chandler. Our reviewers work to meet and fairly assess applicants precisely where they are.