I could only imagine paying for college through sports. I was a tennis nut who constantly trained in hopes of a scholarship. I could walk through my neighborhood at all times of night without fear. But passing some bemused toughs on the corner with my Jack Kramer wood racket and tennis whites made me nervous. Tennis was seen as a white man's sport, but I eagerly took it up with the support of a popular local coach who funded my training.
I wasn't good enough to get a full tennis scholarship. But tennis would still be my salvation -- just not in the way I expected.
Howard took a chance on me. And that's where I found myself one muggy August morning for freshman orientation, surrounded by all of these impossibly self-assured students who oozed money and privilege. Howard was a black school, but it was considered the elite destination not only for affluent African-Americans, but students of color from Africa and the Caribbean.
What have I gotten myself into, I thought, as I wandered around the campus in a daze.
Looking under the lamppost
Only now, almost 25 years later, do I see that my lack of preparation for college was typical.
Caroline M. Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University in California, released a study last year entitled "The Missing 'One-Offs': The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students." It said that many poor students don't know about the opportunities awaiting them on college campuses.
She discovered that the vast majority of high-achieving poor students in the U.S. do not apply to selective colleges, even though it would be cheaper for them to attend those colleges because of the generous financial aid available. Selective colleges are often defined as the nation's top 200 or so most competitive public and private schools.
Hoxby and co-author Christopher Avery of Harvard University said that these students didn't apply to selective colleges because they were less likely to encounter a classmate, teacher or older cohort who had attended one.
When these same students, though, were told about their options, they were 78% more likely to apply to these elite colleges, she says.
"People think low-income students just don't aspire to get into selective colleges," she says. "They do have high aspirations, but they need help in getting over the high hurdles."
Hoxby said these colleges are complicit in missing these students. They tend to look for low-income, high-achieving students in the same big cities and in places physically near their campuses. She calls it searching "under the lamppost."
"What you would see is that a Columbia [University] would be searching in Harlem or in the Bronx for students, but most of the low-income kids in the United States do not lie in the backyard of very selective colleges."
Hoxby says her study also debunked a popular belief about affirmative action: Poor black students often flunk out because they are not prepared.
She found that high-achieving, poor students -- those whose grades and college aptitude test scores put them in the top 10% of students who take the ACT or SAT exams -- graduate at high rates at selective colleges.
"It's a complete myth," she says. "We found that low-income high-achievers did just as well at the selective colleges as high-income achievers."
Undercover at Howard
Unfortunately, I wasn't one of those poor, high-achieving college students at Howard.
On the surface, I should have thrived. Howard was a very nurturing environment. I was surrounded by other black students. Yet, I was put on academic probation after my first year and on the verge of flunking out when I returned as a sophomore.
Why had this happened? I felt like an imposter.
I had never been around so many black people who could talk so well. They were different. Many came from affluent families and integrated high schools and had never absorbed any inferiority complexes about white people. When I looked at my classmate's high school yearbooks, I marveled at the grandeur of their schools.
I decided that this world wasn't for me.
I didn't tell anyone about my neighborhood. I wouldn't talk in class for fear that my thick, rapid-fire Baltimore accent would betray my lack of good breeding. I slept in and started missing classes because I wanted to return to my old neighborhood and old friends.
As my sophomore year began, I knew that another bad semester would send me packing. I started preparing my apologies to my family and high school teachers.
Then one night, something clicked.