Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 1997 Issue »

    Editor's Review - Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get Into College by Arthur Levine and Jana Nidiffer

    Mary Kenyatta
    Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get into College
    by Arthur Levine and Jana Nidiffer
    San Francisco: Jossey--Bass, 1996. 224 pp. $27.95.

    Equality of opportunity and social mobility are central tenets of American democracy, and education has been touted as key to providing this equality. In Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get into College, Arthur Levine and Jana Nidiffer write that college has been the traditional pathway out of poverty, but that access to college is becoming ever more limited as the poor become increasingly isolated in inner cities. They argue that "the changing nature of poverty in America today is enhancing the likelihood that social institutions no longer help people out of the neighborhood but rather help them cope with staying in" (p. 18).

    In chapter one, Levine and Nidiffer discuss the obstacles to breaking out of poverty "posed by poor neighborhoods, poor families, poor schools, and the other social institutions that constitute the life of the poor" (p. xvi). They also discuss recent changes in national higher education policies that traditionally provide college access for poor students. The authors illustrate that access to higher education for poor students rose following passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the creation of the Pell Grant, the development of low--interest loans, and work--study programs. They write, "The bottom line is that the odds of a poor person attending college were better after 1965 than before, but progress slowed quickly thereafter" (p. 15).

    Levine and Nidiffer do not discuss how or why the federal commitment to helping poor families pay for college shifted in the 1980s to policies designed to aid the middle class. They also pay little attention to why "the odds against the poor attending college have grown larger" (p. 36), suggesting instead that "the problems of the poor seemed too large and intractable for the country to solve" (p. 58).

    In the second chapter, Levine and Nidiffer interviewed twenty--four poor, first--generation college students - "success stories" in their families - and nine of their influential family members. They asked the students: "What factors - relationships, resources, and activities - made a difference? Is it possible to reproduce those factors and thereby enhance college opportunity and access for other poor people?" (p. 59). The authors write that all of the twenty--four students spoke of one influential individual, a mentor, who intervened "at a critical point in the life of each student" (p. 65) to help them decide to go to college.

    The mentors - who ranged from parents and other relatives to teachers, counselors, and social workers - gave students advice, encouragement, and hope. The mentors of the students who entered universities were most often parents, relatives, and teachers. Over half of these students attended either public or private preparatory schools, and all of them were identified as academic high achievers. Twelve poor adult students who attended community colleges were also among those interviewed. They were not considered high achievers, and most enrolled in school at the urging of human services professionals when they were facing crises such as divorce or immigration, or when recovering from illness or injuries. Unlike the college--age youth, these adults did not have confidence in their intellectual competence and did not have high career aspirations.

    According to Levine and Nidiffer, race, gender, religion, and birthplace do not have to pose barriers to attending college. They believe that the recipe for getting to college is mentorship - "one arm around one child; one mentor with one poor person" (p. 139). To give students the best chance at attending college, they recommend early intervention for poor youngsters, developing more mentors, particularly relatives, parents, and "teachers of disadvantaged children" (p. 146), and financial assistance.

    In the last chapter, "Evening the Odds," Levine and Nidiffer analyze three mechanisms that have been used to increase college access for the poor - "special institutions for the poor (Hostos Community College in the South Bronx and Kentucky's Berea College are examples), federal financial aid programs, and various intervention programs aimed at poor youngsters" (p. 147). The authors are most impressed with the "I Have a Dream" (IHAD) program, which provides early intervention, special enrichment activities, mentors and tutoring, and which "thinks locally and plans individually" (p. 169). IHAD came about almost by accident, when Eugene Lang, a successful businessman, promised a sixth--grade graduating class at New York's P.S. 121 scholarships of $500 a year for college tuition. "More than that," Lang told the students, "if you stay in school through high school, I will increase that scholarship each year so that, when you receive your high school diploma and are ready for college, you will be able to go" (p. 170). More than 140 IHAD programs have been established in more than forty cities, serving more than 10,000 dreamers (p. 172). Because poor students in IHAD are guaranteed college tuition, Levine and Nidiffer argue that it is "the only college access program that opens up every sector of higher education to poor people" (p. 175) and offers students a choice.

    The authors do not offer IHAD as a panacea; they recognize that there are weaknesses in the program: participants are selected "at the whim of the sponsors" [and] "there is no screening" (p. 177); not all sponsors are equal; unexpected things happen: "One sponsor withdrew from the program . . . and two other sponsors died" (p. 177); and most important, there is a lack of empirical evidence or research to help understand what makes IHAD effective. "The efficacy and need for each of the activities that make up the program is untested" (p. 178).

    Levine and Nidiffer made a critical mistake when they chose to focus, as they write, "not on the majority of poor people mired in poverty but rather on the minority who manage to escape it" (p. 58). They point out that their study's "greatest weakness is that it ignores root causes and accepts poverty as a continuing reality" (p. 58). However, they say it is a strength of the study that "it is a personal approach that focuses on individuals rather than concerted changes in social policy. . . . It [IHAD] is, unfortunately, consistent with the times, in which social programs targeted at the poor are being dismantled by government" (p. 59).

    Those "strengths" are, to me, serious weaknesses. The expansion of "I Have a Dream" programs relies on private charity. This country has long relied on such charity to assist the poor, sick, and the elderly; however, it has been documented that private charity cannot meet this need (Steinfels, 1995). There is an almost Horatio Alger tone to the authors' "suggestions that ignore structural inequalities," whereby any individual with a mentor can overcome poverty. Without systemic change and national policies that promote educational access for the poor as a class, the numbers of poor people in this country will continue to grow - along with the gap between the poor and the rich. But what about the mass of poor students who remain in the public schools whose classes are not chosen by an "I Have a Dream" benefactor?

    Additionally, none of Levine and Nidiffer's work touches on issues affecting public schools. Rather, in order to escape poverty, poor children must leave their neighborhoods and families. As the authors document, these children end up isolated - they are not comfortable at home, and they are not comfortable at the elite preparatory schools that they attend.

    I am surprised that Levine and Nidiffer never discuss issues of racism that burden poor African American, Latino, and Asian American children and block their access to higher education. Jonathan Kozol (1991), for example, offers a compelling description of the inequities in U.S. public schools and their limiting effect on poor urban children. He proposes changes in school financing to shift more funds to poor, inner--city school districts and metropolitan busing. However, the political climate is not right for either of these proposals. As Levine and Nidiffer suggest, "the biblical injunction that the poor would always be with us" (p. 58) has become accepted.

    Any national policy that ignores racial and class stratification is not designed to expand democratic participation of all U.S. citizens. Rather, it will continue to reproduce the race and class hierarchy that so many of us in education prefer to ignore. Many educators prefer to use the euphemisms of disadvantaged children or neighborhoods "at risk" in order to avoid teaching poor children and children of color. In many ways, these children have been written off as uneducable. The most we can do is to keep most of them locked in poor neighborhoods away from our more privileged children. We can let a few individuals in, but the masses of the poor will be left behind in a national policy that focuses on individuals who may or may not be recipients of charity. For me, that is not acceptable national policy. It is, rather, a recipe for disaster for the future of the United States and its citizens.
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    Winter 1997 Issue


    The History of Women in Education
    Christine A. Woyshner, Bonnie Hao Kuo Tai
    Reflections on Writing a History of Women Teachers
    Kathleen Weiler
    Women and Education in Eritrea
    A Historical and Contemporary Analysis
    Asgedet Stefanos
    Reconsidering a Classic
    Assessing the History of Women's Higher Education a Dozen Years after Barbara Solomon
    Linda Eisenmann
    The African American Female Elite
    The Early History of African American Women in the Seven Sister Colleges, 1880-1960
    Linda M. Perkins
    The Hidden Half
    A History of Native American Women's Education
    Deirdre A. Almeida
    Conflicted Progress
    Coeducation and Gender Equityin Twentieth-Century French School Reforms
    Marilyn Mavrinac
    The Road to College
    Hmong American Women's Pursuit of Higher Education
    Stacey J. Lee

    Book Notes

    We Can't Eat Prestige
    By John Hoerr

    The Seed Is Mine
    By Charles van Onselen

    The Essential Piaget
    Edited by Howard E. Gruber and J. Jacques Vonëche

    Journey With Children
    By Frances P. Lothrop Hawkins

    Guided Reading
    By Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell

    One Child, Two Languages
    By Patton O. Tabors

    Taking Note
    By Brenda Miller Power

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