GALVESTON, Texas — Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself for a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“I don’t want to work at Wal-Mart" as her mother did, she wrote to a school counselor.
Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island" — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston.
Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor dubbed them the “triplets."
Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.
Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.
“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another," Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’"
Obstacles to upward mobility
Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. None has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.
Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.
The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role of education in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: Education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.
“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started," said Greg Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening."
The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.
Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.
While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead.
Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the financial and emotional support of two-parent homes. Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.
In placing their hopes in education, the Galveston teenagers followed a tradition as old as the country itself. But if only the prosperous become educated — and only the educated prosper — the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge.
“It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder," said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream."
No one pictured them even as friends, much less triplets. Angelica hid behind dark eyeliner, Melissa’s moods turned on the drama at home, and Bianca, in the class behind, seemed even younger than she was. What they had in common was a college-prep program for low-income teenagers, Upward Bound, and trust in its counselor, Priscilla Gonzales Culver, whom everyone called “Miss G."
Angelica was the product of a large Mexican-American family, which she sought both to honor and surpass. Her mother, Ana Gonzales, had crossed the border illegally as a child, gained citizenship and settled the clan in Galveston, where she ruled by force of will. She once grounded Angelica for a month for coming home a minute late. With hints of both respect and fear, Angelica never called her “Mom" — only “Mrs. Lady."
Melissa also wanted to get off the island — and more immediately, out of her house. “When I was about 7, my mom began dating and hanging around a bunch of drunks," she wrote on the Upward Bound application. For her mother, addiction to painkillers and severe depression followed. Her grandparents offered her one refuge, and school offered another.
“I like to learn — I’m weird," she said.
By eighth grade, Melissa was at the top of her class and sampling a course at a private high school. She yearned to apply there but swore the opposite to her mother and grandparents. Protecting families from their own ambition is a skill many poor students learn. “I knew we didn’t have the money," Melissa said. “I felt like I had no right to ask."
New to Upward Bound, Melissa noticed that one student always ate alone and crowded in beside her. “She forced her friendship on me," Angelica said.
Bianca joined the following year with a cheerfulness that disguised any trace of family tragedy. As the eldest of four siblings, she had spent the years since her father’s death as a backup mother. To Bianca, family meant everything.
Senior year raced by, with Miss G doing her best to steer frightened and distracted students though the college selection process. Despite all the campus visits, choices were made without the intense supervision that many affluent students enjoy. Bianca, anchored to the island by family and an older boyfriend, chose community college. Melissa picked Texas State in San Marcos because “the application was easiest."
Angelica had thought of little beyond Northwestern and was crestfallen when she was rejected. She had sent a last-minute application to a school in Atlanta that had emailed her. Neither she nor Miss G knew much about it. Only after getting in did she discover that she had achieved something special.
Emory cost nearly $50,000 that year, but it was one of a small tier of top schools that promised to meet the financial needs of any student good enough to be admitted. It had even started a program to relieve the neediest students of high debt burdens. “No one should have to give up their goals and dreams because financial challenges stand in the way," its website says.
Plus, an unseen campus a thousand miles away had an innate appeal. “How many times do you get the chance to completely reinvent yourself?" Angelica said.
Rich-poor gap grows
If Melissa and Angelica felt that heading off to a university set them apart from other low-income students, they were right — it did. Less than 30 percent of students in the bottom quarter of incomes even enroll in a four-year school. And among that group, less than half graduate.
Income has always shaped academic success, but its importance is growing. Reardon, the Stanford sociologist, examined a dozen reading and math tests dating back 25 years and found that the gap in scores of high- and low-income students has grown by 40 percent, even as the difference between blacks and whites has narrowed.
While race once predicted scores more than class, the opposite now holds. By eighth grade, white students surpass blacks by an average of three grade levels, while upper-income students are four grades ahead of low-income counterparts.
“The racial gaps are quite big, but the income gaps are bigger," Reardon said.
One explanation is simply that the rich have gotten richer. A generation ago, families at the 90th percentile had five times the income of those at the 10th percentile. Now they have 10 times as much.
But as shop class gave way to computer labs, schools may have also changed in ways that make parental income and education more important. SAT coaches were once rare, even for families that could afford them. Now they are part of a vast college preparation industry.
Certainly as the payoff to education has grown — college graduates have greatly widened their earnings lead — affluent families have invested more in it. They have tripled the amount by which they outspend low-income families on enrichment activities like sports, music lessons and summer camps, according to Duncan and Richard Murnane of Harvard.
In addition, upper-income parents, especially fathers, have increased their child-rearing time, while the presence of fathers in low-income homes has declined. Miss G said there is a reason the triplets relied so heavily on boyfriends: “Their fathers weren’t there."
Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the affluent also enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials, a problem that would trail Melissa and Angelica through college.
“Middle-class students get the sense the institution will respond to them," Lareau said. “Working-class and poor students don’t experience that. It makes them more vulnerable."
Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution has found that low-income students finish college less often than better-off peers, even when they outscore them on skills tests. Only 26 percent of eighth-graders with below-average incomes but above-average scores go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, compared with 30 percent of students with subpar performances but more money.
“These are students who have already overcome significant obstacles to score above average on this test," Chingos said. “To see how few earn college degrees is really disturbing."