Talk is Cheap


June 4, 2015

By Hajar Ahmed


Talent, desire and drive – not socioeconomic background – should dictate where students go to college. College access should be based on academic achievement and equally accessible to all.


Senator Claiborne Pell

Yet we know that low-income students are not getting their fair shot at enrolling in selective colleges: whereas one in five top ACT test scorers (i.e. scored at the 90th percentile and higher) comes from a Pell-eligible family, many selective colleges and universities enroll proportions far lower than 20 percent.

Related: Congratulations, Class of Education Inequity

But for the relatively few low-income students who do apply and enroll in selective colleges, we now have a chance to peek into the ways in which class and race have shaped their lives, thanks to a recent New York Times article that highlights several college application essays from low-income students. Perhaps these essays will prompt colleges to recognize that there are many more thousands of Martinas, Carolinas, and Jons who exist out there who may be good candidates for their college. Because many of the highlighted colleges still rank in the bottom 5% nationally in working class and low-income student enrollment:

  • Georgetown University – 14%*
  • Northwestern University – 14%*
  • Wesleyan University – 18.5%
  • Columbia University – 15.1%*
  • Kenyon College – 10.3%*
  • University of Chicago – 11.7%*
    *college that is deemed engine of inequality and ranks in the bottom 5% nationally in Pell student enrollment (see College Results Online)

If these colleges want to be an engine of economic mobility instead of ones that foster inequality, then they have a lot of work to do. And someone needs to hold them accountable for results. “Jawboning” only goes so far.

Related: College Application Inflation Only Exists Among the Top 5%

Let’s see what the students have to say. We’ve included excerpts from several essays below. For the full text, click here.



“Job searching is difficult for everyone, but in a world full of Daves, it’s almost impossible,” she wrote. “Daves are people who look at my family and immediately think less of us. They think illegal, poor and uneducated. Daves never allow my dad to pass the first round of job applications. Daves watch like hawks as my brother and I enter stores. Daves inconsiderately correct my mother’s grammar. Because there are Daves in the world, I have become a protector for my family.”

-Carolina Sosa, Georgetown University


“In Ecuador, my mother was invincible, but upon our arrival to the United States she became a shell of what she once was. I had grown accustomed to seeing her youthful hands well manicured, but melancholy and hours of hard labor had silently taken over them in a matter of months’. My mother’s hands caressed me less and less, and by the age of 12 I had become nearly indifferent to her cold and rare touch. My family had turned into a group of strangers that happened to be living under the same roof while chasing the American Dream.”

-Martina Piñeiros, Northwestern University.


“Ever since I moved here, I’ve felt like an outsider in my community. I live for the arts while my town prioritizes football and fishing. The general population is Caucasian, Christian, Republican, anti-gay, and pro-guns — or so I thought. At Domino’s, three of my coworkers fasted for Ramadan, one of the drivers read novels while waiting for deliveries and both of my bosses were women. The people who came in were far from homogenous, as diverse as the pizzas they ordered: Caucasian, Asian, African-American, and Mexican lawyers, firemen, construction workers, stay-at-home mothers, house painters. Many were married, some were divorced and some were single. Many had kids. Many were still kids. I couldn’t help but admire them. They made enduring irate customers, drunken phone calls and crying children worth minimum wage. All were just ordinary people trying to build lives in America. All were united and equivalent when in need of pizza.”

-Adriane Tharp, Wesleyan University


“The two worlds that comprise my being constantly play tug of war in my mind. My parents came from poverty in Ecuador, so I was raised believing that hard work and education can take you anywhere. Whether that work is in the classroom, at the gym or networking at a business event, persistence is what fosters success. Not your race. Not your native language. Not your ZIP code.”

-Jon Carlo Dominguez, Columbia University


“I was born into poverty to an immigrant mother. When I was 2, my mother’s drug addiction caused me to be placed into the Los Angeles County foster care system. I lived in seven different homes over the next five years. Some homes had more than 10 foster children living in them. The families were of many ethnic backgrounds’.My aim is to become a psychologist and further explore the themes of resilience and initiative to assist people who’ve endured traumatic situations. My trials as a youth along with my military service have inspired me to help others overcome adversity.”

-Rob Henderson, Undecided


“[The choir at] Saint James was located on the Upper East Side, one of the fanciest ZIP codes in New York, while I was coming from my school in the pregentrified Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. While the neighborhood is now known for its gourmet pizzerias and trendy clubs, the Bushwick of my childhood was known for shootings and public housing projects, if it was known at all. This discrepancy between my two lives made me more than a little uncomfortable. While the children at choir proudly donned the telltale signs of their elite education: tartan skirts and navy blazers encrusted with the logos of their private schools whose cost was nearly as much as my mother’s yearly wage, I maintained my own uniform of jeans and a T-shirt. They all knew me as the girl from Brooklyn, the chorister who went to public school.”

-Annabel La Riva, Kenyon College