Stop Telling Kids of Solo Moms That America's Best Schools Cost Too Much


Stop Telling Kids of Solo Moms That America's Best Schools Cost Too Much

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Don’t let the debate about the high cost of education deter your high-achieving child from reaching for a top school

Lately, the media has proclaimed that expensive colleges aren’t worth the price and that state schools are a better value because students don’t accrue as much debt. Obviously, it’s necessary for all families to weigh the cost of college versus the payoff. However, I’m concerned that the recent outcry about the cost and value of prestigious colleges will further deter children of Solo Moms from applying to the most selective schools in our nation.

Aiming for prestige makes economic as well as long-term professional sense. In fact, if we as a nation don’t encourage economically challenged and diverse students to apply to the most prestigious and expensive schools, these fine institutions will resemble what they used to be: old boys’ clubs where only the most privileged families, and a few hardworking outliers, were allowed to join.

Admissions officers will tell you that they work extremely hard not to reproduce inequality and privilege at their schools. But to achieve true diversity, a wide spectrum of students needs to apply. Increasingly, discourse in the media and in our communities discourages all students except the wealthiest from considering prestigious schools with high price tags.

A lack of support and encouragement

For over a decade, I taught a large lecture class on social inequality at Northwestern University (NU), where I asked students to discuss the variety of factors that they thought led Northwestern to accept them. The answers were the usual sprinkling of facts that high school seniors desperately hope will impress college admissions officers at elite schools like NU: a strong SAT score, a letter from a senator, an alumni parent, being the valedictorian, getting straight As, having perfect pitch or a 130 mph serve, or volunteering at a homeless shelter.

My next question was, “Who convinced you to apply?” The answer was usually parents, guidance counselors, friends, or coaches. But a surprising number of students answered, “Nobody.” “Nobody?” I incredulously repeated the first time I heard this. These students would go on to explain that no one ever talked to them about aiming for the Ivy League or highly selective schools. I quickly figured out that these students were usually from cultural backgrounds and communities where applying to a prestigious school was a rare occurrence.

Over the years, hundreds of undergrads shared their stories during my office hours. It became clear that, although Northwestern did a good job of attracting and supporting minority students from the Chicago Public Schools, the undergrads who came through my door from other urban and rural economically challenged communities were the unusual few. Unlike their counterparts at New Trier High School in Illinois or Scarsdale High School in New York, they took the big step of applying to Northwestern with little encouragement or support. No one urged them to aim high, take risks, and gamble on applying to very selective schools. The problem is further compounded by the reality that college admissions officers rarely visit or actively recruit from most urban and rural high schools.

Year after year, I marveled at these students, many of them raised by single moms who, through sheer will and fierce independence, applied to NU, were accepted, contributed to the community, and went on to lead very successful careers. These conversations made me wonder about all the wonderful students who weren’t aware this was even a possibility for them because they lacked the support of teachers, parents, and guidance counselors.

My concern over this issue was further sparked when I moved to a New York State farming community. The culture of the local high school encouraged kids to apply to schools that were a shoe-in. I watched parents, guidance counselors, and teachers encourage seniors to apply to schools that were affordable and within easy reach. Even those with top grades in a rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program opted for state schools and less prestigious private colleges.

Three close friends of my daughter, who were also in the IB program and who were all raised by Solo Moms, were accepted into every school to which they applied. One of them, Kyla Gabriel, landed at Brandeis University, a very selective school, based on her desire to be in Boston and possibly play basketball. Gabriel is quick to point out that she loves her school but also notes that she didn’t receive guidance on where to apply and often wonders if she would have been accepted by one of the Ivies. I wonder, too. She was ranked number four in her class, achieved straight As, had excellent test scores and an IB diploma, and was raised by a Puerto Rican, divorced mom. I believe she had a great shot, but no one encouraged Gabriel to give it a try. Instead, she applied to two State University of New York (SUNY) schools and a few private schools where she was sure to get in. “Maybe I should have reached for more,” Gabriel said humbly to me, as if the decision had been all on her shoulders.

I also spoke to former Solo Mom Carolyn Amey, whose son Taylor, a high-achieving student, now attends the expensive and prestigious George Washington University (GWU). Amey explained that only a few from her son’s high school in Iowa ever applied to GWU or similarly selective schools and the ones who got in were usually from families with legacies. Taylor himself wasn’t ever encouraged to aim for selective schools despite his leadership roles, strong grades, and debate skills. “The counselors were unhelpful,” she told me. “He was entirely self-directed.”

It’s a shame that bright students, disproportionately kids of Solo Moms from urban and rural communities, aren’t told that they, too, can gain the most prestigious education available. According to a report titled True Merit by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarships and grants to exceptional low-income students, high-achieving, high-income students are twice as likely to apply to at least one highly selective institution as their equally qualified but low-income peers. In fact, the report states that for every high-achieving, low-income student who applies to a top school, 8% to 15% of high-income students also apply. The best and brightest in affluent communities aim high, while the best and the brightest in poorer communities are unintentionally boxed out. Observing the working-class and minority students at Northwestern whom “nobody” encouraged to apply and the rural farm community seniors who opted for guaranteed acceptance at state schools made me increasingly frustrated.

Sociologists have long examined the social phenomenon of lowering aspirations in the name of protecting children from the hidden injuries of class and status. For example, in her 1976 book Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-class Family, an ethnography based on hundreds of interviews with working-class families, Lillian B. Rubin reveals that these parents’ Sisyphean experience with school, jobs, and the class system leads them to temper their children’s aspirations in the name of love and protection. No parent or teacher wants to witness students getting their hopes up and being rejected. Communities where upward mobility is rare are more likely to advise children to hedge their bets and aim low.

But herein lies the rub: Middle-class and affluent families, counselors, and teachers do just the opposite. They explain to their students that the college application process is a crapshoot and that they should aim high. Standard procedure among wealthier families is to apply to a couple of “safeties,” a few “appropriate range,” and one or two “reaches.” These families and communities are secure enough in the students’ ability to pay tuition, as well as to weather rejection, that they encourage them to go for it. And every year, this is exactly how the Ivies and schools like Williams College and Amherst College, whose acceptance rates range from 5% to 15%, are filled.

Acceptance by one of the 20 to 50 most selective schools will provide life-altering opportunities. This is especially the case for single moms, whose median income is $26,000 and whose academically successful kids are disproportionately more likely to receive full rides to the best schools our country has to offer. Consider the educational routes of presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both sons of hardworking Solo Moms. For Clinton, it was Yale and Oxford, and for Obama, Columbia University and Harvard Law.

The debate: Are selective schools worth the price?

In 1999, researchers Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger published findings in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that rocked the prevailing wisdom of elite-college attendance. In their longitudinal analysis of 1970s college grads, Dale and Krueger found that earnings were not significantly higher for students who attended prestigious schools as compared to those who attended less prestigious schools. This research went on to spur many popular analyses of the value of an expensive, elite education.

Years later, the debate is far from settled, with scholars in education, economics, and sociology weighing in on both sides about whether the high price tag is worth it. Economist Caroline Hoxby, formerly at Harvard, now at Stanford University, found in her research of college outcomes that graduates of elite schools do earn more than those of comparable ability who attended less selective schools. The wealth of research and variety of measurement tools make it unlikely that we will achieve a definitive answer to this question. However, there is one very clear finding from Dale and Krueger’s study that folks on both sides of the debate agree on: low-income students are the exception. That is, the earning power of children from low-income families definitively improves if they attend the most selective colleges as compared to less selective ones.

Given the popular discourse over the questionable value of selective private schools, it’s understandable that middle-class families are conflicted about whether to invest $60,000 a year or more on a Princeton University, Williams, or Middlebury College. The challenges of the current labor market and the reality of millennials moving back home in droves after graduation make the price tag all the more frightening. Families unable to secure financial aid may decide that it’s not worth going into great debt or sacrificing retirement for a pedigree name.

But the research fueling the debate doesn’t actually speak to most single mom families, who earn far less than most two-parent families—again, a median income of $26,000. Scholars agree that if an economically challenged student meets the academic standards of an elite institution, the value of an education at that school is far greater to her than it is to her middle- and upper-class counterparts. “School admissions and financial aid policies that have as a goal attracting qualified students from more disadvantaged backgrounds may raise national income, as these students appear to benefit most from attending a more elite college,” Dale and Krueger conclude. For students of modest means, prestigious schools offer greater earning potential than less selective schools.

Solo Mom sticker shock and the myth of the less-expensive state school

Sons and daughters of Solo Moms earning less than $65,000 a year should be strongly encouraged to apply to prestigious schools if they have a strong academic record, ambition, and a secure sense of self. Attending a prestigious college or university will probably cost much less than expected and create opportunities that exceed what’s possible at less selective schools.

Let’s start with some facts about the top schools in our nation. They tend to have extremely large endowments, a great quality for students who need financial aid. The goal of elite schools with very healthy endowments is to meet the financial needs of every student who qualifies for admittance. This is not a difficult promise to keep for a school like Williams, which receives $50 million a year in alumni giving.

Consider Harvard, which boasts the largest endowment of any university, a whopping $36 billion. Consequently, 70% of Harvard students receive financial aid. Families that earn less than $65,000 a year pay nothing. Families that earn $65,000 to $150,000 pay 0% to 10% of their income (not including home-equity and retirement accounts), translating to an average payment of $12,000 per year. Since most single mom families fall into economic categories that yield high levels of financial support, it’s well worth it for their children to apply to these schools, especially because many of these students will benefit from application-fee waivers.

In the debate about whether educational institutions are worth their price, state schools are often heralded as the magic bullet—the affordable gateway to success. But this reasoning is problematic when we look at students in lower income brackets. It is very difficult for underfunded state schools with smaller endowments to compete with selective schools’ financial-aid packages. I spoke to a number of sons and daughters of Solo Moms who found selective private schools to be a better bargain than state schools. “Even though Tufts costs upwards of $66,000 a year, which initially scared me away, they are known for a very generous financial-aid program,” Jacob Kronenberg, a sophomore at Tufts University, told me. “I got in, and with all financial aid accounted for, Tufts is more than $15,000 a year cheaper than my state school would have been.”

Kyla Gabriel, the college junior I mentioned earlier, chose Brandeis over state schools. “My biggest piece of advice to mothers and students navigating the process on their own like I did is to look into schools that promise to meet families’ demonstrated financial needs,” she told me. “I found that I received more financial aid from prestigious private institutions than any public university.”

Solo Mom Margot Kessler’s daughter, an academic powerhouse, had been determined to attend a University of California (UC) state school. But because the room and board was so expensive ($15,000), she instead ended up at Vassar College, which presented a far superior financial-aid package—about $30,000 less than the UC schools overall. Vassar ended up being a fantastic school for this medical-school-bound student, who received a grant to work in an Ecuadorian hospital. This unique opportunity no doubt contributed to her acceptance by Harvard Medical School, where she continues to receive generous financial aid. Kessler echoes the sentiment of knowledgeable admissions officers: “Harvard wants a different kind of medical student, one who breaks the traditional mold, so my daughter received a letter encouraging her to apply.” Like elite undergraduate institutions, elite professional schools are beginning to expand the pool of applicants to find the best and the brightest.

The wealthy continue to apply and are happy to have less competition

Vivid news stories about the high cost of tuition at elite schools and their relative value have not deterred sons and daughters from wealthy, often white families from applying to the most selective schools in the United States. Application rates still far outnumber acceptance rates: Stanford is the lowest, at 5.1%, while others hover near Amherst at 13.8%.

Do the high application rates for these schools suggest that a throng of misguided rich fools are ready to waste their time and money? No. They understand that these schools offer phenomenal courses, inspiring teachers, beautiful surroundings, and the best that college life has to offer. Yes, as abhorrent it is for some to hear, our most prestigious schools are more likely than less competitive schools to provide superior academic and social experiences. In fact, the tendency of affluent families to scrape and claw to get their kids into expensive, prestigious schools often convinces poor and middle-class students to steer clear of them. This trend threatens to return these schools to what they used to be: bastions of trust-fund whites preparing to claim positions of power.

Admissions officers face the unenviable task of sorting through piles of applications to piece together a freshman class that doesn’t all come from Taft or Andover but rather represents our American diaspora. Furthermore, given the recent lament that helicopter parenting is resulting in kids who can’t hack college, admissions folks may place their bets on a scrappy, self-sufficient kid of a Solo Mom versus the coddled student who crumbles at his first B. Sadly, at Northwestern, I saw this phenomenon repeatedly. Without Mom and Dad to help with homework, laundry, and everything else, a surprising number of privileged undergrads sink rather than swim.

In their quest for diversity, prestigious schools are happy to tap into their large endowments to fund students from a variety of backgrounds and skill sets. Schools seek out football players, violinists, and math stars who represent the cultural and economic divisions in our nation. Admittedly, top schools still save slots for so-called legacy admits (children of alumni and other well-connected individuals), but today’s diversity goals attempt to slant the admissions process toward poor, working-class, and brown students who excelled in high school. Therefore, children of single moms with strong academic records shouldn’t be discouraged by high SAT averages and low acceptance rates. Colleges and universities, no matter how selective, aren’t only interested in students from New Trier, Scarsdale, and Deerfield Academy. You will find plenty of kids from elite boarding schools, but no longer will the scholarship student feel like an anomaly. In fact, 70% of Harvard undergraduates receive financial aid.

Even if a Solo Mom son or daughter isn’t Harvard material, he or she might be suited for smaller elite schools such as Wesleyan University, Tufts, Vassar, and others scattered around the country. Admissions officers look favorably on students who worked hard at the most difficult curriculum possible, even if that meant getting a few Bs here and there.

It may sound elitist to extoll the superior virtues of schools that historically catered to the upper echelons of bourgeois white society and even held racist and classist admissions policies not so long ago. Clearly, many successful leaders, scientists, and innovators were educated outside these hallowed halls. However, it’s precisely the history of elite education, which has led to huge endowments, that enables young, striving students to reach their goals with less debt and more opportunity.

What’s so great about prestigious private schools?

There are a couple of realities when it comes to elite education. First, elite institutions heavily recruit many of the most desired grad students and professors. For example, it’s well known that not only does Stanford hire some of the most brilliant, inspiring faculty, but, because of the school’s incredible perks and gorgeous location, they simply don’t leave. Obviously, publications records don’t always translate into great teaching, but those hired by these top schools are at the top of their game, and they provide research and collaborative opportunities that may not be available at other schools.

Another consideration in favor of selective schools is that, at state schools, a bulk of the teaching is done by graduate teaching assistants. When I was in my first year of a PhD program at SUNY Stony Brook, I had the horrifying experience of having to teach Introduction to Sociology. Not only was I unprepared, but as a very young grad student, I was barely older than my students. I highly doubt my courses compared favorably to those taught by more seasoned faculty in prestigious, private schools. Over the years, I became a much more accomplished teacher, but this phenomenon of an unprepared, inexperienced teacher is all too common at state schools.

Additionally, the smaller scope of elite schools can be a benefit as compared to state schools. Jacob Kronenberg explains that size matters: “Tufts is a great fit because I was able to help run two student organizations and have gotten to know lots of interesting people in our small campus environment.” In addition, the admissions departments of elite, selective schools can deliberately strive for diversity; by contrast, public schools are often more homogenous because they face strict edicts to educate students from their particular state.

Scott Thomas, dean at Claremont Graduate University, agrees that prestigious schools offer much more than a higher postgraduation income, the variable most commonly measured by economists. He points out that prestigious schools have outstanding libraries and museums, nationally and internationally distinguished faculty, low student-faculty ratios, and deep and loyal alumni networks. In addition, Dean Thomas states, “These selective schools offer outstanding dining halls and amenities typically afforded those of privilege and sheepskin-carrying membership in an elite group that signals a particular station in society. That’s quite a lot, actually.”

Although a pedigree, sheepskin, and beautiful campus are great, they aren’t the most valuable components of highly selective schools. I break down the advantages of prestigious schools into networking advantages among faculty and alumni networks; opportunity structures, such as internships and recruiting chains; and cultural capital, or the skills needed to shine in a job interview or feel comfortable at a recruiting event.

Networking advantages

For many college students, school and alumni networks are critical. Particularly for students in the humanities, social sciences, and education—and for business majors most of all—elite school networks offer valuable access to people and organizations who can further your career. Research bears out that business majors at top colleges “benefit from better internship opportunities and more robust networks than peers at lower ranked schools.” The only students who don’t appear to gain such a clear networking advantage from an elite education are engineers and scientists.

“There’s a clear benefit to the top 50 or so colleges,” economist Hoxby claims. “Connections made at the top schools matter. It’s not so much that you will meet the son of a wealthy banker and his father offers you a job, but that you meet specialists and experts who are on campus for conferences and speeches. The conference networking scene is much better at elite universities.”

At elite colleges without graduate programs, it’s also very common for professors to mentor and publish with undergrads. The published or lab-experienced undergrad will have a huge advantage when applying for postgraduate studies. This is true in the arts and music as well. Those seeking to hone a creative skill while in school will find well-funded departments and talented professors to guide them in self-discovery.

“Compared to a state school,” Kronenberg says, “Tufts allowed me to get to know my professors and gave me the opportunity to work in a lab where I get paid on top of my scholarship. It’s been immensely helpful because I get hands-on experience and exposure to real-life research. Tufts is ideal for this because it’s large enough that there is groundbreaking research going on, but small enough that interested undergrads can find research placement.” Most state schools with strong research departments rely on a bevy of grad students to fill research slots, which closes off such opportunities to undergrads.

Kyla Gabriel, who attends Brandeis, reaped the benefits of faculty networks when she was able to take the class American Health Care taught by Stuart Altman, the architect of the Affordable Care Act. “Since I want to go to grad school in public health, this was an amazing opportunity that I might not have received at a state school,” Gabriel explains. Additionally, this class positioned Gabriel to receive a prestigious internship at the Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation.

Carol Amey, whose son attends George Washington University, believes his school selection has had a profound impact on his networks. “Because of the school’s connections and proximity to DC, Taylor was able to sit down with a lobbyist and discuss a bill, which he absolutely would not have been able to do at his state school.”

In addition, alumni networks at prestigious schools are notoriously tight-knit and useful for graduates, and not just for those in the professional or business world. For example, at Northwestern, a Hollywood alumni support organization is extremely adept at facilitating stage and screen success by helping new grads find jobs in the entertainment industry. Stephen Colbert (class of ’86) is just one of the school’s many famous alumni entertainers. Marcus Folmar (class of ’96) shares that he auditioned for the TV show Ringer a few years back and found that the show’s creators, Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, had graduated from NU. He got the role, noting, “No matter where you go, no matter what show, you’re going to run into somebody from Northwestern.”

Networks accrued at college are particularly important for students coming from less-connected families. Attending an elite school goes a long way toward opening doors that would otherwise be firmly shut.

Opportunity structures

Related to networks are the internships and job opportunities available to students at very selective schools after graduation. Some of these opportunities come simply by virtue of the prestige linked to the school, while others are built into the structure of the institution.

Law firms remain exceptionally status conscious, often hiring based on where undergraduates went to school instead of how well they performed there. A friend of mine who attended Loyola University Chicago School of Law explained that judgments based solely on prestige continue throughout one’s career. Although he’s an accomplished 30-year litigator with many multimillion-dollar verdicts to his name, he says, “When I pitch to new clients, I’m always sure to staff my team with associates who hold pedigree law degrees, such as Harvard Law.” He also notes that his firm currently recruits only from very prestigious schools and that, these days, his Loyola degree never would have been given a second look.

Similarly, the top medical schools favor undergrads from Harvard, GWU, and some premier state schools, such as the University of North Carolina. At Harvard, the support comes early. Students in its premed program reap the benefits of three premed advisers, one of whom is a doctor, all of whom are available at any time. Once Harvard premeds become sophomores, their premed adviser lives in the same dorm. And in the business world, certain schools have a leg up. Patty Pogemiller of Deloitte, one of the world’s top business firms, told the Wall Street Journal specifically that “Notre Dame is one of our top schools for new hires.”

Whatever professional area you intend to pursue, it’s important to look for schools whose programs have great reputations. It’s naive to believe that where you go doesn’t impact your career or earning capability.

Cultural capital

People often feel uncomfortable discussing the value of learning middle- and upper-class cultural capital—that is, a student’s ability to interact professionally with others, as reflected in their language, etiquette, and styles of expression. Sociologists recognize that all forms of cultural capital have value and that people can be fluent in many styles of expression. But in the professional realm, middle- and upper-class mannerisms reap the greatest economic rewards.

Students from well-off communities come to college already versed in the most effective way to behave in an interview or at a business meeting. Students less familiar with such norms learn by interacting with and watching the privileged in their comfort zone. Despite elite schools’ efforts to increase diversity, a large chunk of their student body still includes progeny from wealthy families, both American and foreign. These students are connected to industries, financial and otherwise, that often rely on personal recommendations for jobs and internships. Vacationing, traveling abroad, or being close friends with students who’ve had every opportunity to learn the manners, etiquette, and ways of the dominant class can serve a Solo Mom’s son or daughter in innumerable ways. Getting comfortable with elite society does not mean compromising oneself or aligning with the upper class; it’s simply smart preparation for interviews, comfort in the business world, and/or the upward mobility that generally follows elite schooling.

Families who value their unique culture and heritage may be concerned that an elite school will program their child to be bourgeois and compliant. Not so. At most of the elite schools, you will find clubs, groups, and faculty that assert the primacy of individual identity. There may be times when a student feels as if she’s swimming in a sea of privilege, but she will also find numerous opportunities for activism and self-expression. By aligning with those who share their values and taking leadership roles, students learn skills they can apply to their passions after graduation. A quick perusal of the most influential leaders in underserved communities reveals that many attended elite schools where they learned to bridge two worlds. They know how to negotiate in any setting, tap into valuable resources, and stay true to their passions and roots. Four years at an elite institution can help a student become an agent for change, empowering them to challenge the status quo because they understand it all the more.

Learning sociological cues and customs at elite schools holds the potential to be revolutionary for kids of Solo Moms. Armed with networks and opportunity structures, these students will succeed on their own terms and hopefully change the world. Their grounding in their own culture strengthens them for myriad experiences in the dominant culture. An excellent example is Supreme Court JusticeSonia Sotomayor. After arriving at Princeton, the future first Hispanic Supreme Court justice did poorly on an exam for the first time in her life. Instead of quitting, she joined Puerto Rican groups on campus to find students like herself, describing them as “the anchor I needed to ground myself in that new and different world.” This strategy clearly worked: Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude, and the rest is history.

The scoop from Solo Moms and their kids

I sometimes wonder if all the hype over college costs and value is aimed at discouraging outliers, such as the high-achieving children of Solo Moms, from applying and competing for those few spots that reap such a rich reward. It’s true that getting into a selective school is not easy, but high-achieving high school students who are thinking big should go for it. You might not get into one of these top schools, but it’s worth a try. Don’t view rejection as a personal failing, but as a crapshoot in our hypercompetitive system. Remember that every year, valedictorians with perfect SATs get rejected from their first or second choices.

Solo Mom Heidi Kronenberg explained that even though her son, Jacob, attended a prestigious high school for gifted students, the school’s counselors did not encourage him to apply to private schools. Jacob’s SAT scores were perfect, and he speaks five languages fluently. Yet because he’d received financial aid in high school, counselors advised him to apply to the state university on the assumption it would be more affordable. But Jacob decided to aim for some elite private schools as well. “I had no idea how I was going to pay for a prestigious school,” his mom recalls, “but I knew I would do whatever it took to make it work. Fortunately, Tufts came through with a full ride.”

Despite her excellent academic record, Solo Mom daughter Kyla Gabriel found the experience of applying to elite schools nerve-wracking but worth it. “I stayed on top of all the paperwork and counted on the selective schools to abide by their promise to fund students that demonstrated need,” she says.

Carolyn Amey advises Solo Moms and their kids to get as much information as they can as soon as possible and attack the forms early. “Don’t be afraid to call the schools for help,” she says. Amey’s son received a financial-aid package from GWU, but she says she’s still just taking it one year at a time.

A common strategy that many Solo Moms aren’t aware of is the possibility of negotiating financial-aid packages. If a child’s first-choice school offered $20,000 per year, and her second-choice school offered $30,000, it’s worth going back to the first choice to ask for a better deal. It doesn’t always work, but I’ve heard some amazing stories of largesse in admissions offices.

Solo Mom Margot Kessler, who’s got not one but two daughters attending selective schools, stresses that these schools want income diversity. Even so, she describes the process of securing financial aid overwhelming. Both her daughters, one currently at Kenyon College and the other (mentioned earlier) who is now at Harvard Medical School by way of Vassar, were able to secure financial aid. Kessler cautions that schools will award money only if the parents can’t pay rather than won’t pay. Some Solo Moms get caught in this web because they have exes who can afford to pay but won’t.

Every Solo Mom I spoke to said that no matter how challenging the journey, they would encourage their children to aim high all over again. No one felt that their son or daughter had been brainwashed or indoctrinated, or grew away from their family or neighborhood.

The good news

Last year, scores of educators from 80 top U.S. colleges, including all eight in the Ivy League, collaborated on a report aimed at transforming the undergraduate admissions process. Officially published by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the report, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions, was motivated primarily by the concern that the existing admissions processes has encouraged today’s young people to pursue individual achievement at any cost, a goal that leads to high stress, a lack of concern for others, and an unfair advantage for the wealthy. The report endorses making significant changes to college admissions at elite schools. For example, the schools that support the plan have vowed to give less emphasis to standardized test scores, which largely correlate with family income, and to Advanced Placement course work, which poorer high schools are less likely to offer.

“Some of these alterations would simultaneously level the playing field for kids applying from less advantaged backgrounds,” writes Frank Bruni in the New York Times. As Bruni notes, colleges have become increasingly uncomfortable with their role in perpetuating social divisions and favoring students from affluent families.

One of the more exciting developments is that top schools are going to begin considering the impact and value of family obligations and part-time work. These responsibilities keep economically challenged students from padding their applications with volunteer work and clubs. This change would be tremendously helpful to children of Solo Moms, who often work and may not be able to afford expensive clubs and activities.

Reaching higher

The twofold desire of parents, counselors, and educators to save families money and protect students from failure is understandable but shouldn’t drive the college application process. High school juniors and seniors in Solo Mom families have the right to know that elite schools are hard to get into but that if they are accepted, money probably won’t be an issue. Nor will their ability to succeed: “High achieving, lower income students who start at selective institutions have similar grades and graduation rates as higher income peers,” according to the True Merit report.

Acceptance to college is capricious, but if admitted to a “reach school,” Solo Mom sons and daughters belong there just as much, if not more, as the student who needs no financial aid and has an alumni parent. Once on campus, they should confidently reap the rewards of social networks, opportunity structures, and cultural capital by becoming agents for social change and making their hardworking Solo Moms proud.


Dr. Marika Lindholm founded ESME.com to ignite a social movement of Solo Moms. A trained sociologist, Lindholm taught courses on inequality, diversity, and gender at Northwestern University for over a decade. After a divorce left her parenting two children on her own, she realized Solo Moms lacked much-needed resources, support, and connection. She built her social platform, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, out of this combination of academic and personal experience. The acronym has since evolved to Empowering Strong Moms Everywhere, to encompass all moms. In September 2019, She Writes Press will publish We Got This! Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor, an anthology of Solo Mom personal essays and poetry edited by Lindholm with Cheryl Dumesnil, Domenica Ruta, and Katherine Shonk. Marika can be reached at marika@esme.com.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.


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