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Sunday Reflections: All I want for Christmas is the chance to go to college

I drive by a billboard every day that says that a teen drops out of high school every 26 seconds.  I’m not sure if that is just DFW kids, or Texas kids, or on average all kids.  But that’s a lot of kids – 7200 a day.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  And then the other day, a librarian friend posted on FB about how a family in the library mentioned that her child couldn’t read while kind of laughing and she, the librarian, was frustrated because we sometimes see low socio-economic families who don’t value education – and I want to to talk about that.

But I want to start somewhere else. I want to start with how I ended up going to college.  You see, when I was in high school we didn’t talk about going to college in my home.  I didn’t fill out one single college application.  I didn’t sit by my mailbox and wait for any acceptance letters. And I only took the SAT because we were required to.  So one Saturday morning I rolled out of bed with a fever of 102 degrees, I trudged in to take the test and then I went home and spent the next four days in bed.  My scores were – okay.  I could have taken the test again, but there was no point.  I didn’t need those test scores for anything.  You see, we didn’t have the money for me to go to college and even though I was a good student who worked hard, this was just not something that was in my future.  It was a non issue.

I obviously did end up eventually going to college, and I even went on to earn my Master’s in Library Science degree.  A degree I will still be paying for when my children enter college on their own, if we can find a way to make that happen.  And despite having a master’s degree and a lot of quality, professional experience, I now only work part-time.  This reality keeps me up at night because my oldest daughter, now almost a teen, has started asking me how she is going to be able to pay for college and the honest answer is this: we can’t.  I want more than anything to make sure that happens for both of my girls but the reality of our economic situation is that, like many Americans – even educated professionals with experience – we are living paycheck to paycheck.  I don’t want a big house or a fancy car or an exotic vacation, I just want to make sure my kids are fed and have the opportunity to go to college.  That’s number one on this and all future Christmas lists.

But let’s go back to the high school dropout rate.  There are a lot of reasons that kids drop out of school, but one of them is poverty.  You see, in many families, they aren’t planning for college just as my family didn’t.  They know that college isn’t an option.  They don’t value education because their parents don’t value education and didn’t instill that value in them.  They don’t value education because they are too busy trying to survive; the money that college requires is so far out of reach for them that they don’t even dare to dream.

For other families, they are too busy just trying to survive the day to day to worry about the future.  Many teens have to go home and take care of younger siblings while parents work two or three often part-time jobs.  Or the teens themselves are working jobs to help feed the family.  It’s hard to focus on school and plan for the future when you aren’t sure if there will be food on the table tonight when you get home and you have to go work to try and help make that happen.


“The words most associated with “dropout” are words likes “failure,” “deadbeat” and “burnout.” What you would never expect is that there’s another category of dropouts altogether. They are driven, ambitious and will stop at nothing. These are the 38% of tenth-graders in California who left high school to work. That’s right, to get a job. So why would a tenth-grader leave school for a job when they’re barely driving? Actually, they’re getting jobs to put food on the table. So many families are struggling to make ends meet that kids feel pressure to contribute.”
from School Rules.org

When I was in middle school I was friends with a girl named Patty for a brief period of time, before her family disappeared.  I remember that her family was so poor that they lived downtown in a terrifying motel with cheap weekly rates and no way to make food.  One day her family simply disappeared.  Patty wasn’t planning prom or college, Patty was simply trying not to die.  People like Patty don’t talk about going to college, they talk about how young they can get a job so they can eat.

So now I find myself a parent.  I have a tween and she is smart.  She works hard every day to do well in school.  Right now, she thinks she wants to be a physical therapist when she grows up.  But like many children around the world, she seems to realize that college is just out of reach for her.  We’re not poor, not by the federal standards and not compared to many of the patrons that I serve daily at the library, but we also can’t pay for college.  I can see how it could be so easy for kids everywhere who know that college isn’t in their future to not value their high school diploma.  In their world, their most pressing issue isn’t getting a high school diploma in two years, it’s getting a job tomorrow to help put food on their table. These teens have no hope for their future, because they are too desperate to make it through the day.  If we want to start lowering high school drop out rates, we have to be willing to make today palatable for our teens – safe, well fed, less stressful – and give them hope for a future.  You can’t plan for a future you can’t even dream of.

For more information about the high school dropout epidemic, see Undroppable and Do Something.

Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please?

Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty

Working with youth who live in poverty

Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like

Sunday Reflections: Going to bed hungry

Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries

Sunday Reflections: Poverty doesn’t always look the way you think it does

Feeding Teens at the Library: Summer and Afterschool Meals

The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand


  1. Reading this post makes me realize how lucky I am. I grew up in a poor, single parent home but I just assumed I WOULD go to college. And I did. I think there are ways to make it happen if you are motivated and determined to go. I totally agree with you, though, that someone has to plant the idea in your head that it is possible. This is where librarians and teachers can potentially change lives.

  2. I recently read UNTIL IT HURTS TO STOP by Jen Hubbard & one of the things that stood out to me was how the mother in the novel talked to her daughter about filling out college applications. Parents are definitely an important part of the puzzle. But for a lot of parents, the possibility seems so impossible. I see it every day with the parents we serve; if you can't put food on the table you just can't even imagine this possibility. Which is where schools and communities are really important, we have to help teens see that the impossible is in fact possible. I also see some of my teens working hard to get out of this life and for them the ticket is college. It really has a lot to do with messaging – what are communities, what are parents, telling these kids to work towards. Unfortunately, it's not always the right answer. I never imagined then that I would be who I am today, and I am thankful for my life's arc. I love what I do and believe in it. And yeah to you and your single parent. Growing up in a single parent house has very unique challenges, I too grew up in one for a period of time. I always try to remind my teens that they will get to the other side of this. Karen

  3. Some good points in here, but please don't despair for your daughter. I used to work in a college and there are many options which will make college possible. There is a lot of financial assistance out there, especially local scholarships and contests, that not many people bother applying for. Local community colleges are much less expensive than four year or ivy league schools (though Harvard is the best place to get financial assistance, believe it or not), and you can even save a lot of money just getting the basic requirements out of the way at the community college and transferring into another school. Living at home and attending a nearby college (if possible), is another way to save a lot of money. Working while in college helps decrease the financial burden, and I know people who work full-time and just go to college part-time. Yes, college is extremely expensive and it gets worse every year, but we do a lousy job educating people on other non-conventional routes to a college degree. And I cringe when I hear teens talking about an expensive college they will be attending, especially when they don't know what degree they want to focus on. If they go into computer science, they can much easier pay it back. But a history major? They'll be in debt for much, much, longer. They have no idea how that debt will affect the rest of their lives, from when they can actually afford a new car or buy a home, or even be able to pay for their own children's education. In the end, it really doesn't matter much about what college you even attend. It is the people you meet and the experience you build — I always tell my teens to intern as much as they can, even if it is only volunteering, and find something they are passionate about. That combination will open so many doors. So, don't tell your daughter that college is out of reach – tell her she has options!

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