Falling Through The Cracks

Daniel Spangenburger, a high-school senior in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., dreams of attending a prestigious college like Carnegie Mellon or Cornell. A degree from either "could make a difference for the rest of my life," he says. And on the face of it, Spangenburger has what it takes: eight Advanced Placement courses and an impressive 3.9 grade-point average. He scored 1330 on his SAT, well within the range desired by many elite schools, and now that he's borrowed an SAT prep book, he hopes to break 1400 on his second try. His teachers say he's smart, motivated and exceptionally mature. He holds two after-school jobs and also finds time to volunteer, setting up a computer cafe at the local Boys & Girls Club. And he drives his mother, who is battling cancer, to her monthly chemo sessions. Only two obstacles stand between Spangenburger and his dream: he comes from a poor family (neither parent went to college) and attends a rural high school. "With the right kind of college education, Daniel could do great things," says Berkeley Springs High School principal George Ward. "But so many smart rural kids fall through the cracks. Top schools don't know Daniel exists."

In an ideal world, the nation's elite schools would enroll the most qualified students. But that's not how it works. Applicants whose parents are alums get special treatment, as do athletes and rich kids. Underrepresented minorities are also given preference. Thirty years of affirmative action have changed the complexion of mostly white universities; now about 13 percent of all undergraduates are black or Latino. But most come from middle- and upper-middle-class families. Poor kids of all ethnicities remain scarce. A recent study by the Century Foundation found that at the nation's 146 most competitive schools, 74 percent of students came from upper- middle-class and wealthy families, while only about 5 percent came from families with an annual income of roughly $35,000 or less.

Many schools say diversity--racial, economic and geographic--is key to maintaining intellectually vital campuses. But Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation says that even though colleges claim they want poor kids, "they don't try very hard to find them." As for rural students like Spangenburger, many colleges don't try at all. "Unfortunately, we go where we can generate a sizable number of potential applicants," says Tulane admissions chief Richard Whiteside, who recruits aggressively--and in person--from metropolitan areas. Kids in rural areas get a glossy brochure in the mail.

Carnegie Mellon's dean of admissions, Michael Steidel, drives through Berkeley Springs a few times a year, but he's never stopped to scout for students. He cuts through the small mining town in the Blue Ridge Mountains en route from the Pittsburgh campus to more affluent high schools around Washington, D.C. The admissions office doesn't have the money or the time, he says, to help rural kids unravel the admissions process. "Recruiting kids like that is almost one-on-one," he says. When prestigious colleges do reach out to rural students, they often focus on local applicants. Dartmouth encourages applications from kids in New England farm towns. Every year Cornell accepts 175 transfer students from area community colleges, where these kids often end up.

Even when poor rural students have the grades for top colleges, their high schools often don't know how to get them there. Admissions officers rely on guidance counselors to direct them to promising prospects. In affluent high schools, guidance counselors often have personal relationships with both kids and admissions officers. In rural areas, a teacher, a counselor or even an alumnus "can help put a rural student on our radar screen," says Wesleyan admissions dean Nancy Meislahn. But poor rural schools rarely have college advisers with those connections; without them, admission "can be a crapshoot," says Carnegie Mellon's Steidel.

Spangenburger would like to roll the dice; he's just not sure how. Tall, soft-spoken and handsome, Spangenburger is the cream of the 660 students in his school. More than half his classmates live below the poverty line. Just 40 percent of graduates get some higher education, most often community college or vocational school. About 10 percent go to the state university in Morgantown; Spangenburger's scores guarantee him a full scholarship there.

But stepping from his small community to a pricey, competitive college requires a big leap of faith. Carnegie Mellon and Cornell cost about $35,000 a year, and figuring out how to cobble together loans, grants and financial aid has been daunting. Many of the adults in Spangenburger's life--especially his parents (a nursing assistant and a factory worker)--are urging him to aim high. And he has pored over dozens of glossy brochures, eliminating any school that requires history (his least favorite subject). He's studied the Web sites of his dream schools, but is too nervous to e-mail admissions officers or faculty members, even though colleges encourage prospective students to get in touch. He's thinking about visiting Carnegie Mellon, but hasn't yet. Berkeley Springs' guidance counselor, Linda McGraw, has been some help. But she's quick to point out that she's more social worker than college adviser. "I have kids who have gotten pregnant, kids who have moved out from their families," says McGraw. "I wish I had more time for college advising, but I just don't." Months ago, Spangenburger grilled her about early action (nonbinding) versus Early Decision (binding). For other details about college life, he relies on friends of friends.

Not all Berkeley Springs high-school students go it alone. Last summer, coach Angelo Luvara made 50 videotapes of Matt Rockwell, the school's star football player, and sent them to coaches at top schools around the nation. Since then Rockwell, who has a B average, has been deluged with calls from coaches at Yale; the University of California, Berkeley; James Mad-ison, and Eastern Kentucky University. "I want to help one smart, talented kid get his foot in the door," says Luvara.

In the past few years some schools have begun to open that door a little wider. At MIT it's something of a mission for Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions. Twenty years ago, 25 percent of each MIT class were first-generation college goers from poor backgrounds who used the celebrated engineering school as a ticket out of the blue-collar world. Five years ago, when that number dipped below 10 percent, Jones began scouring the country for bright kids, and then paired the potential applicants with MIT faculty and students who could answer questions about college life. In four years Jones has doubled the number of poor first-generation students at MIT.

As college-application deadlines loom in the next two months, Spangenburger reads and rereads the brochures he's saved and tries to imagine himself amid the crowds of smiling, well-dressed students. "A couple of people have told me, 'Buy a BMW, you'll fit right in'," he says bleakly. "I wonder what they'll make of a hick from West Virginia." Spangenburger's parents worry their son will be so intimidated by the culture of an elite school that he won't attend, even if he gets in. "We know he's afraid," says David Spangenburger. "He doesn't think he's good enough." He's decided to apply to Carnegie Mellon and Cornell. If he doesn't get in or can't find the money to attend, he'll settle for WVU. Although the computer-science program at WVU isn't as famous, it's not bad, either. "I've gotten myself this far," he says. "I'll do what I have to do to make myself a success." He speaks with a determination that any college admissions officer would love--if only they could hear him.