As I point out in the radio documentary, some kids grow up in environments where they practically breathe in the idea that they're going to college. There's never a question about whether they'll go. I grew up in that kind of environment. Both of my parents had college degrees. In fact, my great-grandfather had a college degree.
I went to college right after high school, just like I was supposed to. But at the end of the first semester of my senior year, I told my family I was leaving. I had just one semester left, and I was sure I couldn't do it.
Emily Hanford at Amherst College in 1991, a few months before she left. (Photo: Amherst College yearbook)
It was a confusing time and I don't think that I understood then why I needed to leave. But looking back, I'm pretty sure I quit college because I wasn't ready to fulfill the expectations of my family -- and I had no idea what came next, and that terrified me.
"Getting to college" had been an organizing principle of my life from a young age, probably to an unhealthy degree. I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, an upper middle-class suburb of Boston with an excellent public school system. At Brookline High School, I was surrounded by peers from college-educated families. My friends went to places like Harvard and Yale. I went to Amherst College, a small, selective liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts.
I had been thinking about what I needed to do to get to a school like Amherst since elementary school -- really. From a very young age I was deeply invested in being a good student and proving I was "smart." I think part of the reason is that I was put in a "gifted and talented" program starting in fourth grade and I was suspicious about how I was selected. The other kids who were picked for the program were a lot like me in one particular way: We were all from college-educated families. Somehow, none of the kids whose parents didn't have degrees was deemed gifted or talented.
Even though we lived in a town with many highly-educated professionals, at our elementary school there were a lot of kids whose parents did not have college degrees. Our neighborhood was a study of American class differences. There was "Pill Hill," an area so named because lots of doctors lived there. The houses were big and old and beautiful. At the bottom of the hill was "Whiskey Point," or more commonly, just "The Point." This was a working-class neighborhood full of Irish Catholic families. One of the few public housing projects in our town was located there. The people who lived in this section were roofers and plumbers, and a lot of them worked for the town as police officers and firefighters and clerks.
None of the kids who lived in The Point was put in the gifted and talented program. Those of us who were in the program were known at school as "the rich kids" even though most of us weren't. The rich kids went to private schools; the people in the gifted and talented program whose backgrounds I remember included the daughter of a city planner who worked for the Mayor of Boston, a professor's son, and a kid whose parents were musicians.
And then there was me. I grew up, literally, in between Pill Hill and The Point. The first house I lived in as a child was halfway down the hill. My father was a loan officer at a neighborhood bank and my mom had quit her career as a school guidance counselor to have my brother and me. When my parents got divorced, my brother and I moved with our mom to a large but rundown Victorian on a nearby street that mixed grand old houses with three-story apartment homes. When my mom got remarried, we moved halfway up another nearby hill toward a wealthy neighborhood, and we lived in a big but somewhat shabby house that was the parsonage of a Unitarian Church; our stepfather was the minister. Then, when my mom got divorced again, we moved to a condo in the heart of The Point, around the corner from the housing projects.
I didn't understand it at the time, but I think I was deeply aware of the ways social class divided my peers and me -- especially at school. I may have been "smart" but it was clear this status was conferred upon me, at least in part, by virtue of my background. Not all the students at my school were getting the same opportunities. I wanted to protect the opportunity I'd been given, but I was also conflicted about it.
In my career as a journalist, my main interest has always been the ways that class and race affect opportunity and outcomes, especially for children and young adults at school. I think it's the circumstances I grew up in that drive my interest in this subject.
When I got to high school, the ways that class and background divide students became even more stark and startling. Many of my best friends from elementary school were "Point Kids," but in high school we quickly lost touch. I built new friendships with the people who were in my classes -- honors and AP courses, and also theater classes. By the time I graduated from high school, a collection of wealthier kids from well-educated families was my tight-knit group of friends.
It seems to me my experience through elementary and high schools was a gradual process of becoming the person my background predicted I would be. Going to Amherst College was the final chapter. I think that's why I quit. I had to figure out something about who I really was before I was ready to start life. In my trajectory, college graduation was the moment "real life" began. Everything up to that point was set and programmed: Be a good student, work hard, do well, be smart, keep going…. some sort of wind just kept blowing me in that direction.
Those of us who have that kind of wind at our back typically take it for granted. It's a very powerful force… and lots of people don't have it. Interviewing the students from the YES Prep charter schools in Houston made this so clear. YES Prep teachers and staff are investing a lot in trying to figure out why more of their students are not graduating from college. It's a complicated question, and it's especially difficult to figure out what to do about it. But I think, simply put, the problem is that there is one group of kids in America who will get to college graduation unless something big gets in the way, like deciding they don't want to graduate from college. There is another group of kids for whom college graduation is not at all a given, and they can and will make it if they try really hard -- but lots of things can derail them. They don't have a wind at their back. In fact, the wind often blows in their face.
Even when I quit Amherst, I still had the wind at my back -- and I knew it. I don't think it ever occurred to me that I wouldn't someday finish. Apparently my father was worried. He didn't express it directly at the time, but I've learned since that my decision was shocking and unsettling for him. Going back four generations, no one on my father's side of the family (the men at least) had ever done anything except go to college after high school and finish with a degree in four years. My mother's parents had college degrees too: They were first in their families to do it, back in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
I didn't do anything particularly interesting with my time away from college. I lived with my mother and worked at a bookstore. The store had a policy allowing employees to borrow as many books as they wanted, and I read voraciously, all kinds of books -- novels, self-help books, philosophy, a book about God and physics. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was learning for the sake of learning, not to get a good grade or prove I was smart. It was incredibly freeing.
After about a year at the bookstore I was bored of shelving books and working the cash register so I got a job waiting tables. I loved that job.
It was at a diner run by a family of Greek immigrants. The daughter was a few years younger than I was and she was just starting an associate's degree in business at a community college. She was in charge when her father wasn't around and I remember her stealing away between customers (she ran the cash register and sometimes manned the grill) to do schoolwork at the end of the counter. The son was in high school; he also worked at the restaurant, and he was trying to decide whether to go to college or take over his father's business. His dad wanted him to take over, and he told me that his father was going to pay him $120,000 to do it. If he went to college, he was going to have to pay for it on his own.
I thought a lot about how different their educational expectations and experiences were from mine. Since I had been out of college for more than 6 months, I had to start paying back my student loans. My dad just began making the payments; he didn't even say anything to me.
What I loved most about the Greek restaurant were the customers. On weekdays, it was almost all "regulars" and they were a fascinating bunch. There was a group home around the corner. I don't know exactly what kind of people the home treated, but they all seemed to be coping with some sort of mental illness. We had a customer named Willie who drank lots of black coffee and growled at us -- literally. But he wasn't scary. I was sure he had some good reason for growling, and I wondered where he'd come from. What had happened to him, what was going on in his mind? I'm certain this is when I decided I wanted to be a journalist, though it didn't come to me as some sort of conscious career path I was ready to plan and pursue. Quite the opposite. I remained confused about what I wanted to do with my life, but I was beginning to understand that other people's stories are what interest me most.
After a year and a half of working and living with my mom I decided I was ready to go back to college. And it was that easy. I barely remember the process. I think I just called up, re-enrolled, my dad dealt with the financial stuff, we rented a U-Haul, and he took me back to Amherst.
I lived off campus in a house with a graduate student from the nearby University of Massachusetts; a jeweler who worked in town; and a U-Mass undergrad who was the first person in her family to go to college and one of the most anxious people I have ever known. She grew up in traumatic circumstances. I never fully understood the extent of it, but she seemed to be reeling every day from the reverberations of her past and trying so hard to keep things together so she could get a college degree. I don't know what happened to her.
Going back to college as a 23-year-old, I felt like I could finally appreciate the privilege of being able to go to a place like Amherst College. The education you can get at a school like that is breathtakingly good. I took a seminar on psychologist and philosopher William James, a nonfiction writing class, a course in abnormal psychology and a survey of American documentary film. Those classes were some of the most rewarding intellectual experiences of my life. I finished my degree easily. I only wish I'd had more classes left to take because I got so much more out of college than I had the first time around.
Despite the bump in my own road to graduation, getting a college degree was still a pretty straightforward and not very difficult experience. The only way I might have failed to complete a degree is if I really hadn't wanted to. That's not true of the students at YES Prep. Wanting a degree is not enough to make it happen. I imagine it wasn't enough for some of my elementary school friends from The Point, too.
I lost touch with them long ago, but now, thanks to Facebook, I'm in contact with several of them again. It appears that most of them went to college. I can't tell if they graduated because, interestingly, Facebook's settings list colleges you "studied at" but there is no separate category for colleges you graduated from. I've been meaning to find out why that is. Maybe it's because Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg never finished his degree at Harvard?
I have no idea what the college experiences of my Point friends were like. Most of them went to community colleges and state schools in the greater Boston area. I imagine some of them lived at home and juggled the same kinds of complicated lives that many of the YES Prep students do, balancing work and family demands and the various pressures of being the first generation to go to college. If they had been put on a different path at a young age - by being identified for a gifted and talented program in fourth grade, for example – would they have ended up at different kinds of schools and had different kinds of experiences? The data shows very clearly that students at more selective colleges have a better chance of making it to graduation; this is true among the YES Prep students too. Clearly one reason is that selective schools get the most prepared students. But even the YES Prep students who struggle in high school typically do better at more selective colleges.
I am certain my kids will go to college. It's not just that my husband and I have college degrees but that my kids are surrounded by peers who are all on the path to college too. My kids and their friends actually talk about what colleges they might go to -- and they are 12 and 9.
I am also certain my kids will graduate from college, unless they make a deliberate decision not to. What I'm less sure of is whether they will go to graduate school.
I never did, something I now sometimes regret. When I graduated from Amherst, I wasn't ready for graduate school. Then life got in the way. Going back to school would be very hard for me at this point in my life; I don't have the wind at my back at all anymore. I know other people do it, but I'm not sure how.
I think the position I'm in with graduate school is the position a lot of young people find themselves in when it comes to getting an undergraduate degree. It's expensive, time-consuming and hard to fit into a life already full of work and family demands -- and while all the data shows getting a more advanced degree is worth it on average, a college degree may not be worth it to them, just as a graduate degree may not be worth it to me.
But I do find myself dropping hints to my own kids about graduate school. I don't bother telling them they have to go to college -- it's not necessary to say anything. I am working to make graduate school an expectation, though. I think they're going to need graduate degrees to thrive, and I know expectation is a very powerful force.