The recently exposed college admissions scandal reminded us that there is no such thing as a level playing field when it comes to higher education. The fact that wealthy people immorally and illegally use their power, influence, and money to benefit their children is hardly a surprise, though the magnitude and sheer cheek of the individuals involved caused our eyes to widen in horror and disgust.

Wanting to help one’s children improve their lives is an honorable desire, and presumably most parents do so in a moral and legal way. Many of us burned with anger at the uncovered injustice, but when it comes to higher education the deck always has been stacked in favor of some and against others, such as first-generation or nontraditional students.

Author and journalist Alfred Lubrano’s Philadelphia Inquirer front-page article on April 22 shines a light on the tilted playing field of higher education and beyond—and illustrates how the imbalance goes beyond bribery.

Connections and soft skills matter. “Even if parents aren’t directly able to find jobs for their kids, well-off moms and dads use the “strength of weak ties,” according to Temple University sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab, an expert on first-gen students: “If your dad can’t get you a job in his office, he knows somebody who knows somebody.”

Lubrano (in accompanying photo) quotes University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau in explaining a key aspect of the playing field on which job seekers (even at an Ivy League school like Penn) find themselves, “The culture of the work world is often invisible to first-gen students.” Lareau coached one of her first-generation students “to write emails thanking potential employers for seeing him on the same day that he had his job interviews. Then Lareau bought him thank-you cards to send as a follow-up.

“These soft skills are not taught in class,” Lareau said. “Upper-middle-class parents just tell their kids this.”

Of course, students from college-educated families tend to have career and social networks that offer valuable connections and inside knowledge about the nuances involved in becoming hired and growing one’s career—things that just don’t come up in dinner table conversations at the home of less educated individuals.

This always will be the case for first-generation college students.

It reminds me of the truth that helping nontraditional students is no simple matter. Even with scholarship or grant support, the field always will be unbalanced, meaning that a school that is serious about helping such students should also lend a hand when it comes to connections and soft skills—advantages that become turning points in students’ lives.

Studying (and living at) schools like Penn, which is highlighted in the Lubrano piece, puts a student in position to meet people who can play key roles in one’s career (which has a lot to do with the reasoning of those fat-cat parents in the scandal), but some of the best help comes from less prestigious institutions, and that’s what we’ll look at in the next post.

Spoiler Alert: best practices with nontraditional students often come from what I call the “least sexy niche in higher education” in Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning.


Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the “Turning Points” weekly blog on City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction. Bachus’s article, “Learning From Turning Points in Our Teaching Lives,” will be featured in the May issue of NEA Higher Education Advocate, which reaches over 150,000 college faculty in the U.S.