Here is what I pictured the day I received a full ride to a private boarding school: I would ace every class, go on to a top-tier university (also on scholarship), and eventually become a Very Important Person who could meet all of my family’s needs. We were living in public housing at the time, and the offer letter arrived as if from a different world — a $38,000 golden ticket, worth more even now than the median household income in the North Carolina town my family calls home. Twelve years and hundreds of thousands of grant dollars later, several of the things I wished for as a 13-year-old have come true.
Maybe my story sounds familiar. Perhaps you are an admissions counselor or teacher, and this is the epilogue you hope to read from the young people you shepherd toward brighter futures. Maybe you remember passing an inspirational billboard like one I saw in elementary school: “From homeless to Harvard. Ambition. Pass it on.” Or maybe my story is similar to your own, and you already know what every scholarship kid comes to learn: Free rides are far from free.
The odds stacked against children born into low-income families in the United States are well documented. In this rich country that declares itself the land of opportunity, the probability of a poor child becoming a wealthy adult is incredibly slim. In a landmark study by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, just 2 percent of Black boys made that jump. Those stuck in intergenerational cycles of poverty grapple with worse mental and physical health alongside blunted social and economic opportunities.
But what of the handful of people who find themselves climbing shaky ladders toward the middle and upper-middle classes? Their experiences seem harder to quantify. For some number of young people, that upward journey began just a few weeks ago, with the start of a new school year. They attend private schools, competitive public preparatory schools, and after-school programs that set them up for a college education — one of the few things that can sometimes be powerful enough to overcome the inherited effects of class.
These kids are the lucky ones, and they are asked to be grateful, adaptable, and excellent. Most are. But if they are like me at their age, they are also wholly unprepared for the reality that there is no golden ticket that will carry them to better socioeconomic outcomes than what their births had predicted. Rather, they will face a series of tests and contracts, each with its own demands and inequalities.
For me, “making it” required learning an entirely new set of social rules about what a desirable life looks like, from the cities where you should live, to the books you should read, to the age at which you should start a family. These rules and the institutions that taught them to me were rarely meant to accommodate — let alone celebrate — Blackness, queerness, or any way of being in the world that was not aligned closely with the mainstream. I gave up time with my family and connections with the communities that raised me. For a long time, I struggled to find a sense of self that was not filtered through the eyes of the mostly white and well-off people who were the evaluators, allies, gatekeepers, funders, and mentors of my adolescence.
I was also required to audition nonstop for people with the means to decide whether I deserved to walk through the next open door. Scholarships paid for my books, equipment for school-mandated sports, summer programs, and college applications — the bare minimum of keeping pace with my wealthy peers. Nearly every award required undergoing a grueling selection process where up to hundreds of kids like me tried to strike the balance between appearing sufficiently needy and impressively assimilated. We were what Anthony Abraham Jack, the Harvard sociologist, calls the “privileged poor,” low-income students who go from elite training grounds to elite universities, and we became experts at telling “our stories.”
But the story I was living was one I had never seen reflected beyond the billboard version of success. Perhaps because our stories are uncommon, or perhaps because their complexities reveal the shortcomings of education as the great equalizer, scholarship kids receive little warning of the personal losses and structural obstacles that will continue to stand between them and the stability they so desperately want.
In recent years, some of us scholarship kids have taken to telling one another, breathlessly and in painful detail, about the other side of the story. Last year, Black students — some of them on financial aid and some not — took to Instagram to call out elite high schools for rampant racism. On college campuses, groups for first-generation and low-income students provide community support. Researchers have also begun to unearth the inequalities and risks that lurk in the very spaces meant to propel young people to better futures, such as students going hungry because they cannot afford meal plans.
Perhaps higher-paying jobs and access to rarefied social circles are enough to compensate for the losses. In my own life, I do not know which opportunities I would give back. But what I do know is that telling incomplete, feel-good stories about the cost of upward mobility in the United States lets us off the hook as a society. We hold up individual triumphs as proof against structural barriers and excuse the fundamentally unfair system that necessitates scholarships in the first place. We also leave children to navigate the messy truth hidden by our easy stories about the American Dream.