Bryan Caplan asks: “Suppose a 15-year-old from a poor family in the First World asked you an earnest question: ‘What can I do to escape poverty?’ How would you answer?”
I doubt he wants an answer from a teacher/test prep instructor/tutor, but what the heck:
Caplan doesn’t indicate the cognitive ability or race of the poor 15-year-old. Strangely enough, it doesn’t matter too much until the last few steps in the process. So here’s what I’d tell the kid:
- Cut your family loose. I don’t mean you have to abandon them, or hate them, but their needs are secondary to yours. If they’re making demands, you have to say “No”. All the time. No, you can’t stay home to babysit because your little sister is sick. No, you can’t go pick your father up at work at 2 in the morning. No, you can’t drop your niece and nephew off at school and be late to class. No, you can’t miss a morning of school to drive your mother to the utility company to help her tell a sob story that gets the power turned back on until she has money to pay the bills. No, you can’t work extra shifts just because the family’s broke. No, you can’t lose an entire weekend to visiting your dad/brother/sister/grandfather in jail. I don’t care if your parents are bums or hardworking joes. They made their lives, and if you want a chance of getting out and making your family’s life better, you don’t get sucked in by their problems. If your parents share your goals, then they’re already making this happen. Otherwise, they are millstones round your neck.
- If you live in a city or suburb: within a ten mile radius of your school, there are fifteen to twenty organizations dedicated to helping at risk youth. You are at risk. Go check them out and pick the best one. If your school has an AVID program, sign up for that. There is a bunch of do-gooder money funding a whole host of programs that will give you, for free, everything you need to prepare for college. They will give you daily snacks, mentors, tutoring support, monitoring, care, test prep, college visits, free college admissions tests, and anything else you need. All you have to do is show up. Reporters will periodically feature one of these organizations as if they are unique or their services are rare and surprising. They are neither. Counsellors may not even know of their existence. You must find these places. If you live in a rural area, I can’t be as helpful here, but I suspect your school will be much more knowledgeable about existing support than suburban and urban schools are, and may even be more involved in coordinating these programs. So start with your school. Ask your church. Consult the phone book. If you end up having to do without this support, be certain that it wasn’t out there waiting for you to show up. And worst case, every single fee you can think of has a waiver form and you will certainly qualify.
- Stay away from anyone your age who doesn’t share your goals.
- Stay away from anything illegal: drugs, boosting cars, sex with anyone outside the approved age range, whatever. I’ve lived a clean life; I have no idea what the temptations are. Avoid. If you ignore this advice, memorize these words: “I WANT A LAWYER. NOW.” While screwing up on this point is dangerous, it’s not necessarily fatal. I know a Hispanic kid who graduated from high school while in jail (boosting cars); he then went to a junior college and graduated as valedictorian and went to Columbia. No, I’m not making this up. I tutored him for his SATS when he was in his second year of community college. Yes, he’s an exception.
- Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get anyone pregnant. Don’t pretend that you aren’t your own worst enemy if you ignore this advice. I have no happy anecdotes for this rule. Jail has less of an opportunity cost than a kid.
- Get good grades. Most teachers grade on effort, not ability. Use this if you need to, which means you can get good grades simply by doing your homework and making the teacher happy. If you get a teacher who grades on ability, take the opportunity as a valuable benchmark. Are you doing well? Your abilities are strong. Are you in danger of failing? Buckle down and take the opportunity to improve to the best of your capabilities. That opportunity will be worth the grade hit. Grades are an area in which your mentoring organization can help. A lot. They are designed around helping you get good grades. Use them.
- Don’t believe the people who tell you that you need X years of math or Y years of English to get to college. Race determines your transcript and test requirements. If you’re white or Asian, then you need an impressive transcript and decent test scores, no matter how poor you are. If you’re black or Hispanic, you’ve got a decent shot at the best schools in the country if you have SAT scores of 550 or higher per section, and a decent GPA (say 3.0 or higher). Blacks and Hispanics who can read, write, calculate at a second-year algebra level, and care enough about school to have a 3.0 GPA are an exceptionally rare commodity (about 10% of blacks, 20% of Hispanics).
But what if you can’t hit that ability mark? What if you aren’t very intellectual, work hard but don’t do very well on tests, can’t score above 500 on any section of the SAT, despite all your test prep? All is not lost. Whatever you do, don’t lie to yourself about your abilities, and don’t let anyone else lie to you. If you are a low income black or Hispanic kid, many people are uninterested in your actual abilities. You are a statistic they can use to brag about their commitment to diversity. That’s fine. Use their self-interest to your advantage. But if you can’t break 500 on any section of the SAT, then college is going to present a considerable challenge. Don’t compound that challenge by choosing a college where your degree would be a case of overt fraud. Start thinking in terms of training, not academics. Find the best jobs you can, and build good working relationships. Put more priority on acquiring basic skills, and find the classes that will help you do that. Tap into your support group mentioned above, tell them your goals. This doesn’t mean college isn’t an option, but it’s important to keep your goals realistic. If you are a low income white or Asian kid with little interest or ability in academics, no one will lie to you, and no one is interested in helping you because you represent the wrong sort of diversity. However, the advice remains the same. And for all races, if your skills aren’t too low, don’t forget the military.
Remember that colleges only use grades for admission. Once you’re in, they give you placement tests and grades don’t matter at all. This is great news for high ability kids who screwed around in high school; bad news for low ability kids who worked hard. Remediation has derailed a number of dreams. Be prepared, know what to expect, and minimize your need for it by taking advantage of every minute of your free high school education. And remember: no matter how bad your school is, it has teachers there who can teach motivated kids. Be one of the kids and find those teachers.
- Do not overpay for college. Set your goals based on the advice I’ve given here, as well as the advice of those you trust. Get a job to offset expenses. To the extent possible, find jobs that look good on a resume. A secretarial job looks better than a stint at Subway; a tutoring job looks better than a custodial one. Bank your money; if it’s at all possible to accept an unpaid internship that looks good on a resume, you want the option. If you’re studying for a trade, learn everything you can about the job opportunities: from your college, from seminars, from employers in the field. Try to know what you can expect and what sort of positions you want. But if you don’t know what you want, then don’t drift. Find a job, even if it’s not perfect, and see what happens.
If you’ve managed to achieve everything up to that point, you will have escaped poverty. How and by how much are yet to be determined, but you’re on your way.
It’s too easy to say “Get a good support system, go to school, don’t get knocked up or locked up, go to college.” All are optimal, most are necessary, but they sure aren’t sufficient if you don’t understand the game and jump through the right hoops. I’ve tried here to point out some hoops. Good luck.