TOPEKA, Kan. — She was a blur of motion — leading the school step-dance team, working long hours after school at a beauty products store, mentoring younger students and caring for her siblings. So TaTy’Terria Gary, a senior at Topeka High School, had little time last fall to study for the ACT college admission test.
She was crushed when she scored below the threshold for admission to some local universities. She saw her dreams of being the first in her family to go to college and becoming a gynecologist turning to dust.
“I was angry at myself,” she said. “I had underestimated the test.”
College is the great leveler of American life, and the great divider, too. College graduates typically earn more money, are more satisfied with their jobs and are less likely to be on public assistance than people with only high school degrees. Students understand this; the aspiration to go to college is now almost universal.
Getting there, though, is another matter.
For young people with college-educated parents, the path to higher education may be stressful, but there is a road map. If their standardized test scores are too low, they can pay for a prep course; if their essay is lackluster, they can hire a writing coach. No one will be the wiser. If they can’t decide which college is the “best fit,” they can visit. When they are tempted to give up, their parents will push them on.
But for many working-class students, like TaTy and most of her classmates at Topeka High, there is no money for test prep or essay help. The alternatives to higher education — joining the military, working for $13 an hour at the local factory or getting a cheaper, faster trade-school certificate — are alluring. The cost of college may seem formidable.
At a basic level, many of these students simply lack the knowledge of how to manage the increasingly complex college applications process.
“They know that everybody goes to college, and they don’t know what that means,” said Robert D. Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard, whose book “Our Kids” looks at the widening class divisions in America. “They’re going down that path without anybody holding their hands.”
Among the barriers are less quantifiable psychological ones. Students who are not exposed to a college-going culture have trouble even imagining themselves at a university, beyond, perhaps, a community college close to home.
“You need someone to tell you at the critical moment, ‘You can do this,’” said Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which gives scholarships to low-income students.
For students like TaTy and her classmates, the difference between going to college and not going is often small gestures or luck — placement in a college prep program, a mentor’s interest, a parent’s encouragement, their own steely perseverance.
“My mother wants me to go out of state,” TaTy said. “She feels like Topeka is not a good place for people who have dreams.”
Over the last few months, TaTy and two of her classmates, Nathan Triggs and Zachary Shaner, grappled with decisions about college and made their way out of childhood, through money worries, broken families and peer pressure, into the next phase of their lives. Each followed a different path, but in combination, they tell a story of students at an average school in the middle of America trying to find a better future.
College Is a Backup
A dove hurtles out of the cedar trees, but Nate Triggs, in camouflage vest and cowboy boots, cradles his Mossberg shotgun and lets it fly. The dove is borderline out of range, he said. He would have to be lucky.
Like the dove, college feels borderline out of reach to Nate too. He gets conflicting signals from home and school about whether it’s even a good idea.
His parents split before he was born. On weekends, he lives on his father’s farm outside of Holton, a 45-minute drive from Topeka, where he lives during the week with his mother and goes to Topeka High. There is little doubt of his academic ambition. When he was in seventh grade, he eagerly signed up for a college prep program.
This school year, the college prep teacher urged the students to expand their horizons, to make lists of “best fit,” “stretch” and “safety” colleges and to think of what they would major in. Nate thought maybe he would pursue architecture. He had built a hip roof worthy of Frank Lloyd Wright, though he had never heard of him.
Or maybe he would study wildlife management. He was upset by the misuse of hunting to garner trophies, not food.
“I’m just trying to play my options,” he said early in his senior year. “I don’t know what I want to do yet.”
His school is a Depression-era temple to education, with Gothic arches and a carillon tower. But the college-going culture is far from pervasive.
More than 60 percent of the 1,800 students are low-income. Only half the senior class of about 400 took the ACT college admission test in the 2015-16 school year, and only 30 students took Advanced Placement tests, a measure of college readiness (though many more took the classes).
About half of Topeka High’s senior class went on to college in 2014, according to the latest state data.
“All of the counselors firmly believe the philosophy that college is great,” a counselor said at senior parent information night, even while pushing trade school programs in phlebotomy and cosmetology. “We want to get your kids there if that’s where they want to go. But it’s not the only option, and sometimes it’s not even the best option.”
At another assembly, a business development group promoted jobs paying $13 to $19 an hour at companies like Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Frito-Lay, Goodyear and the chocolate manufacturer Mars Inc.
Nate’s mother, a secretary, fondly remembers high school French and ceramics. She thinks it would be “awesome” for Nate to go to college, but, never having been, she has left the process to him. His father, a handyman who also never got beyond high school, encouraged Nate to make his own decisions.
His older brother, Ethan, dropped out of high school and has been homeless on and off for two years. His foster grandfather suggested the military as a place to explore his options. Most of his friends in Holton are going to technical school.
During his senior year, Nate took a construction job to pay for his cellphone and gas. His grades dropped — from B to D in AP government, his favorite class, and from B to F in physics. He never took the ACT.
“I’m pretty done with high school,” he said.
One night at a Mexican restaurant, a boy from Holton sneered, “Your pants are too short.” “I felt like fighting that guy,” Nate said. His mother flashed him a warning look. “I didn’t say I was going to fight him,” Nate said. “I said I felt like fighting him.”
Concerned, the Topeka High principal, Rebecca Morrisey, recommended him for an internship at Westar Energy. He is in heaven, earning union wage as a fleet mechanic after school.
The internship has concentrated his thinking, for now: trade school, like his Holton friends. “I want to get into what I want to actually do,” he said. “College is my, like, Plan B.”
A Guidance Counselor’s Help
When the marching band received dress uniform hats last fall, Zachary Shaner was truant. So he rummaged around the band room and found an old hat that he hoped would work. It didn’t. It was the wrong color and it had a broken black feather plume on top.
That was Zac, the familiar character in many high schools: the brilliant student who does not live up to his potential.
In elementary school, he was steered into the gifted track by his high IQ, but once in high school, he often chose easy courses to skate through. But he found a vocation in music.
He plays bass, guitar, piano and saxophone — self-taught — and has progressed from covers of Johnny Cash to composing his own songs, drenched with teenage anomie, and performing at the Boobie Trap, a dive bar.
Zac was a mostly A student until his junior year, when he took a job bagging groceries at Mike’s IGA so he could buy musical equipment. His grades plunged, along with his hopes to go to college to become a sound engineer.
His home life is hard. His mother, Charla Shaner, has a degree in early childhood education but depends on disability and child support payments to pay the bills. His older brother, Chris, 20, was too depressed to apply to college. Ms. Shaner’s ex-husband, retired from the military, lives in another city and communicates with Zac mainly through birthday cards.
But Zac had one advantage: the interest of his guidance counselor, Harry M. Peterson Jr., a debonair accordion player in his 70s, with an office full of pennants from places like Kenyon, Rice and Emory.
Mr. Peterson believed in Zac and urged him to aim high. Zac scored 27, in the 86th percentile, on the ACT without taking a review course. He seemed like a good fit for a small but selective college, like Grinnell or Oberlin, that would value his creative spark and could offer scholarship money.
Zac had never heard of either. “My spark is intimidated,” he said early in his senior year.
He told everyone he was going to Washburn University, the local public university, because he thought he could get close to a free ride there and live at home. But Mr. Peterson’s encouragement sank in.
Without telling anyone, Zac applied to the University of Kansas just before the Nov. 1 scholarship deadline. He was admitted and automatically awarded $1,000 a year based on his high grade point average and ACT score. Elated, he decided to major in film.
“As a musician, I’ve loved some of the soundtracks even more than the films,” he said, listing John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, Danny Elfman and James Horner as movie composers he admired.
In December, he found out that as a high-achieving, poor student from Kansas, he qualified for grants of about $10,900 a year, enough to cover tuition and fees.
“Wow,” Zac said.
He could double his scholarship to $2,000 a year if he took the ACT again and scored just one point higher.
But he thought he had done as well as he could.
When Luck Meets Persistence
TaTy’s mother was 17 when she gave birth to TaTy, an event that dashed her own college aspirations. So she encouraged her daughter to follow a different path. Her guidance had an effect.
For TaTy’s 16th birthday, she asked for a “purity ring,” a silver ring symbolizing a pledge that she will abstain from sex before marriage, or until she is ready. She has focused her energies on her schooling and getting into college.
She and her mother, Tracy, felt that staying in Kansas would hold her back, but she had little idea where to go. She searched for colleges online. Her mother drove her to Ohio State, and she considered Oklahoma Baptist University because she liked the idea of a spiritual element in her education.
But when she met Jennifer Stark Fry, a private college counselor from Wichita, she began to think more strategically.
Ms. Fry read about TaTy, Nate and Zac in dispatches I wrote about them last fall and offered to help all three get into college. Only TaTy responded.
Knowing TaTy wanted to be a doctor, Ms. Fry took her and her mother on a tour of Newman University, a Catholic university in Wichita, Kan., with a strong pre-med program. (And she reminded TaTy to send thank-you notes.)
The Newman admission officers were impressed by TaTy’s 3.7 grade point average, but she had scored an incongruously low 16 on the ACT, and their threshold was 18.
Newman urged her to take the test again in December.
The test fee was waived because TaTy was so poor; her mother works at a group home for troubled children, and her father is absent, in and out of jail. But she would have to pay $52.50 for her last-minute registration and a date change. She had 24 hours to come up with the money, and her paycheck was not due for a week.
She was about to give up when a local real estate broker, Helen Crow, came to the rescue. Her own daughter had gone from Topeka High to Stanford, and she could not stomach the thought of a future derailed for want of so little money.
In a second lucky break, Sean Bird, a dean at Washburn University who knew TaTy’s mother, arranged for her to take practice tests in the university library.
After two weeks of practice, TaTy raised her score to 18, a huge leap, to the 39th percentile from the 26th.
Newman accepted her on Jan. 5, her 18th birthday. “Feeling accomplished,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
She received $26,400 in scholarship and grant money off the $37,382 annual cost of tuition, room, board and fees. Though generous, it fit with a common practice of colleges, offering less money than students need.
She would have to pay for the rest through a combination of loans and work study or cash. For a middle-class family, roughly $40,000 in debt might be a molehill. For TaTy, whose financial aid form listed parental income of less than $20,000 a year, it is a mountain. Still, she is not giving up.
She said yes to Newman and is looking for more scholarship money.