I write this article as I close what most consider some of the most whirlwind months of their lives: the first semester of college. Freshman students must adjust to living in a new environment, navigating their newfound social freedom and acclimating to the difficulty of university-level academics.

Luckily, I was spared from much of the stress that accompanies the latter because my high school prepared me for the rigor of college coursework and provided me with the skills I’d need to be successful across various disciplines. Though many students at this university had high school experiences similar to my own, I constantly consider that there are students here who did not have this privilege and whose schools did not prepare them for college-level education.

This sentiment was reaffirmed on the first snowy day of winter. I spent that Saturday at the Undergraduate Science Building volunteering with STEM Society, a student organization on campus that aims to expose K-12 students, particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to inquiry-based science and math education. Our guests for the day were 50 JROTC students from Detroit-area high schools. As the students were busy shaking their rock salt ice cream (who knew colligative properties could be so delicious?), the group’s colonel spoke before them to bring the day to a close.

“How many of you found some of the content today to be a bit over your head?” the colonel asked.

About half of the students raised their hands. The question was as fair as the students’ response: As college students engrossed in our fields, sometimes we forget the basics were once not so simple.

He followed with another question: “What do you have to do when your teachers don’t teach these things in school?”

“Self-educate,” they responded.

“Self-educate” resounded in my head. They self-educate not because they want to learn more for themselves, or because they have found their passion in a given subject. They self-educate because their teachers don’t teach these things in school.

Yes, there is only so much teachers can cover in the short period they’re given with students each day, and yes, students should be responsible for learning material on their own time outside of class to maximize their education. But the notion that these students should rely solely on self-education upset me deeply.

We live in perhaps the most educated era of human history, one where educational resources are more available than ever — a luxury that has resulted in an increased emphasis on the value of quality education. This shows in the efforts of presidential hopefuls like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who claim lowering college tuition to be a tenet of their political platforms. While a college education is (validly) seen as a gateway to social mobility, perhaps the real problem does not lie in the rising costs of college tuition, but in the unreliable nature of public schools, especially those in low-income neighborhoods.

Take Detroit Public Schools (DPS), for example, the school system to which many of the JROTC students belong. Results from DPS’s ACT scores reveal the lackluster education students receive there. In 2014, only 17.8 percent of DPS 11th graders were considered “college-ready”; only 28.8 percent and 28.4 percent of test takers demonstrated proficiency in math and science, respectively. Moreover, nearly 200 schools in the district did not have a single student considered “college-ready” by the ACT’s standards, with the average score hanging around 16.4.

DPS’s teachers are not entirely — if at all — culpable for students’ poor performance on the state’s standardized tests. According to the Detroit Free Press, DPS faces an ever-increasing shortage of teachers, with merely 2,580 teachers to teach more than 46,000 students this school year. Teachers’ pay remains stagnant, even though the district expects many of the teachers to be instructional “coaches” in addition to their normal teaching positions. This, combined with the uncertain future of the district, has made a difficult job — teaching — all the more difficult. While the teachers in the district are spread too thin, the district, pressured to fill vacant teaching spots, has pushed non-teaching faculty into teaching positions at the expense of the quality of students’ education.

This phenomenon is also not confined to Detroit’s city limits. Studies show a correlation between low socioeconomic status and lower ACT and SAT scores, and teacher shortages plague districts across the nation. Such large disparities in the quality of education across districts make it exceedingly difficult for students in underprivileged districts to receive the schooling they need to make a college education a reality for themselves — no matter how much they “self-educate.”

As students at a university as prestigious as our own, we often forget how lucky we are to have had the opportunity to get here. The “normal” high school experience for many of us was one that provided the education and extracurricular opportunities we needed to earn admission to, and later be successful at, the University. But we must remember that there are those among us who did not have these privileges, a disadvantage no sum of scholarship money can truly mend. Perhaps this is the biggest roadblock to the creation of a more diverse campus community: If we truly are to achieve the diversity we’d like to see on college campuses, we must first fix the path students take to get there.

Rebecca Tarnopol can be reached at tarnopol@umich.edu. 

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