THE BLOG
09/04/2014 04:10 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

Opening the Doors of Elite College: What It'll Take

JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

Improving access to elite colleges has been hot on the minds of politicians and university presidents. President Obama, in a summit with 100 college and university presidents in January, charged the institutions with opening their doors to more needy students.

But, progress has been slow coming. In his New York Times article, Richard Pérez-Peña details how the poor are still rare at elite colleges. Perhaps the issue is one of more than just cost.

For many Americans, late August is the time for packing up the car and helping an excited freshman move into their dorm on a sprawling, bucolic campus. It's an American ritual except, for so many college students it's far from their reality and not for the reasons we might think.

College for me was quite removed from that romantic image. Having earned a high school equivalency and as a 20-year-old with two children, my only option was to attend a community college. My GED scores were high enough for acceptance to a four-year college; however, those did not offer essential supports that community colleges like LaGuardia Community College did: a round-the-clock childcare center, flexible class schedules and a student body that was inclusive of every age group, income level and ethnicity.

Three days out of the week, and sometimes at night and on weekends, I'd drop my son off at his elementary school and haul my books and my daughter to my own school, where I left her in the care of the college's Early Childhood Learning Center. There was no scenic drive to campus; my parents had long ago bid me farewell.

During the extra hours the campus childcare center gave me for study time, I instead participated in co-curricular activities. I got my work done by taking careful notes and studying into the night while my children slept.

The days I wasn't in school, I worked as a real estate salesperson, a job that allowed me to make my own schedule and, when necessary, have my kids in tow.

I graduated in two years with honors, kept a job that supported my basic needs and was able to take advantage of opportunities that helped me land several scholarships and an internship at El Diario, the longest-standing Spanish-language paper in the U.S. Insofar as my studies at LaGuardia went, my undergraduate experience was rich.

When I transferred to NYU, my dream college, the experience was starkly different. Like many four-year colleges, which cater to traditional students -- younger than I was, financially dependent upon parents and without children -- NYU fell short in addressing my needs as a student.

I had no on-campus option for childcare and there was little flexibility in my class schedule, so off went my children to live with their father. The college's social scene was worlds away from my own, so making friends was difficult. And its co-curricular offerings too revolved around the traditional student, impossible for me to manage along with school, work and family.

Where at LaGuardia I formed study groups with new immigrants studying English, first-generation college going and other parenting students, at NYU no one in my classes was a parent, only a handful were over 21 and few held a job that they needed because it was their only means of support. While NYU students were coming of age and learning to be independent, I had people depending on me.

I graduated from one of the most elite colleges in the country, but not without many, huge, sacrifices and with a few scars.

The difference between what I experienced at LaGuardia and NYU, should raise questions about how we are going to address the needs of today's college student and the depth of how far we will go to close the gap in who attends and doesn't attend college.

There aren't more people like me, the poor or "non-traditional," at top tier institutions because their needs aren't being met, needs that aren't only financial.

In 2009, nearly a quarter of U.S. undergraduates were 25 years or older; and 45 percent -- over 8 million people -- were attending a community college in 2012, likely for the same reasons I did.

What we must have is a rethinking of our idea of who attends college and how we help them enter and stay in school and graduate. The national student body is changing and with it so should how colleges organize themselves to support all students.

This year, seven of my relatives will attend a public college. Three will go to senior schools. Not surprisingly, they come from two-parent, middle class households.

The others have more complicated stories. Angel, whose teen mother managed to graduate college, is a prodigious guitar player with a 65 average; Veronica nearly dropped out before moving with her sister on Long Island where she thrived academically -- she'll work and study to help her single mother; Valentina finished high school just in time for the birth of her son, now 18-months-old; and it's a wonder Fernanda is going to college at all -- her mother passed unexpectedly a month before her high school graduation. She's since moved between family in New York and Florida and has battled anxiety.

They're all attending LaGuardia Community College this year because they've had non-traditional paths to college ... but have they really?

My family's example is one that reflects the national trend, the change in who attends college. It might be time for us to embrace a new ritual, one that welcomes the "non-traditional" student to our elite colleges and provides them the supports they need to graduate.