The letters began arriving her sophomore year. The University of Southern California, UCLA, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Washington all courted Janae Brown, attracted by her B-plus average and a national academic award. The interest was reward for the years Brown wedged college courses between her high school classes and a job selling shoes at J.C. Penney. With each honors class and paycheck, she moved closer to college and her goal of a white lab coat and medical degree.
Three years later, the Seattle native sits at a dingy 4-foot-wide cubicle, making $11 an hour chasing down delinquent Bank of America customers. Instead of attending the UW's first day of classes Wednesday, Brown, now 19, will go to work amid Renton's empty office buildings, fast food joints and car lots, one more kid in a stubbornly large group from poor families who are not in a four-year college.
Despite the lofty goals of presidents and policy-makers, over the past 30 years the poor have made little progress earning bachelor's degrees, increasingly the key to better jobs and middle-class security.
In 2003, 8.6 percent of the nation's poorest young adults earned bachelor's degrees by age 24, barely up from 7.1 percent in 1975, according to Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a higher education research group. This trend persisted even as more students enrolled in college overall.
"I am worried that we will become a stratified economy, like many in Latin America where the prosperous and the advantaged stay prosperous, and the poor and disadvantaged stay poor," Harvard University President Lawrence Summers said in an interview.
The divide between the wealthy and poor in educational opportunity threatens to perpetuate the cycle of poverty for thousands of working poor families. More than 147,000 low-wage employees fall into that category in King and Snohomish counties, and more than 80 percent of them never graduated from college.
The reasons low-income students don't go to college are complex and subtle -- pressure to help support their families financially, parents who offer little help because they never went to college themselves, and a system that drops many poor students into their senior years of high school unprepared for and unaware of the benefits of higher education.
The unrelenting rise in college tuition, which is squeezing both the lower and middle classes, only makes it harder.
The results of the problem are far clearer in an economy where a bachelor's degree has replaced a high school diploma as the minimum requirement for many jobs that pay decent wages.
If you stop at high school you'll make nearly $20,000 less a year, on average, than if you get through college.
College plans, interrupted
In 2004, entering her last semester at Ingraham High School in North Seattle, Janae Brown was well on her way to a four-year university.
The quiet 17-year-old took classes at a nearby community college, completed the UW Early Scholars Outreach Program and even trained as a medical assistant just to get a taste of health care work.
Along the way, Brown skipped many high school rites of passage. She didn't play varsity sports, march in the band, cheer for the football team or get in much trouble. The only hints of teenage rebellion are two small piercings in her nose and upper lip.
The fourth of nine children pushed hard to get into college, so hard she became anxious and sick. She began skipping meals as she worked to become the first of her siblings to enroll at a four-year school.
"When you graduate from college, that's the big deal," Brown said during a lunch break from her job at the collections agency. "I know so many people who right out of high school just got a job and ended up there for 10 years."
With deadlines approaching in her senior year, she started working on applications to the UW and USC and finished up her honors class work.
On the all-important SAT, Brown's 1060 score ranked above the national average and at the state average, even without an SAT-prep program. After school, she didn't have time for extra classes before driving to Northgate Mall to sell shoes.
Four months from graduation, Brown's college plans began to unravel.
At a time when many high school seniors were putting final touches on college applications, Brown lost her home.
Brown's grandparents, Doris and Melvin Riddick, who raised her since she was a baby, said they got caught in a real estate scam they read about in a free supermarket circular.
Their deal to buy a home fell through after they had given up their rental home. They wound up homeless.
The college applications and financial aid packets were left unfinished, eventually tucked into a shoebox and placed inside a Castle Storage room after the family moved into a motel on Aurora Avenue for a few months.
Major obstacles: pressure, money
Brown stumbled over two of the most common obstacles that poor college applicants face: a pressure to work in struggling families and a lack of money.
The Riddicks were raising five of Brown's siblings on the $35,000 Melvin made in a good year as a mechanic, stepping in after Brown's parents disappeared into crack and cocaine addiction. They didn't have much left for Brown's college education.
Brown chipped in $150 to $200 a month to the family budget, and her own expenses ate up much of her savings.
"She had everything except the resources," said Anthony Shoecraft, Brown's mentor at the YMCA. "She is the rock of the family. ... A huge part of her life was definitively put on hold."
At least Brown had grandparents pushing her toward higher education. When parents don't attend college, they don't always understand the application process, the amount of available financial aid and the potential importance of a four-year degree, experts say.
Plenty of struggling parents want their kids to go to college, but some are just too busy working multiple jobs or are simply unaware of their options.
The parental factor
"Kids on Mercer Island, the expectation when they get out of bed in the morning is they will go to college," said Mark Pursley, the director of the Boys & Girls Club in White Center, one of King County's poorest neighborhoods. "The parenting is the biggest (factor) ... in a kid's life."
With fewer people pushing lower-income kids toward four-year schools, many don't feel ready for college, counselors and academics say.
Harvard University dangled the possibility of a free ride in front of kids at the White Center Boys & Girls Club last year, but counselors couldn't get a bite.
Why? Plenty of the students appeared qualified, but no one thought they belonged at Harvard, according to Ryan Schaedig, education director at the club.
"College is a foreign word out here for a lot of these teens," Schaedig said. "They say, 'I am not a Harvard student. I would never make it there.' "
Lack of adequate preparation
The truth is many low-income students are not ready for top schools. Too often, no one ensures that they take every college-required course. Or students become lost balancing school, a few hours of sleep, a poor diet and part-time jobs to help their families, student advisers say.
"We have a bunch of kids who are inherently bright enough but who don't have the grades, don't have the SATs, don't have the foundation," Pursley said.
After graduation, 53 percent of poor high school students are ready for college, while 86 percent of wealthy graduates are prepared, Lawrence Gladieux, author of the book "The College Aid Quandary," told Congress in 2002, citing data developed for the Education Department.
"I don't think the problem is at the higher-ed level. The problem is the K-12 schools are not adequately preparing kids to go to school like college," said Neal McCluskey, education policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
Consider this: Over the past 30 years, the 32 percent gap between the percentage of low-income students and wealthy students attending college has barely budged, researchers have found.
And at the nation's top 19 schools, only 6 percent of those graduating in 1999 were the first in their family to attend college, according to the new book "Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education."
A University of Washington survey revealed that 11.6 percent of the 2004 freshman class came from families earning less than $25,000 a year, while 37 percent belonged to families making $75,000 or more.
College wasn't a priority in Jessica Swails' family when she was growing up in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula. Her father lived in Seattle, working as a welder and mechanic on the waterfront, and her mother raised the family on the peninsula. Swails dropped out of high school at 17 and was pregnant soon after.
But she never forgot how her parents struggled. When she saw a flier touting college aid for high school dropouts at a nutritional clinic a few years later, she grabbed it.
Today Swails is still cleaning houses, but she completed an associate degree in small business at Shoreline Community College last spring.
"When you are poor, (it's) hard enough just feeding your kids, making sure they are taken care of. You don't really have time to look for the future," said Swails, 26. "You are never going to make enough to get ahead without some sort of education.
Jobs to 'other people's kids'
Going to college is not the only answer to poverty, but a four-year degree raises the odds that someone will make the leap to a stable, middle-class life.
The national unemployment rate in August for workers holding only high school diplomas, 4.7 percent, was more than double that of those with bachelor's degrees or more, 2.1 percent.
There is little doubt about the cash value of a bachelor's degree. In Washington, college graduates typically enjoy far higher pay -- $21.81 an hour on average -- than high school graduates, who earn an average of $9.80 an hour, according to the state's Employment Security Department.
The gap is expected to grow in a U.S. job market increasingly dominated by those who serve others rather than manufacture things.
The 21st-century economy rewards education by creating lots of high-paying service jobs that require degrees -- for lawyers, doctors and computer programmers, for example -- and lots of low-wage jobs requiring little education -- for janitors, warehouse workers and home health aides.
Ground-floor requirement: bachelor's degree
Fewer jobs exist in the middle for high school graduates.
"Now you have to have a B.A. to enter the economy to be able to support a family at minimum," argues Frances Contreras, an assistant professor at the UW's School of Education.
These new economy realities are eroding the belief some Seattleites have that the city retains plenty of good-paying blue-collar jobs.
Washington state is one of the leading suppliers of new-economy jobs in software, biotechnology, telecommunications and other sectors, said Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Endowed Chair in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington.
But Washington ranks a lowly 49th out of 50 states in the proportion of its 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in public four-year institutions, Lazowska added.
The state's "economy is creating these jobs," Lazowska said, "and they are going to other people's kids."
Tuition pains and gains
The problem of few poor kids on university campuses has been around for decades, but there are signs of progress.
Over the past year, some of the nation's leading schools -- Harvard, Yale and the University of Virginia -- offered to cover more of the educational costs for students from low-income families. At Harvard, for example, a student whose family earns less than $40,000 a year won't pay a dime to the school.
The University of Washington doesn't make similar offers, in large part because it relies on the state for funding. Ivy League schools have massive endowments -- Harvard alone boasts $19 billion -- that make it far easier to pay the bills of low-income students.
The free-ride initiatives are the most dramatic signs of a movement by presidents of some elite universities away from popular need-blind scholarships.
But such offers aren't worth that much in places like White Center, where kids aren't even confident enough to apply.
All schools can do more simply by sending "the message out that poor kids can come here," said Gladieux, the former head of policy and research at the College Board.
While those on the bottom of the economic ladder struggle the most, middle-class families also pay a steeper price for college these days. At the UW, tuition has jumped 187 percent from 1990 to this year, where it stands at $5,610 for Washington residents.
After getting bumped off track last year, Brown is once again trying to make her way to the University of Washington.
With her grandparents now settled in a North Seattle apartment, Brown lives on her own in Renton. She enrolled at Bellevue Community College this fall, another step toward a bachelor's degree and then, perhaps, medical school.
"I know for sure I am not going to put off school any longer," Brown said.
She still faces plenty of challenges getting through school. Just 50 percent of students who enroll in community colleges nationally with the idea of getting bachelor's degrees ever transfer to four-year schools, according to Education Department statistics.
Brown, though, has one critical advantage: a supportive family full of role models. One uncle went to Columbia University, another graduated from the University of California-Berkeley and a third graduated from California State University-Long Beach.
Even her mother spent a couple of years at USC before dropping out.
And the matriarch of the family, Grandmother Riddick, 69, who studied at the University of Panama for a year, expects Brown to go even further than others in her family. It just may take a little longer. She likens the process to jumping on stones to cross a creek.
"You slip and your foot gets wet," Riddick said. "You still got to go on."