04/14/2014 05:08 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2014

College for the Rich

An Upward Bound student -- I'll call him Carlos -- walks into my office with a folder full of financial aid packages. He's lanky, the kind of kid who usually just wants to talk about video games. But today, he looks at me, defeated, and tosses the folder on my desk.

He says, "If I had known it was going to be like this, I wouldn't have tried so hard in high school." He looks down at the floor. "It's like I've been set up for community college since the start."

In a couple of sentences, Carlos says everything that's wrong with higher education today.

Carlos is graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA. He has completed rigorous coursework such as Advanced Placement Chemistry. He is fluent in both English and Spanish. He has been accepted to several public institutions in Massachusetts and attended Upward Bound every summer, where we prepare him for life on a college campus. Yet, at each institution, his financial aid package comes with at least $5,500 in loans and a gap of roughly $5,000. His estimated family contribution based on federal tax returns is $0 because he lives well below the poverty line. In the end, a four-year degree from a so-called public institution would run him over $40,000 in debt.

So when Carlos says that he has been "set up" for community college, he's saying that as a poor kid with good grades, there is no longer any social commitment to him. And he understands that this fiscal reality is not what was promised -- that if he did well in high school, studied hard and made decent grades, he would get funding for college.

If Carlos had been born just a few years earlier, he could have gone to these schools with about half of the debt burden. Now, he will probably live at home and commute to a local community college.

Please don't misunderstand -- I'm not bashing community colleges. I'm pointing out that we now have de facto segregation of higher education in this country. Low-income students, like Carlos, with decent grades and SAT scores can no longer afford to attend public colleges, institutions that were created to counteract the influence of elite private schools. By not allowing Carlos the chance to study away from home, to learn with middle and upper-class students, we as a nation are using college affordability as a wedge to separate race and class.

To me, college affordability is little different than a poll tax, a discriminative tool to keep certain people out of the American mainstream and political life. By taking millions of high-achieving, low-income students out of public four-year colleges and shifting them towards community colleges, we are creating a network of privilege in our society that will further entrench the divide between rich and poor. Carlos could live in a dorm, experience a diversity of people beyond his homogenous, Hispanic hometown and have intensive academic support. Or, he could stay at home, continue to face the pressure of living in poverty, and cobble together a work schedule that allows him to finish community college and transfer. Hopefully.

Do you see the difference? Where is Carlos more likely to pull his family out of poverty through a well-paying job? At a four-year residential institution. Not to mention the social capital that Carlos loses by not learning how to adapt to the world of white privilege -- a world that he has yet to fully experience attending a school system where the only white faces are the ones at the front of the room.

Maybe my argument sounds like good old-fashioned white liberal elitism; that I'm suggesting that people can't create perfectly good lives with community college degrees as the foundation of a solid middle class.

But that's not it at all. What I'm saying is that Carlos believed in a promise. He was sold a bill of goods, one which suggests that academic achievement means you can afford to go to a four-year college, no matter where you come from. And Carlos, along with millions of others, is realizing that because of our unwillingness to fund public higher education, the promise of college is a lie.

We now live in a country where college is for the rich, except for the lucky few, the valedictorians in our rural and urban high schools, who get full rides to elite private institutions. And instead of making comprehensive policy, we have a president who seems focused on the newest buzzword, undermatching. Let's find those straight-A kids who aren't applying to the Ivies, his administration suggests. Carlos, who made a few B's here and there, can just figure it out and struggle.

Not very long ago, public colleges were within reach, a sound economic option. Now, the dream of millions of hard-working low-income students -- to move away from home, to live in a dorm, and to study without having to worry about putting food on the table -- is becoming part of the burgeoning lie of our American meritocracy.

We have to treat college affordability with the same urgency as health care. If we don't, we will continue to become more Old World than American, a stratified nightmare where class determines destiny.