Seattle Foundation Blog

Redefining “Silver Spoon” and College Access

Why is it easier or perhaps more innately human to look up the socio-demographic rank and say “unfair” and not use that same lens to look down the socio-demographic ladder and conclude “blessed”? 


September 26, 2016

By Jane Repensek, Senior Vice President, Finance and Operations 

I recently attended an award ceremony where dozens of high school students received college merit scholarships and their profiles floored me: stellar academic records coupled with hundreds of volunteer hours and, in a few cases, the founding of new non-profits. Then I listened to the schools selected by these scholarship recipients: Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley and so on.

Later, a childhood friend Karen and I discussed how different our high-school resumes looked when we were on the brink of college thirty-two years ago. Growing up in a middle-income-heartland-of-America neighborhood with parents that either had high school diplomas or were high school dropouts, we worked hard to keep decent GPAs while holding multiple part-time jobs. We had little discretionary time – and often lacked the time to get a full night’s sleep.Volunteer work was not on anyone’s radar in our neighborhood. Karen and I commented that our high school student profiles from thirty years ago might not even get us admitted today into the universities that accepted us thirty years ago, and the elite schools that prize academic records and community service certainly would not be in reach.

We speculated on the profile of these scholarship recipients, envisioning them as “silver-spoon” kids whose parents paid for everything, allowing these kids’ lives to be filled solely with study and volunteer work, thus paving their way to merit scholarships at elite schools. This path largely wasn’t available to middle-class kids who worked for tuition. We commiserated with each other – “that is so unfair!” 

Whoa there Ms. Self! You had the three key ingredients that put kids on a strong trajectory: a family that owned its home for my entire pre-college life, access to education and parents with stable employment.

Growing up, our modest homes were sound and safe. Our parents had down payments in these homes and grew to fully own them as they paid down mortgages over decades. They had a wealth-storing mechanism.  We had food on the table; we had clothing (sometimes hand-me-downs from cousins), we had supportive extended family around us, we had neighbors who were sometimes closer than family, we had access to a family vehicle. We had a shot at college with a lot of elbow-grease behind the effort. We had parents employed as mechanics, firefighters, police officers, teachers and secretaries. Despite all of these blessings, my friend and I still talked about the “slight” of not having the same access to elite universities that the “silver-spoon kids” enjoyed.

Why is it easier or perhaps more innately human to look up the socio-demographic rank and say “unfair” and not use that same lens to look down the socio-demographic ladder and conclude “blessed”?  

Hey – Ms. Self – with that upbringing, you yourself WERE a silver-spoon kid from the perspective of millions of today’s kids! More than 20% of children (15 million) live in poverty (income under $24,000 for family of four) and approximately 45% (33 million) live in low-income (income under $48, 000) households. Add to this the recent statistics that the average family wealth (total household assets minus total household liabilities) is $111,000 if you’re white, but only $7,000 if you’re African American and $8,000 if you’re Latino. 

The implications of the above are stunning: at $7,000-$8,000, the wealth of everyone combined in the average African America or Latino family is just barely sufficient to buy a 10-year old sedan with 100,000 miles, the purchase of which would wipe out all of the resources of a family. Compare this to the annual tuition investment at a private university ($32,000), out-of-state public university ($24,000) and in-state public university ($9,000) and it’s a wonder that any child in poor, low-income and/or minority household could ever afford higher education, not to speak of volunteer work or starting a non-profit. 

I am honored to work at Seattle Foundation which is a source of hope for students who need a boost. In 2015, we awarded $1.2 million from 40 different scholarship funds to 250 educational institutions. Our related organization, SkillUp, provides post-secondary education and job training for hundreds of adults striving to make a living wage. Still, I look at the statistic of 33 million kids today living in poverty and low-income households and shake my head at the overwhelming needs of our communities and children. We have paved not a path, but a wide superhighway to continuing the poverty cycle. 

Sometimes humans, when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, become intimate with hopelessness, depression and frustration. Poor, low-income and minority families face high odds that generation after generation will be unable to escape their starting points and live the American dream of upward mobility. Had I been staring at those odds when I was graduating from high school, and seeing almost no other feasible path, would I have been as resourceful as I imagine myself to be? Doubtful. Today, foul weather, a lukewarm shower or a bad cup of coffee can put a damper on my day.

My fifty-year old Ms. Self has a message for my eighteen year Former Ms. Self: “Unfair?” Unlikely.

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