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Is Culture the Key to College Success?
December 26, 2012 7:43 AM   Subscribe

Education is becoming less and less of an equalizer, as it has gradually fortified class barriers. The NYTimes investigation uncovered that culture has increasingly become the best indicator of upward mobility.

Likewise, lower-income students may find it difficult to remove themselves from the culture and mentality of poverty, cut off dysfunctional relationships, or stop contributing economically to the households they leave behind. In contrast, culture has led to the success of many Asian-American students.
posted by nikayla_luv (136 comments total) 73 users marked this as a favorite

 
Education is becoming less and less of an equalizer, as it has gradually fortified class barriers.

Because education is becoming less and less generally educational as it has gradually morphed into job training.
posted by DU at 7:55 AM on December 26, 2012 [36 favorites]


Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.

I started the NYT article a couple of days ago and had to quit a couple pages in because it was so depressing.

Treating higher ed as job training is problematic, I agree, but the increasing concentration of wealth and resources in an ever-smaller group is a much bigger problem.
posted by rtha at 8:05 AM on December 26, 2012 [15 favorites]


Because education is becoming less and less generally educational as it has gradually morphed into job training.

Tell that to my worthless creative writing degree!
posted by shakespeherian at 8:07 AM on December 26, 2012 [23 favorites]


Yeah. I'm not sure I'd call it "culture" so much as "family resources." And that's before you even get to the "can afford unpaid internships" part of things.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:07 AM on December 26, 2012 [17 favorites]


What's the connection between education as job training and economic mobility? It would seem to work the other way, educating people for jobs provides a direct support for economic mobility by giving those people the resources for more lucrative work.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:18 AM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Culture" and "class" do the most shallow swipe at the underlying problems of being a poor kid who wants to go to college. I was the first person in my family to go to college (my mom graduated from high school, her mother made it as far as the 8th grade), and it was an uphill freaking battle the whole way.

It began when my mom had her boss take me out to lunch to try and convince me NOT to go to college.

Mind you: this dude was an attorney and had a veritable assload of education under his belt.

Though she claimed she was worried that I couldn't pay for any of it (and this was in 1990, and she knew absolutely nothing about college -- nothing), the truth was that she was a lonely, sad, narcissistic alcoholic whose own family had worked hard to keep her own intelligence tamped down, and whose personal demons were stronger than any parental instinct to want the best for her child.

So I got off to college, but god, I had no clue. And I was so used to having to do everything for myself that asking for help never occurred to me. I figured that I should just know things, and if I didn't, that was my fault. I ended up on academic probation after my first term, which was my wake up call. The thought of fucking up and having to go back home, stuck with my crazy mother, was too much to bear.

Uneducated people have small lives, small worlds, narrow points of view, and they raise children inside that. To be smart, curious, and even slightly ambitious is such a menacing challenge, that of course the first instinct is to want to knock the person down several pegs, keep them in line. People fear what they don't understand.

And yeah: colleges need to understand the real diversity of the students coming in that goes way beyond skin color and gender. "How to Navigate College 101" would be a great start, some kind of basic support system, mandatory for people on a lot of financial aid.

As for the obscene cost of college, well, dismantling the beast is probably the only solution.
posted by gsh at 8:24 AM on December 26, 2012 [185 favorites]


gsh - Thanks for your thoughtful post. The only point I'd make is that your "College 101" class should probably be mandatory for everyone, not just folks on lots of financial aid; otherwise, the kiddos might attach a stigma to it. Make it mandatory for everyone, grade it (pass/fail is fine), and make a passing grade a graduation requirement.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 8:32 AM on December 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


Some "uneducated people" do have small minds,but you can't really generalize like that. Plenty of people without formal education still value learning and understanding and encourage their children in those pursuits. There are also plenty of people with fancy degrees and no intellectual curiosity.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:33 AM on December 26, 2012 [36 favorites]


So I got off to college, but god, I had no clue. And I was so used to having to do everything for myself that asking for help never occurred to me.

This a million times. So many of the expectations of how you should conduct yourself to do well in college are tacit, so you're totally fucked if you don't get there with an idea of what those expectations are. Even something as simple as communicating to incoming students that going to office hours is totally normal and very helpful and not at all something to shy away from, really!, would probably improve outcomes tremendously.
posted by invitapriore at 8:33 AM on December 26, 2012 [17 favorites]


When Massachusetts' current Governor Deval Patrick was first running for office, he came to my college campus and spoke about what it was like to leave Chicago's South Side to attend Milton Academy where he had earned a scholarship.

One thing that really stuck with me was him recalling how, prior to leaving, his family received a letter that said he would require 'a jacket' to meet the school's dress code, and how embarrassed he was when he got there and realized that they meant a formal blazer and not the nice winter coat his grandmother had scraped together enough money to buy for him.

Little things like that are probably a huge demoralizing influence on the people who do manage to escape their surroundings and attempt to better themselves. I really wish Patrick would be more open about his experiences so that more attention could be called to this problem. I also wish he wasn't such an enthusiastic supporter of legalized gambling in this state.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:33 AM on December 26, 2012 [31 favorites]


I feel bad for the protagonists. Too bad they didn't pull the trick of doing the first two years at a reasonably priced community college and then transferring to a bigger school, if necessary.

A lot of people don't realize that Algebra I/Basic English, etc. are pretty much the same everywhere and you don't have to shell out 30K for two years chasing basic level courses. Knock out the basic level stuff close to home and then hit the road if you want a degree from a "Name" school.

Also, if you have college dreams and your sig-o doesn't, dump them; he/she is only going to hold you back. The last thing you need to do is moon over some loser when you are surrounded a better caliber of people who are also getting degrees and making something of themselves.

My bottom line is that in their heart of hearts, they chickened out and really didn't have the gumption for higher education far away from home in the first place.
posted by Renoroc at 8:36 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The post-GI-Bill period when college functioned as an equalizing force seems increasingly like nothing more than a minor aberration from its historical role as a mechanism for the reproduction of privilege among elites. It's both a means of leveraging capital (both cultural and money capital) to ensure that those who already possess it can acquire more of it, and of erecting barriers against those who don't.

What is most depressing is how difficult it is to get anyone involved in the academic world to acknowledge this—of course without that acknowledgement there is no hope at all of changing anything.
posted by enn at 8:36 AM on December 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


So I got off to college, but god, I had no clue. And I was so used to having to do everything for myself that asking for help never occurred to me.

That sounds a lot like my story as well -- unending poverty, alcoholic parents, no help that I didn't scratch and scramble to get, and a college full of rich kids some of whom had obviously gotten there by virtue of a system that already seemed stacked in favor of the affluent before I even got a foot in the door. Thing is, though, I applied to college at a time when the effects of the inequality vise were just starting to show themselves, because officeholders and policymakers hadn't yet figured out that the best and easiest way to keep their sinecures (and to get a lot more where that came from) was to basically roll over and do whatever the hell money told them to do, no questions asked. A generation later, the landscape in the US is a lot bleaker, and I know that even the slim chance I had back then would simply not be an option now if I were 17 or 18 and trying to figure out the road ahead of me. The role that the era I was born into -- basically, luck -- had to do with whatever success I eventually achieved is almost undeniable.
posted by blucevalo at 8:38 AM on December 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


See, this whole business is the result of a chronic inability to address the truths of capitalism. It's just like how the United States absolutely will not endorse a living wage or meaningful worker protections, so we sneak in social welfare measures as food stamps. Workers don't get a living wage because that would mean that we as a society were limiting or critiquing the free market, but the "free market" would collapse into workers starving unless their food was subsidized by the state. Hence, Wal-mart workers on food stamps.

Similarly, we want to believe that "education" can lift everyone up and out of poverty. But how could it? Where are all the middle class jobs to come from? If everyone gets a BA, and a BA gets you a middle class job, who is going to clean the sewers?

And realistically, why would the already-well-off want to raise up an army of competitors for themselves? If everyone gets a BA, a BA becomes worthless.

So it's not "them" that's turned education into "job training" - it's us as a society, because we'd rather say "la la go to college and get a good job instead of being a furniture store clerk" than say "all jobs should be good/livable jobs, whether clerking in a furniture store or being a lawyer". It's us who've ceded the high ground -we've accepted that being a furniture store clerk should be, must be, a shitty, miserable existence of precarity and want, and all we can offer the furniture store clerks of the world is a chance to scrabble into some very expensive job training in the faint hope that they'll make it through and get to something better while most of their peers fall by the wayside.

In this country, no one with more power than a handful of mefites is willing to criticize the godawful outcomes of our state-backed-capitalist society...and that's why college is dreadful*.

This has nothing to do with getting a college education to broaden your mind and smarten you up - something that I suspect most people could use and would enjoy regardless of whether they become secretaries (like me) or something fancier.

*That's also why college jobs are polarizing into more and more well-paid administrators versus a bunch of low-paid and precarious staff and faculty jobs much further down the payscale - it's because the university system is being turned into a jobs farm for rich people.
posted by Frowner at 8:41 AM on December 26, 2012 [187 favorites]


Funny how the period of greatest social mobility coincided with the greatest social welfare system and subsidized education/housing.
posted by The Whelk at 8:41 AM on December 26, 2012 [62 favorites]


The last thing you need to do is moon over some loser when you are surrounded a better caliber of people who are also getting degrees and making something of themselves.


If you honestly think that people with college degrees are automagically somehow a better calibre of people than those without, you are so wildly, hilariously deluded that I can't even begin to articulate the epic fundamental wrongness of your ridiculous statement.
posted by elizardbits at 8:44 AM on December 26, 2012 [88 favorites]


Funny how the period of greatest social mobility...
That thar's some dangerous talk, comrade.

And I applaud you for it.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:45 AM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Because education is becoming less and less generally educational as it has gradually morphed into job training.

Bing! But in some ways, it's even more appalling than that. Education is designed in tiers, and the top tiers DO focus on a more general education. The lowest tiers? All practicality all the time. This might be a good idea, if, say, every student was required to be in at least two top tier courses. That way they could focus their studies on the things they have an aptitude for, while learning basic skills in the other areas of learning. But of course that's not what happens.

One of the reasons it doesn't happen is GPA weighting. That is to say, if you get a B or a B- in the Honors class, the grade multiplier the school gives you means your GPA is still higher than the kid in the fourth-level Studies course that's getting all As. That screws over kids in the Studies courses trying to climb higher, but it also ensures that every kid looking to get into a good college takes only Honors courses. Which means fewer slots available to kids whose parents aren't pushing them to have a good résumé. Which means that, in a class of 300 kids, almost all of the 75 Honors slots are taken up in each field by the same set of kids.

This establishes a social order, so rigid that when a low-level kid makes it into a higher-level course the other students frequently dislike the intrusion. It also ensures that the top kids won't necessarily be the best. Even the slackers among that top group get a better weighted GPA than the hardest-working students a few rungs below. Further adding to the imbalance, lower-level classes focus on memorization and repetitive mechanical responses, while top-level classes are all about essays and projects. If you hate machine learning, which I did, then you find that it's much easier to take a high-level course than a low-level one. Not to mention teachers are usually much more lenient grading essays than they are grading a hundred-question fill in the blanks test.

There's a course in my old high school – which was an excellent high school by all public school standards – called Theory of Knowledge. Basically it was an entry-level philosophy course, interesting stuff for a high schooler and great for encouraging a kid to see the connections between different fields of study. But Theory of Knowledge was limited to students in the International Baccalaureate program, a prestigious something-or-other that required participants to take five IB-level classes and a slew of tests at the end of the year. If you weren't in all the recommended classes, Theory of Knowledge was off-limits. I was in three IB courses. I asked to join the class, and was rejected, flat-out. Knowing now what I didn't then, I can say pretty confidently that ToK was the sort of course that would have made me a fuck of a lot mor enthusiastic about my studies, about learning in general. I had an inkling then, though I wouldn't have admitted it in a thousand years: not to the kids who taunted and insulted me for not being allowed to take the course. I shouldn't still resent the kids who taunted me for that. I do.

And, of course, the top-level courses I didn't take were the ones whose teachers consistently kicked a passion for their subject into their students. The friends of mine who developed an interest in history and economics took classes from the school's top two teachers. I was in the second tier, and I got a jackass who could have cared less about making us interested in the shit he tested us on. The difference between even that second tier and the very top one is pretty severe.

The problem with trying to "systematize" education to ensure practical results is that the system will optimize itself to benefit the kids at the top. When your education affects not just what you know but also what college you can go to, what job you can apply for, then people with the means to manipulate the system will manipulate it, and those kids will be given the sorts of opportunities which ought to be available to everyone, but which have been eliminated from the lower tiers for everybody's "convenience".
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:45 AM on December 26, 2012 [31 favorites]


I got told repeatedly that I was more than welcome, practically expected, to go to the profs' office hours. I did not go, most of the time--because I did not know what to ask for.

"Culture" potentially refers to the sum total of human behavior. I think it's being used here to gesture vaguely in the direction of values and obligations and such-like, but I wonder if allegedly unteachable skills, like how to identify your own mental needs, might not be a bigger deal.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:46 AM on December 26, 2012 [10 favorites]


(I add that I am the child of two very, very bright people - one of whom was admitted to a grad program at Harvard - and test extremely well. I've always been at the top of every class, graduate and non-. I've always known I'd be going to college. And yet, because my family is fundamentally lower middle class, when I finally got to college I didn't know about anything - I thought you only talked to your advisor if you were failing, I thought you only talked to faculty if you needed help in the class, I had quite literally never heard of an internship, I had no notion about any of the career or health services offered by my (quite good, small liberal arts) college. One of the reasons that I am a secretary today is simply that I didn't know any of the upper middle class stuff about how you got a career - I just knew how to get good grades and keep my head down. And I was a relatively advantaged student. Not knowing how to work the system is a real thing.)
posted by Frowner at 8:46 AM on December 26, 2012 [83 favorites]


Too bad they didn't pull the trick of doing the first two years at a reasonably priced community college and then transferring to a bigger school, if necessary.

It's so not that simple. Only 20% of community college students transfer to 4-year schools; some portion of CC students never intend to transfer, of course - they're at a CC for other reasons/certifications - but I do not believe that the rest are just too chicken to go away to school.

My bottom line is that in their heart of hearts, they chickened out and really didn't have the gumption for higher education far away from home in the first place.

So it's not that the problems are systemic, it's that they were just chicken. If every poor kid who was the first in their family to go to college just had courage, they could bootstrap themselves out of poverty.
posted by rtha at 8:53 AM on December 26, 2012 [18 favorites]


Rory Marinich makes an excellent point about weighted grades. I graduated high school with a 4.45 or something ridiculous like that. There were plenty of people smarter than I was and more capable, but because I had come from a wealthier middle school, I was a couple of years ahead in English and history.

My parents were also both very strong advocates for me, and refused to take "she's not ready for that class" as an answer. Sometimes it worked out for me, and sometimes I got a D in Geometry, but no guidance counselor was going to tell their daughter that she wasn't capable of Ivy League admission (and they were right.)
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:53 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't deny that there's a great interest in turning college into job training, but I don't agree that it's generally happened or is even happening without resistance (that's going to be one of the main topics in the coming year in Scott Walker's Wisconsin; they want to make the UW more oriented toward employers, and last year they changed the make-up of the Milwaukee Area Technical College, a state vocational school, to give employers more say than they already had). I also don't know that it figures into why these students fail and drop out.

Too bad they didn't pull the trick of doing the first two years at a reasonably priced community college and then transferring to a bigger school, if necessary. A lot of people don't realize that Algebra I/Basic English, etc. are pretty much the same everywhere and you don't have to shell out 30K for two years chasing basic level courses.

I did that -- I had actually started at a community college as an early entrant (and ended up, due to an agreement being dishonored, doing it without the sanction of my local school district, damnit) -- but I can say that while it certainly helps with costs (a gap that has diminished since I did it, though), it definitely has its disadvantages. For one thing, I hate to say it, but I couldn't get the caliber of instruction I needed/wanted at the 2-year campus. So many of the students were remedial even then that the curriculum felt seriously dumbed down. When I got to the 4-year campus (not the UW, but Beloit College), it took me a long time to integrate with the students who'd already been there two years, and I didn't have the communication habits I should have had with faculty. I ended up taking a "strongly advised" semester off, then came back and did well for one term, but flunked out the following one, and never got my BA.

The whole UW system is sort of geared toward this; even the technical colleges feed into the university's four-year campuses, but I think because of that there's more support. In a way Beloit was a great place for me versus getting lost in a mess up at Madison, but I also felt a serious cultural dislocation and wonder how much of that was reflected in my academic performance.

Anyway, I'm just saying I don't think this route is as simple or easy as you're suggesting. There are deeper issues at work.
posted by dhartung at 8:56 AM on December 26, 2012 [10 favorites]


DU: "Because education is becoming less and less generally educational as it has gradually morphed into job training."

So, because education has trained a generation of engineers, lawyers and doctors, it's stopped creating an upper class? If anything, upward mobility has slowed despite the productivity of it's students.
posted by pwnguin at 8:56 AM on December 26, 2012


For the lower classes, meritocracy in education is dead. Meritocracy has become the ability to owe and borrow money. Meritocracy is access to credit.
posted by gerryblog at 9:00 AM on December 26, 2012 [12 favorites]


I guess my question is, why would you want to pay so much money for something that isn't job training? Shelling out thousands or of dollars every year for something you could pick up fairly well from your local library seems not very bright to me. I mean, I understand that there's value to learning - I'm not going to contest that. But the "intangibles" of college shouldn't be your sole deciding factor when you are going to need to put yourself tens of thousands of dollars into debt.

When there's that much money on the line, treating college like an investment and thinking about the expected value of various majors seems like a fairly straightforward course of action to me.

EDIT: @gerryblog: there's no way to do meritocracy that doesn't end in a feedback loop or politicking. What we have now is a feedback loop: the people who got into the best position through meritocratic schemes now have the most resources to put their children into the best position, while those who didn't...don't.
posted by Noms_Tiem at 9:01 AM on December 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm a highschool dropout. After bumming around my hometown for a few years, I got my GED and went off to college. My parents didn't have any money, and even if they had, they wouldn't have given it to me. So I chose a state school and a practical degree (compute science) and borrowed my way through school. Through student loans and Pell grants, I was able to cover tuition and living expenses, and only had to get a job during vacations. Graduated with about $48K in debt, which I wasn't happy about, but I'd chosen a practical degree and had no doubt I'd be able to pay it off. Granted, I attended a cost-effective state school in a town with a low cost of living, but I'd imagine every state has at least one school that fits this description.

What's to stop anyone else from doing what I did?
posted by Afroblanco at 9:02 AM on December 26, 2012 [9 favorites]


My school has kind of a neat system for this.

"How to Navigate College 101" isn't precisely a class. It's treated sort of like an independent study, and it's called the Freshman Academic Portfolio. You write an essay describing your interests in college; fill in a list of all the classes you want to take (mostly to fill requirements); and arrange those onto a timeline. Then you get your advisor to approve it, and it gets reviewed by some other people in the system as well, and if your timeline violates causality, or you don't seem to understand your own interests, you have a failing grade on your transcript, and it's in a required course.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:03 AM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


I guess my question is, why would you want to pay so much money for something that isn't job training? Shelling out thousands or of dollars every year for something you could pick up fairly well from your local library seems not very bright to me.

As a big proponent of libraries, I can say that you have no idea what you're talking about.
posted by codacorolla at 9:04 AM on December 26, 2012 [30 favorites]


So, because education has trained a generation of engineers, lawyers and doctors, it's stopped creating an upper class?

I dunno if you noticed, but engineer and lawyer aren't upperclass jobs anymore.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:04 AM on December 26, 2012 [17 favorites]


What's to stop anyone else from doing what I did?

Affordable housing, a job to support room and board, time to study, etc.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:06 AM on December 26, 2012 [36 favorites]


What's to stop anyone else from doing what I did?

Who cares? We're talking about systemic issues that affect populations, not individuals. Unless your mom is on MetaFilter, your life story isn't really a concern to anyone here.
posted by invitapriore at 9:06 AM on December 26, 2012 [32 favorites]


Granted, I attended a cost-effective state school in a town with a low cost of living, but I'd imagine every state has at least one school that fits this description.

You'd imagine wrong.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:06 AM on December 26, 2012 [13 favorites]


This article was seriously depressing and I also couldn't quite finish it.

And yeah: colleges need to understand the real diversity of the students coming in that goes way beyond skin color and gender. "How to Navigate College 101" would be a great start, some kind of basic support system, mandatory for people on a lot of financial aid.


Definitely agreed. Having parents who can help coach you through the college application process and then your first few years are essential. Not that this is a full solution, but I volunteer as a mentor with a group in NYC that's trying to help out with this exact issue. iMentor (cheesy name but they do excellent work) has a couple programs; I volunteer in just a high school program but they have a 3-year-match program that is designed to address this issue. You mentor a kid for their junior/senior year of high school and then the first year of college. The idea is to help them through the college application process, help with financial aid applications, registration, just being a resource, then check in with them through the first year.

So I haven't done the college mentorship program, but if it's anything like the high school program it's pretty great- we get so much support as mentors, prompts on what to check in with our kid on, phone support with a program co-ordinator, and a whole structure that guides you. It's an amazing program. Definitely if you're in NYC and this sort of thing is depressing to you too, think about volunteering with them.
posted by lyra4 at 9:08 AM on December 26, 2012 [11 favorites]


The ever-increasing cost of tuition is a big part of this problem. Students have to work too much and take on too much debt. State legislatures in the U.S. have to stop cutting funding, and the professors and academic administrators need to commit to keeping their services affordable as a matter of social justice.
posted by Area Man at 9:11 AM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Uneducated people have small lives, small worlds, narrow points of view, and they raise children inside that.

Just as a counterpoint, my mom raised me and four other children as a single mother, didn't graduate from high school, was (and still is) an extremely religious person, and she couldn't be more opposite of your mother. She's open, relaxed, encouraging, happy and loving.

Don't generalize on one aspect. People are people.
posted by letitrain at 9:18 AM on December 26, 2012 [13 favorites]


Area Man: "The ever-increasing cost of tuition is a big part of this problem. Students have to work too much and take on too much debt. State legislatures in the U.S. have to stop cutting funding, and the professors and academic administrators need to commit to keeping their services affordable as a matter of social justice."

An interesting principle. What do you believe is a fair wage for someone forgoing 10 years of their life earnings for a PhD? Can we expect the best researchers to agree to also educate when the pay is worse than industry or private schools?
posted by pwnguin at 9:21 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm a highschool dropout. After bumming around my hometown for a few years, I got my GED and went off to college. My parents didn't have any money, and even if they had, they wouldn't have given it to me. So I chose a state school and a practical degree (compute science) and borrowed my way through school. Through student loans and Pell grants, I was able to cover tuition and living expenses, and only had to get a job during vacations. Graduated with about $48K in debt, which I wasn't happy about, but I'd chosen a practical degree and had no doubt I'd be able to pay it off. Granted, I attended a cost-effective state school in a town with a low cost of living, but I'd imagine every state has at least one school that fits this description.

See, this is very much the "my grandma smoked like a chimney and put away a bottle of wine every night until she died in her sleep at 103, so everyone is just foolish to worry about smoking and alcohol abuse" line of argument - it takes something that is clearly, clearly an anomaly and holds it up as what should be the norm if only other people would try harder.

Not to diminish your accomplishments! It sounds like you're a really responsible and focused person with good judgment who also had a lot of luck*.

I think this is a difficult conversation to have because the people who have been hard-working and lucky have all kinds of very strong feelings about how things went for them, and it's difficult to talk about systemic issues without seeming to slight your/their accomplishments.

There's an area of my life in which I am a survivor, in which I got through a lot of stuff very, very well. My tendency has always been to say "well, I got through [Bad Thing] with flying colors, it really wasn't that bad, it was nothing, other people make it into a big deal, I'm just like anyone else, other people whine too much". Over time, I've recognized that this is because it is very difficult and painful to accept that this Bad Thing actually happened and that it was bad and that no one helped me. It's much easier, emotionally, to downplay the fact that I got on through it with no help than it is to confront what actually happened. Also, I was raised not to brag or to think much of my achievements, since of course the Frowner family held their heads up high, did well, etc etc.

Anyway. My point is that if you forged ahead and got the GED and the degree and dealt with (what sounds like, though you downplay it) a not-great family situation - that's great! You beat the odds! You really pulled it off! And it must have been hard, and required a lot of emotional discipline. That's really excellent and special and rare, and you shouldn't downplay it - you should be proud that you soldiered on through a lot of tough stuff. (I mean, not obnoxiously proud, of course). And that's precisely because you got through stuff that sinks almost everyone. That doesn't mean everyone else is weak losers, it means that you were strong and lucky.

*You didn't get seriously ill, you were not sexually assaulted and traumatized, you didn't get/get someone else pregnant, you made the right call about what field to choose, you didn't need to help support your family, you were able to make it on Pell grants and work, you didn't get significantly mistreated by your peers or professors, you weren't getting queerbashed or living in closeted misery, if you faced systemic racism you were able to beat it rather than being overwhelmed, and you were able to find all the information about college that you needed rather than floundering. I've known people who ran aground on most of these rocks.
posted by Frowner at 9:26 AM on December 26, 2012 [99 favorites]


Area Man: "The ever-increasing cost of tuition is a big part of this problem. Students have to work too much and take on too much debt. State legislatures in the U.S. have to stop cutting funding, and the professors and academic administrators need to commit to keeping their services affordable as a matter of social justice."

Sounds familiar.
posted by oflinkey at 9:27 AM on December 26, 2012


What's to stop anyone else from doing what I did?

The NYT article outlines just a few of the reasons why other students got stopped. But I guess that because you weren't stopped, there can't possibly be legitimate reasons for anyone else to be stopped? Come on.

I was raised by a single mom and we didn't have much money. But my mom had PhD (she was the first in her generation to go to college), and although she ended up working as a secretary, it was at academic institutions.. We lived in a town with an excellent public school system - something like 98% of my high school went to four-year institutions and got their BAs within four years. Most of my friends' parents were professors and doctors and lawyers and so on. My high school was a feeder for Ivies and Seven Sisters and other highly selective schools. We had a ton of hand-holding through the application process via our guidance counselors and teachers and older siblings.

And when I went to college, there was basically no private loan system for college (or if there was, we didn't know about it) - my parents paid something like $1,000 a year each towards my Ivy tuition, and the rest came in the form of grants, work-study, and federal loans. My dad told me at the start of my junior year that he couldn't pay anything, and I went in tears to my dean's office with the letter in hand (I knew to go to the dean's office! Huge advantage!) and he pulled out a box of kleenex and assured me that I would not have to drop out, and they would find the money for me.

I had a whopping $11k in debt when I graduated from a school where the cost at the time was in the mid/high $20ks.
posted by rtha at 9:30 AM on December 26, 2012 [13 favorites]


If higher education is not worth the investment, it is only because IT COSTS TOO MUCH.
posted by three blind mice at 9:30 AM on December 26, 2012 [9 favorites]



These articles really hit me, I wrote my undergrad thesis on the experiences of working class students who went to college and transformation of their identities, and its similarity to a diaspora. For context, I mostly drew on academic lit., biographies, memoirs of those who grew up in this scenario, straddlers, (most of the ones that I studied became academics) and my own experiences.

As I read the NYT piece a couple days ago, a couple things hanged in my mind:

The increased costs of higher education which results in significant differences between these ladies and those who grew up in the past: the additional paperwork for financial aid and the more significant consequences of incorrectly filling out the paperwork, not utilizing those resources, being forced to drop out a semester due to work or mental health or slip up once: a much higher debt. A student who missed filing one semester's fin aid forms 20 years ago would be in a smaller debt hole (and likely could more easily find a paying job back then) than one who did the same today.

I thought and couldn't remember any of the straddlers that I studied who had serious, year+, romantic relationships with those who remained at 'home' and didn't attend college. I cringed when I read about it.

Although many of the straddlers, including myself, had self-doubts of their aptitude (see the impostor syndrome) and bouts of depression, these 3 ladies have relatively lower levels of self-esteem and self-confidence than the ones that I studied.

Looking back, I didn't study any working-class kids who ended up dropping out of college or grad/phd programs and went back to their families.
posted by fizzix at 9:30 AM on December 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


EDIT:

Gentle reminder, please do not do this with the edit function.
posted by cortex at 9:30 AM on December 26, 2012


LogicalDash: ""Culture" potentially refers to the sum total of human behavior."

Culture is as simple as that thing that preschool programs do to help break family patterns of poverty.

Mrs. straw and I run a program to help kids who've been through the local homeless shelters build stuff, and this has morphed into getting those kids into 4H. At least one of the families we volunteer with just had their first child graduate from high school. I'm more and more convinced that we don't have a poverty problem in this country, we have a legacy problem, and that disrupting the cultures of poverty is an absolute necessity.

Culture includes things like being able to use a calendar and schedule those two nights a month when the nice people come to pick up your kids to take them to 4H so that you're actually home, and the kids are ready to go, when that happens. Even when you get the reminder call two days in advance, and not that very same day.

Culture includes when your kid builds a freakin' rowboat, finding the time in the next year or so to actually take your kid and that boat down to the local river and letting them row around a bit. Culture includes hearing your kid talk about wanting to save up to get the materials to make a bow so they can participate in archery with their own gear, and talking a game about how money is tight so can we get their membership dues subsidized, and then posting pictures of you and your kid at a major league professional sports game on Facebook.

Breaking those cultural patterns is how we're going to improve future generations, and colleges (and schools generally) seem to be doing a progressively worse job of this.
posted by straw at 9:32 AM on December 26, 2012 [21 favorites]


> See, this whole business is the result of a chronic inability to address the truths of capitalism. It's just like
> how the United States absolutely will not endorse a living wage or meaningful worker protections, so we sneak in
> social welfare measures as food stamps. Workers don't get a living wage because that would mean that we as a
> society were limiting or critiquing the free market, but the "free market" would collapse into workers starving
> unless their food was subsidized by the state. Hence, Wal-mart workers on food stamps.

This is half right. It's the chronic inability of the right address the truths of capitalism and of the left to address the truths of government-sponsored collectivism.

My mother put herself entirely through college (at Florida State) by waiting tables. This was during the depression of the 1930s so she got absolutely no help from home beyond an occasional box of food, or of her worn-out clothing that her mom had repaired. At that time waiting tables in Sarasota, FL provided not just a living income but a live-and-attend-college income. Can you imagine doing that today when the cost of living is so much higher? Uh, nope.

So what's changed? Well, obviously, the price of everything, not just tuition, is vastly higher than it was, by hundreds or thousands of percent. Subtract the effect of eight decades of price inflation and all those living-wage jobs would suddenly still be living-wage jobs. What's the largest factor in price inflation? Government. Inflation is the unacknowledged tax that government has used during all those decades to pay for all the things it has purchased that couldn't be paid for out of the explicit taxes it has collected. Services? Sure. Public sector employees? Oh yes. Wars? You betcha. Pork? By the billion barrels. The cost of all this, compared to what we're ever likely to recoup by increasing marginal tax rates on the rich, is as more than an elephant to less than a flea.

I'm not making any moral or value judgement about this. Maybe what we've gotten in return for the unacknowledged tax has been worth it. But I think both capitalism and government collectivism lay heavy burdens on all of us and both need to be understood and acknowledged. (I would at least point out specifically to the left that inflation is the most regressive tax there is, hitting those least able to pay hardest.)
posted by jfuller at 9:33 AM on December 26, 2012 [11 favorites]


State legislatures in the U.S. have to stop cutting funding,
But, but...taxes!!!!

and the professors and academic administrators need to commit to keeping their services affordable as a matter of social justice.

As do doctors and lawyers. In fact...them first.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:33 AM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not just your family and the culture in your town; it's the high school and grade school you went to. The inequality at that level is shameful. The fact that the three students profiled in the article were able to make that particular high school work out for them (to whatever degree) says a lot about their personal work ethic; a lot of people never get past subpar public schools. I think it is much more important to give everyone a decent high school experience than to make it possible for a very small percentage of people from shitty high schools to squeeze into a name college.
posted by BibiRose at 9:35 AM on December 26, 2012 [11 favorites]


State legislatures in the U.S. have to stop cutting funding, and the professors and academic administrators need to commit to keeping their services affordable as a matter of social justice.

I'd rather see an overhaul of high-school education that would make a high-school degree have some real heft. Not that this is a matter of money so much as of a totally different mindset, so I'm not hopeful in the least. But when I contrast the kind of education my aging mother could get from a pre-war public high-school compared to a lot of the nonsense they are indoctrinating my nieces and nephews with, well....

I'm wondering also if the insane cost of college has something to do with the rise of money made easily available, sort of like credit cards and the housing bubble. I expect someone here can set me right on that question.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:35 AM on December 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


On post-view - Right on, Bibirose!
posted by IndigoJones at 9:36 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it is much more important to give everyone a decent high school experience than to make it possible for a very small percentage of people from shitty high schools to squeeze into a name college.

Sure, but a lot of getting into a good high school is dependent on getting into preschool at three.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:37 AM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Frowner, thanks for responding to that comment with a level-headed rebuttal instead of snark, like I did. The anecdote line of argument frustrates me but that doesn't excuse dickish behavior. Sorry, Afroblanco.
posted by invitapriore at 9:41 AM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


There are plenty of people who come out of poverty into propserity, and they have very little in common with the women featured in this story. They should have found the married parents in Galveston who kept their daughters away from tatoos and boyfriends -- I bet their result is a heck of lot better. Interventions which mitigate the results of bad behavior simply perpetuate it.
posted by MattD at 9:50 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Funny how the period of greatest social mobility coincided with the greatest social welfare system and subsidized education/housing.

Yes, that is why the Republican party is terrified of those things.

What's to stop anyone else from doing what I did?


Bootstraps, I tell you! Bootstraps!
posted by dersins at 9:53 AM on December 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


Gentle reminder, please do not do this with the edit function.
Oh, sorry.

Addressing the thread:

I think meritocracy is the real issue here, and issues in universities are a symptom of a deeper problem. The people who made it to the top decades ago found themselves in a position to sink more resources into putting their children ahead. Within the framework of "merit = has a particular set of aptitudes determined through testing," this starts a self-perpetuating cycle wherein the people who have can prepare their children for the relevant tests better than those who have not through a whole suite of things: getting into the right schools on all levels, spending more on test prep, having more resources to spend on cultural things like reading to their kids, prepping them for college, taking them to extracurriculars, and so on. Those lucky children come out ahead, mostly succeed, and then mostly do the same thing for their kids.

The real problem is that there aren't many who oppose the meritocratic ideal on principle, which makes tackling the inequalities reinforced by it really hard. You could make colleges cheaper, but that doesn't deal with the issues of what a Bachelors actually means in the real world, and what more people going to college does to that. You could make primary schooling better, but that comes with a lot of costs and there's not a lot of political consensus on how to do it. You could do more to alleviate poverty through a living wage, as Frowner suggests, but that comes with costs and is culturally and politically against the grain in America.

At the end of the day, the real solution is probably beyond our ability to implement with our current political and cultural willpower.
posted by Noms_Tiem at 10:02 AM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


damn, gsh, I could have written that nearly word for word. Especially the figuring things out for myself bit of it. The number of times I let issues slide because I wasn't even aware there was a mechanism to address them.... ooof.
posted by gaspode at 10:11 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The cost of education is increasing faster than inflation, and the cause is straight-forward: the cost of many other things (like food or computers) increase slower than inflation, because of automation. But we haven't figured out a way to automate education yet.
posted by Triplanetary at 10:11 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the last article:

The city began offering a free test-prep program several years ago for black and Hispanic students, but after a legal challenge, other ethnic groups were granted the same access to the course.

If everyone has equal access, I'm curious to see what will happen in 10-20 years. Income or minority status can't be the sole or even main determiner of mobility if the children of first-generation immigrants who work in laundromats are successful at much higher rates. How do we change the culture of other populations to value education? Is equal access enough or does there need to be more?
posted by desjardins at 10:12 AM on December 26, 2012


Noms_Tiem: Then the problem is to get more willpower, isn't it?
posted by curuinor at 10:14 AM on December 26, 2012


My bottom line is that in their heart of hearts, they chickened out and really didn't have the gumption for higher education far away from home in the first place.
posted by Renoroc


I've got nothing but bile and poison I want to spit back at you, but I realize that wouldn't be in the Metafilter spirit. You are just so wrong.
posted by Evstar at 10:21 AM on December 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


Noms, I am not sure that "current political and cultural willpower" is a bit of an understatement. Parents working to provide their childern maximum competitive advantage is not an equation of modern American culture or politics, it is a (the?) primary driving motivation of the entirety of human history.
posted by MattD at 10:21 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are plenty of people who come out of poverty into propserity, and they have very little in common with the women featured in this story. They should have found the married parents in Galveston who kept their daughters away from tatoos and boyfriends -- I bet their result is a heck of lot better.

MattD, are you basing this on anything substantive, or is this just a gut feeling on your part?

(Not snarking on you, I promise. I'm genuinely curious, and interested in your answer.)
posted by bakerina at 10:32 AM on December 26, 2012


Don't generalize on one aspect. People are people.

You seriously imagine that, given the broad context of my experience outlined, that I was not exposed to enough uneducated people to be able to generalize on that point really fucking well?

Honey. Please. I know whereof I speak. Which is not to say that there are not exceptions, but that's all they are.

Don't tell me what I've experienced -- how's that?
posted by gsh at 10:39 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The article is disheartening because it shows that just getting students into college is not enough to break the cycle of poverty.

There was some good news in the NY Times statistics. Graduation rates for the poorest quarter rates increased from 5 percent to 9 percent. That's nearly doubling of the percentage. Graduation rates as percentages for the richest quarter increased by only 1.5 times (but that was applied a higher fraction to begin with).

At the same time, by identifying the cultural, social, financial, psychological and experiential challenges that these students face, the article gives me hope that enterprising and caring people in higher education and government will devise ways to improve the situation for these students. Some ideas: boot camps before general move-in, counselors assigned from the day they are admitted to provide one-on-one financial and academic advice, pairing new students with role models (alumni or successful students still in college) who came from similar circumstances. I'm sure there are others.
posted by haiku warrior at 10:40 AM on December 26, 2012


//The only point I'd make is that your "College 101" class should probably be mandatory for everyone//

I think colleges have made a lot of progress in this. When I showed up at campus on the Thursday before classes start I didn't have a clue. My son is a college freshman this year and he had a 3 day orientation the week before classes start, which covered all that stuff about office hours and where to get academic help and even a lot of small group fun stuff in a very deliberate effort to make sure everybody had at least one friend to lean on before classes even started. Then during freshman year everybody has to take a freshman seminar course, which ranges from serious academic stuff to a study of Harry Potter, but is mostly about making sure the kids know how to write a paper, how to document sources, avoid accidental plagiarism, etc.
posted by COD at 10:41 AM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Enn's point is a powerful one:
"The post-GI-Bill period when college functioned as an equalizing force seems increasingly like nothing more than a minor aberration from its historical role as a mechanism for the reproduction of privilege among elites. "
I wonder if that's coming to pass. College and university costs keep escalating, driven largely by compensation (not the adjuncts, but those with tenure, esp as they age). American inequality keeps increasing. College prep systems for the affluent aren't going away.
posted by doctornemo at 10:46 AM on December 26, 2012


For whatever it's worth, the community college I started at had one of those mandatory 'How to navigate college 101' classes people have suggested. It was pretty much condescending and useless.

I'm not saying the concept is a bad one, but I don't like the idea of making it mandatory, and it needs to be applied better than it was. A lot of it was lecturing the bad little children about not drinking, etc. and anyone who needed that would have been rolling their eyes at it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:46 AM on December 26, 2012


"uncovered"
posted by fartron at 10:53 AM on December 26, 2012


Because education is becoming less and less generally educational as it has gradually morphed into job training.

Wouldn't you expect that to have the opposite effect?

I dunno if you noticed, but engineer and lawyer aren't upperclass jobs anymore.

If you have a job, you're not part of the upper class by any definition.

The cost of education is increasing faster than inflation, and the cause is straight-forward: the cost of many other things (like food or computers) increase slower than inflation, because of automation. But we haven't figured out a way to automate education yet.

Exactly. Real wages haven't changed much in terms of the physical goods they can purchase over the last few decades, but they have dropped in terms of the professional services (including education) they can buy.
posted by atrazine at 10:57 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem of the increasing cost of higher education is a vexing one. Speaking as a professor, I can tell you that the increasing costs are largely not due to vastly increasing salaries of front line instructors. My salary and the salaries of my colleagues have not kept pace with the increases in tuition. My compensation would be about 25-50% higher had it been tied to tuition!

From my perspective--not well researched in any way--there are three primary reasons that the cost of education has increased so dramatically.

(1) An "arms race" to provide better and better facilities. This costly infrastructure include research facilities to attract top research talent and student life facilities (e.g. dorms, athletic facilities, dining).

(2) Greatly increasing cost of administration. This includes cost high salaries for top administration, in much the same way CEO compensation has increased, and many more people in administration for student services, for support of fundraising activities (see 1 above and 3 below), and for handling increased paperwork for sponsored research.

(3) Reduced support of higher education from governments for state schools. Obviously this reduced support is not as much of a problem for private institutions, but it does affect the price competition between public and private education.

There is no doubt in my mind that the cost of higher education is a bubble, but when it will burst is beyond my predictive powers. I do believe that there are a number of converging social, economic, demographic, and technological factors that will make higher education less desirable and less necessary for life success in the next 5-10 years.
posted by haiku warrior at 11:07 AM on December 26, 2012 [15 favorites]


I guess my question is, why would you want to pay so much money for something that isn't job training?

One way to think of it is that the "college as job training" is just that, it trains you for a job. If it were more about creating a well educated human being it would be more like training for a career.

I remember my college math classes (and the later high-school ones) and there were two kinds of successful students. The first kind didn't really understand math. They knew that when you saw a problem like X, you applied formula Y. Memorized all the formulas (or put them on their note-card). Everything was just plugging the right numbers in the right order and getting the correct answer.

The other kind really internalized the lessons. They didn't memorize the formulas so much as understand them. They could still "plug-and-chug" to get the right answer but if they saw a problem type that they hadn't seen before, it was easy to figure out how to approach it. They could combine concepts and apply them in ways that they hadn't been taught. They understood how the formulas worked and, most importantly, they could actually use that math in the real world to solve real problems instead of just decoding a word problem from a textbook.

Colleges are increasingly satisfied with producing the former type of student. They can do the equivalent of the "plug-and-chug" in whatever their vocation is and that's good enough. We should demand that college graduates be the latter. Then their not only prepared for a job in their specific field but they'll be ready to take on just about anything life throws at them.
posted by VTX at 11:24 AM on December 26, 2012 [19 favorites]


The problem of the increasing cost of higher education is a vexing one. Speaking as a professor, I can tell you that the increasing costs are largely not due to vastly increasing salaries of front line instructors. My salary and the salaries of my colleagues have not kept pace with the increases in tuition. My compensation would be about 25-50% higher had it been tied to tuition!

What if you include the cost of your health care benefits in your compensation?
posted by Jahaza at 11:40 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think poverty and dysfunctional "culture" is really just a safe place to use unpopular coping mechanisms that really really help when coping with a shitty existance. Getting drunk as a past time? Smoking? Doing drugs? Staying up too late and partying to escape the reality that there is nothing else to connect to? Poor life skills such as creating a chaotic and unstable home life (wherin there is dirt or bugs or disturbing art all over the place) music and film that celebrates extreme suffering--- these are things that help people in pain cope with their existance, understand themselves and create identity and relationships despite the crippling emotions of despair, hopelessness and physical and emotional pain that literally breaks down cognition and biological functioning in the body.

People whose environments are not healthy do not funciton as well.

We can observe this in non-human animals over and over and yet we fight acknowledging that human behavior, ability, cognition, values, morals, and instincts are very much the result of many scientific variables beyond our control. And poverty is literally the inability to provide your children with resources that facilitate human health, well being, cognition, healthy instincts and behaviors, and emotional development. Not everyone canmanifest a high IQ. Not everyone has the biological reserves to create a will of steel of have resiliency to disease when exposed to horrible conditions.

And the American poor live inhorrible conditions. It's now masked. People can get food but it's not real food. People live with toxins in their homes and their food but they have a TV and drugs to cover up what their bodies and psyches are experiencing.

The cultures they create to cope are very different than what people in very healthy environments create. But that doesn't mean the culture is inherently causing the poverty. Even in nonhuman primates-- the effects of poor rearing results in lifelong behavioral effects. Meaning the ways that people who endured childhood adversity return to addictive behaviors and the people with love them despite their addictions, poor coping mechanisms, and lack of functioning as well as others-- may be because they really just don't feel ok without those coping mechanisms. Or people who will understand why they don't feel or experience life the same as other people.

Poor people behavior-- substance addiction, smoking, drugs, heavy drinking, bar life, late nights, messy home, behind on chores, late to pay things, late for work, lot's of junk food, losing jobs, getting kicked out of apartments, no doctors, teeth rot---- the longer a persons in it the more teeth they lose, the more the light behind their eyes fades without their drug of choice to light them back up. Health problems... losing work because of health problems. People get angry and violent. Misery.

If you trace mental illness, low cognition, poor school and work performance, poor home life efficacy-- and generations of poverty, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and traumatic living conditions, it's no mistery where poor health and dysfunctional behavior comes from. Yes some rich kids are mentally ill. What were their parents childhood conditions like? And how do you know that money translates to proper biological and emotional conditions for human development? If a kid isnot getting enough sun it doesn't matter if the parents are nice, their development can be impaired. In general, the worst living conditions for children trend toward the poor because the poor TEND to be less educated about human development and health needs- AND be lacking in the money to get the help they need to provide for their child's needs even when they identify them. Wealthy people can be lacking in this knowledge as well. But poor people culture does tend to reinforce beliefs about parenting that match the average american poor persons intellectual and behavioral capacity to function which is not much.
posted by xarnop at 11:42 AM on December 26, 2012 [11 favorites]


(Anecdotal account alert): I was a major underachiever at what I later realized was an excellent public high school. I didn't realize just how good my high school was until I attended a no-frills state school for college and found myself significantly better prepared than my classmates -- despite having done nothing even remotely preparatory in high school. Most of my low-achieving friends had similar experiences. Once we felt like applying ourselves, it was easy to figure out what to do based on the community we grew up in.

Tangentially, now that I'm almost done with my masters at a top-5 school, the skills that get me the most employer attention are ones I learned at a community college... but I wouldn't even be considered without the masters degree.
posted by yorick at 12:10 PM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


colleges need to understand the real diversity of the students coming in that goes way beyond skin color and gender. "How to Navigate College 101" would be a great start, some kind of basic support system, mandatory for people on a lot of financial aid.

These sorts of programs are pretty common, are successful to varying degrees, and seem to have some (although difficult to quantify) affect on retention and completion. The problem, in my experience, is they tend to get hijacked by "special interests" at the university to expose students to things "students should know" (eg alcohol and drug awareness, sexual behaviors, a variety of general programs and student services) rather than academic skills. If they are expansive enough to cover everything the student "should know," they end up as a 3-credit course, absorbing 1/40th of the student's credits, and that's a little much (and they end up costing a lot to run).

One thing to consider is a major element of the cost of higher ed is that most students take more than 4 years to graduate. Tuition increases are a problem, but, if you can graduate in 4 years instead of 6, you can cut your tuition by 33% without any other changes. Obviously, some "long-graduation issues" have to do with students taking time off for a variety of reasons, but a lot of it is driven by students who take a full load but, due to dropping classes and other low course load situations, students end up completing 12 credits/semester instead of the 15 required for graduation....
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:31 PM on December 26, 2012


My college did something pretty similar to COD's college. We had a multiple day orientation, that included a service project out in the city (Seattle). They had sophomores accompany us and help us get acclimated. They put is in a year-long course that started with a seminar on a variety of topics (mine was: Why does the good survive? and focused on the Holocaust and philosophical ways of understanding it). We stayed with the same 15-20 students the entire year. The professor of that first class became our advisor and there were mandatory advising meetings that first year. He helped me fill out my paperwork for choosing a major, and helped steer me into better use of my elective options.

I was the first college-going generation in my family, and I was lucky to navigate college well. Or, more accurately, my college understood the kinds of things most students don't know about college and provided us with the information in a way that didn't feel condescending or like a waste of time.

I now teach high school, and moving from an incredibly low-income school to a very wealthy Ivy-feeder school (I had three students in a class of 25 heading to Brown, another to Purdue, another to Cornell, etc.). Here are some of the major differences I've noticed:

My students don't have to be convinced that I have something important to teach them. I had to work hard to prove to my students last year that they needed anything I had to give them. They fought me. Now, my students beg for homework so they don't miss any opportunity. I don't assign homework for pedagogical reasons, but different for each school. At my previous school, only a handful would do it (despite all the interventions possible), so I couldn't in good conscience give them something meaningful that most students would miss out on. Now, I don't give homework because my students are already doing 3-5 hours of homework a night and I feel likt giving them more would be Cruel and Unusual Punishment. That comes with having teachers who not only care about them as people (true at both schools) but are academically at the top of their field.

Most of all, my students now have the ability to write more than a canned five paragraph essay, can have an academic discussion that often will teach me something new, and put amazing amounts of effort into their work. Many of them have no idea what college will actually be like, but (unlike the students I taught last year) they are used to dealing with adults and asking questions when they don't know something. They also have high school teachers who expect them to go to college, and want to prepare them for it.

The article reminded me just how different this school is, and how much is assumed that students know...and how many students don't.
posted by guster4lovers at 12:35 PM on December 26, 2012 [9 favorites]


My bottom line is that in their heart of hearts, they chickened out and really didn't have the gumption for higher education far away from home in the first place.
posted by Renoroc


They're eighteen. In many ways they were still children. All children have periods where they want to "chicken out"--the difference is whether or not their parents have prepared them for it and whether or not their parents will coach them through the fear or beg them to come home. If you come from a home where your parents know what it's like to be away from your hometown and trying to establish new roots in a culturally unfamiliar place, like a home where your parents have gone to college, or your parents have taken you traveling, or your parents have sent you away to summer camps and programs, then you have a significant leg up. As opposed to an impoverished kid, who may be very independent while in their element but lack any kind of support system to encourage them to stay in a place states away from their home that's costing thousands of dollars and is full of other kids who look down on them.
posted by schroedinger at 12:50 PM on December 26, 2012 [17 favorites]


I guess my question is, why would you want to pay so much money for something that isn't job training?

I guess my question is, why should I (or the state taxpayer, or whoever funds my scholarship) want to pay anything for my job training? That's the responsibility of the employer to train me up for the specifics of what he wants me to do, working from the baseline of education, knowledge, critical thinking, and life skills that I acquired during my time in college.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 12:57 PM on December 26, 2012 [11 favorites]


I guess my question is, why should I (or the state taxpayer, or whoever funds my scholarship) want to pay anything for my job training? That's the responsibility of the employer to train me up for the specifics of what he wants me to do

Good luck with that. Employers long-ago abandoned training their workers (blue and white collar alike) They fully expect you to know what you're doing from day-one. "Hit the ground running" and "self-starter" are among the euphemisms you see in job listings. It's entirely on the employee to get the education they need for a particular job, usually on his/her own dime. At best, you'll get an employer compensating an employee for them getting additional training...after office hours, of course.

This is why colleges are job-training schools now. The market (i.e. wealthy corporate doners) demands it. This is why anything other than STEM and MBA programs get very short-shrift today.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:05 PM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


I guess my question is, why should I (or the state taxpayer, or whoever funds my scholarship) want to pay anything for my job training? That's the responsibility of the employer to train me up for the specifics of what he wants me to do, working from the baseline of education, knowledge, critical thinking, and life skills that I acquired during my time in college.

I guess there's a little bit of a misunderstanding here. My question should have been: "Given that colleges cost so much, why would I want to drive myself thousands of dollars into debt for something that may not leave me in a good position to pay off that debt?" As someone with $54k in student loan debt, I definitely believe colleges should not cost what they do, but this is the system we have - see haiku warrior's comment above. However, simply saying, "Colleges should cost less and we should be encouraging students to become Renaissance men/women" doesn't really do anything to change the fact that college tuition has no effective downward pressures on it right now and plenty of upward ones. In a situation with extremely large and obvious costs, it just makes sense to me to do a cost-benefit analysis.

That said, I liked Frowner's suggestions near the top of the thread and jfuller's caveats to it are certainly food for thought.
posted by Noms_Tiem at 1:10 PM on December 26, 2012


See, this is very much the "my grandma smoked like a chimney and put away a bottle of wine every night until she died in her sleep at 103, so everyone is just foolish to worry about smoking and alcohol abuse" line of argument - it takes something that is clearly, clearly an anomaly and holds it up as what should be the norm if only other people would try harder.

Okay. I've taken a lot of flack in this thread, mostly because of some clumsy wording on my part. When I wrote, "What's to stop anyone from doing what I did?", I'm not saying, "Who are these dumb, ignorant peasants who can't handle their own affairs?" I'm actually asking it as an honest question, as in "What are the factors that stop people from turning their lives around, when they have many of the same resources available to them that I did?" -- which, yeah, is probably what I should have written in the first place.

And yeah, I had a shitty, abusive family. And yeah, getting through college was difficult. For example, at my school, you had to minor in math in order to earn a BS in computer science -- try doing that with a high school dropout's level of education! But I stuck with it and made it through.

The part that makes me a statistical anomaly is not that I made it through college, but the fact that I went back AT ALL. Once I was in college, I was a mad mofo on a mission, you better believe! My main goal was to achieve financial independence and cut off all contact with my family. You could say I was motivated!

Reflecting on it, I think the main advantage I had was the skills necessary to work the system : to juice the financial aid system for all it was worth, to deal with the interminable university bureaucracy, to take advantage of office hours, etc. I'd like to think it boiled down to pure tenacity on my part, but in actuality, I think a lot of disadvantaged people either don't know what resources are available to them, don't have experience of successfully navigating an intransigent bureaucracy, or else feel so alienated that it's difficult for them to advocate for themselves. So yes, in this regard, I was privileged.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:18 PM on December 26, 2012 [17 favorites]


Another thing that worked in my favor : by the time I went back to school, I was a full 3 years older than the average incoming freshman. So I'd already gained many of the "life skills" that 18-year-olds lack. Also, I was a little more restrained about the partying than were my contemporaries -- after all, I'd just come off of three years of near-constant intoxication, and had chosen a different way.

In general, I think it's really unfortunate that American teens are instructed to go straight from high school to college without any "gap year". Dropping out made me crazy motivated about my education; three years of minimum wage jobs will do that to you! And also, I was able to get a lot of the partying out of my system that dooms many students.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:50 PM on December 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


I guess my question is, why would you want to pay so much money for something that isn't job training?

Also, college/university is not a very effective way to train someone for a job -- four years of training for an entry-level position is very inefficient. Even for most STEM jobs (held up as the shining goal for all students), a technical school plus on the job training would probably do better at preparing people for the base-level technical jobs than a large research institution. College ought to be training you for much more than a job -- critical thinking, writing, communication, information literacy -- all of these things aren't really job training, but are really important for people to advance in almost any career. A friend who has hired a lot of fresh-from-school engineers complains that they know how to solve problems but they don't have the slightest idea which problems to solve. Similarly, while engineering coursework predicts quality of jobs students get on graduation, their success in non-engineering courses (eg writing and communication) are better predictors of overall success in their careers -- technical chops (ie job training) is only part of the picture.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:51 PM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


> waiting tables in Sarasota, FL

Oops, FSU is in Tallahassee, now and back when it was Florida State College for Women, as it was when mom attended.

posted by jfuller at 2:09 PM on December 26, 2012


""What are the factors that stop people from turning their lives around, when they have many of the same resources available to them that I did?"

Well there's also the higher rates of sexual abuse, assault, and domestic violence/abuse among lower income people. And corresponding mental illnes, impaired functioning, and cognitive impairment with degree and type of exposures.

And if you're a female that means higher risk of getting forcibly impregnated and coping with abortion/single poor parenthood/adoption. Or coping with psychiatric illnesses that result from trauma.

And going to school while already a struggling student with learning disabilites and parenting as a single broke parent? It's very difficult.

Among my low income friends it's less common to have "PTSD" and more common to just, be an addict, fail at school, or struggle to function at all. Despite that the corresponding rates of dysfunction tend to line up with childhood adversity and types and severity of trauma exposures.

What's more, we often claim that getting a degree is itself a sign that a person is unaffected by adversity. Yet a fourth of the population has a mental illness. And if you count that people with high levels of adversity in their histories have higher rates of physical illness as well--- you can bet money that many people are currently not "ill" because they are using coping mechanisms that allow them to avoid the psychiatrist office or the hospital. Some of those coping mechanisms make it harder to do well in school.

Our systemis based in ablism to begin with. If you aren't able to do well, you deserve to barely be able to pay bills and eat. Ability is difficult to measure and yes most people can push themselves to achieve more than if they didn't push themselves. But what that looks like for each person can be radically different. And the ability to carry out behaviors that do anything other than help survive the moment without being in pain--- is itself a tremendous asset.
posted by xarnop at 2:28 PM on December 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


But Theory of Knowledge was limited to students in the International Baccalaureate program, a prestigious something-or-other that required participants to take five IB-level classes and a slew of tests at the end of the year. If you weren't in all the recommended classes, Theory of Knowledge was off-limits. I was in three IB courses. I asked to join the class, and was rejected, flat-out. Knowing now what I didn't then, I can say pretty confidently that ToK was the sort of course that would have made me a fuck of a lot mor enthusiastic about my studies, about learning in general.

Indeed. In high school, I was a National Merit Scholar finalist on the strength of my testing, but I didn't know what doors that might have opened up for me until I was in my 30s. School was painfully easy and boring, and my parents were just happy that I was well-behaved; moving me into a more challenging school just wasn't in their worldview or within their budget, and I certainly had no idea such things even existed. When I finally went to college, I had the "I must do it all myself" attitude shared by others here, and asking for help simply wasn't something I thought I could do. I paid for the college I attended by working multiple part-time jobs and earning a half-tuition scholarship by tutoring other kids in my major, and though I was amazed at how much more I knew than kids at higher grade levels, I still assumed I was lucky to be there. I eventually dropped out because I couldn't afford it any more (the instructor running the tutoring program said it wasn't fair to keep giving it to me, even though I was the most qualified, because other students needed it, too) and because I realized I could work for free in my field on my merits, and not incur the costs associated with a formal school internship.

What stands out the most for me, however, is the one honors course I took in high school. I signed up for it on the first day signups were available, because I was genuinely interested in it; in fact, I was second on the list, because I arrived first but kindly held the door for the girl who signed up first. I kept checking in, and the teacher kept telling me that I should sign up, even though I had, so I signed up a second time. When the rolls were finally announced, I wasn't on it, and I confronted the instructor. She advised that she would have let me in, but I signed up too late, and then went and showed me my second signup.

I confirmed with her that I would have been allowed in if I'd signed up earlier, and then I flipped through the pages and showed her my first sign-up. She was kind enough to stand up on her word, and we later worked together at my last job in the field (her as a volunteer, me as a Production Manager, oddly enough) and she was a genuinely nice person, but in retrospect I realized that if I'd been booted solely on the late signup, it would have required her to miss my name as #2 on the list, and my name was very long and unusual, not likely to be missed trivially (and she certainly remembered exactly where the second signup was.)

So yeah, there's a one-two punch for lower income families, where the school has a vested interest in filling honors classes with those kids who are seeking out opportunities (with the help of their parents), and lower income parents often don't have the knowledge, experience or access that other parents do, and so their kids don't make it up into that higher level without some luck. Plus, what's going to keep them there?

I'm trying not to make that same mistake with my kids, but I have an advantage: their mother is a product of expensive public schools and so is much more knowledgeable and demanding of the schools they attend. Without that, my kids wouldn't be any better-positioned than I was, inasmuch as I know what I do and don't want for my kids, but I still have no idea how to get them the opportunities they need. It is very frustrating.

oh, and the first girl on the list, the one I held the door for? She was in the class, as was the person who signed up after me, without having to ask.
posted by davejay at 2:45 PM on December 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


I guess having worked with kids who have disabilities and seeing the kinds of care available to them-- I just see how many of my friends who consider themselves failures were struggling with the same types of difficult behaviors that could have been addressed sooner with assistence for differently funcitoning students (And I don't mean putting everyone on meth, I mean actually finding out how students learn and helping them learn to use their skills and master difficulties.) What's more having a system where we prefer to help people be employed in professions that both match their ability and pay a living wage. EVEN IF they aren't very skilled at the school system as it's set up now.

Some people do not have the ability to use the system as it is. Yes we can all watch them die off, slowly with a lot of suffering and misery in between, or we can decide that we value the lives of human beings that need help. Considering we actually fund programs to help ilnjured wildlife, it's pretty bizarre we are so opposed to helping to human beings who are struggling.

And also, if you were abused or had terrible childhood circumstances and turned out fine, that's like being in a car accident and turning out fine. It happens that some people are in car accidents and turn out fine. Some people do not even remotely turn out fine and are affected the rest of their lives however long that is.

Most of my friends that I know who are in their thirties+ and still working minimum wage jobs and unable to get through school have symptoms of executive dysfunction and mild cognitive impairment/learning disability. I have the weird happenstance that I have had a lot of education in mental health and learning dissabilites but never able to get all the way through which means I hang with people who are stuck and often have no idea how they would be diagnosed if they got to have quality care.

Which means they see the problem as entirely their own failure, fueling more addiction and negative coping behaviors and benefitting the system because they vote against themselves or don't vote at all and aren't well read in any possible ways their society could treat them better.
posted by xarnop at 2:46 PM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


The part that makes me a statistical anomaly is not that I made it through college, but the fact that I went back AT ALL.

Well, according to the article, if you're in the poorest quartile, both are anomalous.

One thing that stuck out to me about your story was your confidence that you could pay back $50k in debt after receiving an education. You mention that you were working minimum wage jobs before that-- how many years of min wage work would it take you to save $50k? I'm guessing something along the lines of 50 years. As somebody with a similar story to yours, my lack of confidence in the financial value of a college degree kept me from pursuing one for a long time.

They charge you money to even apply to schools, and they wave this price tag that's completely out of reach for poorer people. They say, "Don't worry, it won't really cost that much, but we can't tell you exactly how much until after we've evaluated your financial aid, which we don't do until after we accept you," and us poor people have run into that scam before.
posted by nathan v at 2:53 PM on December 26, 2012 [11 favorites]


(pardon)

And they say, "Don't worry, you can pay for it on layaway, no payments for four years!" Which is another one we've heard.
posted by nathan v at 2:54 PM on December 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


Also note that, except for extremely low income students, "...where a student applies is a more powerful predictor of future earnings success than where he or she attends.". So college, at least as observed by Princeton sociologists a decade ago, really works as a high-pass filter, not as an education.

Thus: Yes, culture is the key to college success, because culture is the key to success. The data appears to suggest that college is largely irrelevant.

Perhaps what appears to be happening recently is that college is becoming even less relevant, and may be working to drag down students that it formerly didn't have a negative impact on.
posted by straw at 3:12 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


The job training thing is interesting because that's really what I would've been interested in. Part of the reason I dropped out of college is because it drove me nuts sitting in airy-fairy gen ed classes that I would never (and indeed, have never) use(d) and not learning any actual skills that would actually apply in the jobs I wanted to do.

But saying you wanted to go to community college in my upper-lower-middle class family or at my school was akin to saying you wanted to start smoking crack rock or really wanted to develop a heroin habit, so I had no idea the thing I actually wanted to do (learn a skill) was both out there and cheap.

The poor thing, I definitely understand. I got invited (invited!) to apply to Princeton, which was treated as a big joke on the part of the universe because there was no way we could ever afford that if I got in. It was only years after the fact that I found out about their financial aid programs that would've made it actually workable. Likewise, I got invited to attend college early at my local State U., but we couldn't swing buying me a car at that time (and before you say it, there was no public transportation, walking was not an option, and it was too far to bike, and I'm way too weak to levitate myself by my bootstraps), so that didn't happen either.

It's just funny because several of the employers that really really wanted that "has degree" box check told me the degree could be in anything, they didn't even care what it was, but I had to have it.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:36 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just a brief note about the advantages of starting at a community college and then transferring as well as the practical value of a college education - a huge thing that a college education gives (particularly higher echelon schools and ones with good internship prograns) is a social network. I use very little of what I learned in college on a daily basis, but I launched careers in two fields based on who I happened to know there. In both cases it was a social contact outside of the field who got me a good foot in the door by introducing me to someone else they knew who happened to need someone with my skills. If you start in community college, you miss out on two years of meeting people and you'll be distinctly outside of the social groups by the point you do transfer. It's the best option for some people but it does put them at a disadvantage and is an example of how privilege is sustained.

I've built my own professional network but just my college contacts alone gives me access to people at just about every top computer company out there.
posted by Candleman at 3:36 PM on December 26, 2012 [13 favorites]


Ghostride The Whip: "It's just funny because several of the employers that really really wanted that "has degree" box check told me the degree could be in anything, they didn't even care what it was, but I had to have it."

From what I gather, it's because non-discrimination laws recognize a degree as non-discriminatory. Not that companies these days actively set out to achieve racist ends, but HR's job is to basically hire and fire people while minimizing the impact of lawsuits, so in goes the college degree filter.
posted by pwnguin at 3:49 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Poor people behavior--substance addiction, smoking, drugs, heavy drinking, bar life, late nights, messy home, behind on chores, late to pay things, late for work, lot's of junk food, losing jobs, getting kicked out of apartments, no doctors, teeth rot

Once poor or more likely not, many now successful graduates would touch on an assorted nine out of fifteen of these behaviours when telling war stories of their college careers.
posted by TimTypeZed at 3:51 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


They charge you money to even apply to schools, and they wave this price tag that's completely out of reach for poorer people. They say, "Don't worry, it won't really cost that much, but we can't tell you exactly how much until after we've evaluated your financial aid, which we don't do until after we accept you," and us poor people have run into that scam before.

And this is another thing that represents a knowledge gap between the have and the have-nots. There are fee waivers out there--they aren't always apparent on the website, you may have to ask admissions, the department, or even professors of the department you're applying to. But there are magic hands in the sky who will make the fees disappear if you are polite, persistent, and make a good impression. You are also offered packages with your acceptance, and a crucial tactic is to tell colleges where else you've been accepted and what else you've been offered (and fudge this information a bit) to get them to offer you more money. If they refuse to tell you what aid you're offered before you accept, then you explain other colleges have, and you can always go to them if that university won't cooperate. This can get the recalcitrant admissions office to magically find a package for you.

But in order to do all this you have to know you need to do all this. Which someone without experience in the admissions process won't know how to do.
posted by schroedinger at 4:11 PM on December 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


Ghostride The Whip: "It's just funny because several of the employers that really really wanted that "has degree" box check told me the degree could be in anything, they didn't even care what it was, but I had to have it."

IMO that's partly because a degree, *any degree*, is a marker for an ability to finish difficult projects, get to work on time every day, self-advocate, work in a team, and all the other crap a modern work environment requires. They don't care what you know, subject-wise - they'll teach you all that. They just want to know if you can fit in their culture.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:05 PM on December 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


A lot of people don't realize that Algebra I/Basic English, etc. are pretty much the same everywhere and you don't have to shell out 30K for two years chasing basic level courses. Knock out the basic level stuff close to home and then hit the road if you want a degree from a "Name" school.

A lot of people don't realize that because it's not often true. I took some basic classes at the local, well-regarded community college during my summers to save money; they were laughably easy and I found myself playing catch-up when I reached the upper-tier classes. I would only do that to meet non-degree requirements -- which requires you knowing ahead of time what your degree will be in.

When you speak of culture, it's not just the blaming behaviors that get trotted out that are the problem. My parents fiercely believed in education, and pushed us to study hard and do well in school. However, they were completely naive about the college application process, importance of networking, etc. I remember being stressed out about my first C in college, and my parents told me that getting C was ridiculous, since all you had to do to get an A was show up. This was true about their community college experience, but definitely not true of my top-tier school. The fact that they didn't know how to be supportive, yet expected me to still work, come home every weekend to take care of things around the house, take a full courseload, and get straight A's added a tremendous amount of pressure. I don't think it's surprising that 4 out of their 5 children got into top schools, yet only one was able to graduate.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:21 PM on December 26, 2012 [14 favorites]


I work as an academic adviser at a public institution. This is stuff I struggle with all the time.

When I wrote, "What's to stop anyone from doing what I did?", I'm not saying, "Who are these dumb, ignorant peasants who can't handle their own affairs?" I'm actually asking it as an honest question, as in "What are the factors that stop people from turning their lives around, when they have many of the same resources available to them that I did?"

One big factor is math skills. You presumably had decent math skills, which I would guess you got because you went to halfway decent schools before you dropped out. A lot of my most disadvantaged students went to truly terrible schools from kindergarten straight through to graduation. It's not just that they never mastered algebra or trig, which you need to do well in the calculus classes necessary to take major-level computer science classes. It's that they never mastered the algebra-readiness stuff that they should have learned in elementary and middle school. Even if they did have elementary-school-level math skills, they'd need to take several years of remedial math before they were ready to take the introductory computer science sequence. But the sad truth is that most of them crash and burn out of the remedial math classes, because their problems with math go really deep.

The irony is that a lot of my disadvantaged students want to major in things like computer science, because they know those majors are practical. But those are also the subjects where their math deficiencies cause them the biggest problems.

Another factor is that a lot of my students think they have financial and other obligations to their families. They miss classes because their parents' childcare arrangements fall through, and they go home to take care of younger siblings. They're up all night because their sister broke up with her abusive boyfriend, and now the sister and her baby are crashing on the couch in my student's studio apartment. They work extra hours to send money home to their father, who recently got laid off. Your family situation sounds crappy, but your estrangement might actually have been a blessing. It often seems to me like some of my students' families drag them down, rather than being neutral or helpful. And the very factors that make my students fight their way to college, like being responsible and conscientious, also make them unwilling to turn their backs on family members who need help.
posted by sockpuppy at 5:47 PM on December 26, 2012 [36 favorites]


A lot of people don't realize that Algebra I/Basic English, etc. are pretty much the same everywhere and you don't have to shell out 30K for two years chasing basic level courses. Knock out the basic level stuff close to home and then hit the road if you want a degree from a "Name" school.

A lot of people don't realize that because it's not often true. I took some basic classes at the local, well-regarded community college during my summers to save money; they were laughably easy and I found myself playing catch-up when I reached the upper-tier classes. I would only do that to meet non-degree requirements -- which requires you knowing ahead of time what your degree will be in.

I'd like to further add that even if community college courses transfer, they may not be applied to the degree-specific courses, esp at major universities trying to build/maintain reputations. Just to pick one I'm familiar with, University of Texas-Austin is quite clear that it's acceptance of transfer credits is highly ridden with contingencies. "Inappropriate quality/coverage of material" is what I hear as the most common reason community college credits often transfer as electives, not applicable to the major.
posted by beaning at 6:31 PM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Kind of a side point, but the part where the university send 17 emails to an address that was never checked made me think of how many college or government websites I've used that are confusing, atrociously designed and have serious usability problems. No wonder bureaucracies require an army of advisors to help us navigate them — but this is totally unhelpful for people who don't have the resources to come in for in-person appointments. This is inexcusable for any publicly-minded institution, and for organizations that have legal mandates to provide services, it should be against the law.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:57 PM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Away from the thread for several hours, and so I apologize for the delayed and now tangential reply to Jahaza's question above.

The figure of 25-50% greater salary if my compensation had kept pace with tuition increases already accounts for the fact that I receive relatively generous health care benefits provided by the university. These benefits have done a better job of keeping up with health care costs than many people's health coverage. Without them, my salary should be even higher, if the growth in my compensation was in line (percentage-wise) with rising tuition. (See data comparing CPI inflation with tuition inflation here.)
posted by haiku warrior at 6:58 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Still, Ms. Cheng, a director at a shoe importing company, said guiding her daughter through this process — which cost her about $2,000 this year alone — paled in comparison to what she had experienced earlier in her life. Her father and four brothers died of starvation during Cambodia’s civil war. And once here, she said, she watched her mother struggle in a garment factory.

“This is the easy part,” Ms. Cheng said.


This passage from the OP's last link about Asian American students is spot on. It's a lot more relevant than Confucianism and other so-called "cultural" factors in explaining Asian American attitudes toward work and education. Though I suppose one can argue that an awareness of the abject misery lived by people before me is part of my culture.
posted by fatehunter at 7:03 PM on December 26, 2012


Hmmm, there's a lot of points I wanted to talk about. I'm not a specialist, just a high school English teacher, so take most of this as anecdota or attempting to figure out the big picture.

1) As a high school teacher in a Title I urban school, I have to agree with the previous poster about student performance and student striving. Many of my regular students have way below a ninth grade reading level (2 and 3 are not uncommon), and they don't mind. Not only don't they mind, they don't really want the skills that I have to offer or really understand why they matter. They fight me, each and every day, and as much as I can get some medicine in every so often, I spend more of my time in classroom management tending to the defiant that pushing the boundaries of knowledge. We don't assign much homework because, well, there is already a pretty high failure rate. Most of their parents want to see them helped, want them to do well, are on my side, but in the end, one argumentative child can not only stop their own learning, but those around them. And what to do with them: suspend them, give them detention, give them a talking to, bribe them, plead with them, attempt to inspire them? Teachers as they get more experienced at the mix and match, but no method will work with sureness. Not only that but even my honors students are . . . less enthused about the learning process, and seeing the students around them, I understand why: if you can sit and be quiet some of the time, if you can turn in some of the homework, you're really far ahead of those peers. They rise to the highest expectation placed on them and then stop. Ultimately, they will take these same skills, same study habits, same expectations to whether they rise to college or maybe just pass high school.

I had an epiphany last year while teaching to explain this behavior: for many students, they primary skill that allowed them to survive less than ideal situations was endurance. Perseverance. Being able to whether the storm. They can't put plans into motion that end the destructive family lives they find themselves in (they're kids after all), so they just turtle down. Teacher is telling them that they will fail if they don't do work: wait for it to wash over. They have had initiative removed as an option, so when they come to school, they don't quest, they don't endeavor, they don't find ways around obstacles; they simply wait for whatever is distressing them to pass by. It's understandable, but without changing to a more goal-oriented mindset, they'll only survive, never find ways to better lives. If they make it to college, they often fail out because . . . well, they just hit a wall, and they don't know how to climb, despite how much we try.

2) Talking about colleges as job training is tricky. Jobs do look at colleges because it does show that you somehow not only overcame obstacles and executed long-term plans, but left a record of it. When deciding whether to invest in a future employee, they need something and there really isn't a good replacement for that college diploma. It doesn't predict future success and failure with certainty, but it's something. Of course, if a job requires a certification, then it's often a mix between the school and the future job to get that, and it can help out (having a journeyman electrician's license). If we don't want colleges to be a gateway to employment, we have to find some other gateway. There simply are not enough white-collar, above $30,000 jobs, so how do employers decide who to hire and who to train? Interviews can only do so much, and there must be some way that entry-level applicants can create good paper to find their ways into the careers they want.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 7:30 PM on December 26, 2012 [21 favorites]


I want tooffer an alternative explenation-- maybe because school is an endless supply of someone telling you over and over again, you're not good enough. You're not doing it right. You're not getting this. You've messed up, again. You're always messing up. You should care more. You should try more. You're not trying enough. You're not as good as other people. You don't care like other people...

And maybe when you DO try and that's the response you get?
You stop trying. Because no one even notices when you do.
posted by xarnop at 7:34 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


It really doesn't matter. There is no way out. You know that at work you'll get more of the same. You'll never be good enough. You won't be on time. You'll forget things. You'll mix the numbers up. And it HURTS. It actually hurts to make your brain engage.

It's hurts to even try because nothing makes sense, words looks like a blur. Talking sounds like wahwahwahwah. All of these people, why do they even care about any of this?

Why do they care when people are hungry? When people NEED? When people are isolated and dying alone?

Why don't people care about what matters?

Why don't people jump up, right now and save the people whoneedsaving?

And do the work that REALLY matters?

You want to teach us? Teach us how to save our families. Teach us how to heal the suffering. Teach us how to warm the hearts of broken dysfunctional people. Then maybe it would make sense. No I don't care about a new form of techology or evenneat medicines. You know why?

I know they aren't even going to get to a lot of the people who need them.

People people have their priorities all out of wack. Some students DO care. About what really matters. If you can connect why this education can make the suffering better, can really help people in need without shaming and blaming and making derogatory statements about their struggles? Maybe it would make more sense. But that still doesn't mean every kid has the ability to do the tasks involved with school and I'm not just talking the math, I'm talking the remembering and the planning and the focusing and scheduling and the ability to feel ok in your body while doing a task that's not oriented towards escapism that comforts. At what point can you stop insulting and degrading and shaming a person whose legs scream every time they take a step for not wanting to walk?
posted by xarnop at 7:40 PM on December 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


On phone, short on time, with spotty internet; will read in full detail later. This comes at an interesting time relative to some stuff I've been thinking about though. Executive summary: there are two separate but interacting issues. 1. An economic system that places barriers to upward economic mobility, the role of education as credentialing within this system (see the book "Disciplined Minds" for example). 2. Classism - the "socio" part of socio-economic class. Not only can there be cultural barriers to upward mobility via education based in one's socio-economic class of origin, but there are also issues of discrimination and prejudice (by individuals or more systemic) that present serious obstacles. It might be useful for this discussion to keep in mind which of these various pieces of the puzzle we or another commenter are talking about at any given time, and keep in mind that they are not exclusive explanations, but in fact are all components to the puzzle (in varying degrees depending on individual circumstances).
posted by eviemath at 8:00 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Xarnop: it's clear that you feel very strongly on this issue and I'm guessing with good reason, so I want to have time to read your comments more carefully before responding fully. But one brief thing: rates of domestic violence are about the same across socio-economic class. Perhaps those with more wealth can just hide it better, like wealth buffers most problems. I will cite statistics when I reach better iternet and have time (this might take a day or three though - apologies).
posted by eviemath at 8:05 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


And I'm sick of a system that wants me to get a degree in social work so that I can "help" poor people that the system doesn't EVEN ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT to begin with, doesn't see as equals, so that I can get a living wage and then what I'm helping these other people out with is them coping with the fact that the system I subscribe to won't pay them a decent wage and their lives suck.

And my income is FEEDING off their poverty and struggles.

I just don't even want to buy into it. I'd rather just fight for living wages to start.

And stamp my foot down and say that the monkey dance you make people do to "deserve" food and shelter and health care isn't even about creating wealth that people get access to.

It's just about making people obey and produce things that aren't even worthwhile, things that don't even matter while people suffer and no one cares. Climbing some corporate highrarchy to prove you're better than other people without actually focusing on making human welfare really better. If it's a ladder there will always be people at the bottom. And with mass production and outsourcing, we just don't need people anymore. Unless we make a conscious decision to create wealth that involves everyone, more and more of the population will be weeded out as unemployable for having less than ideal chracteristics (and because people just aren't as needed)

Technology was supposed to make life better. It has. For some. And for the rest of us... we'll will suffer, or starve as our overlords decide for us. And they will lay it all out, our failure, or lack of motivation to master their system... why we should thus starve. They will lable us one of two things-- losers by choice and The Disabled. One is at fault the other not. One hated quite a bit more than the other, but the other shunned and disliked all the same.

As stndardization of human functioning becomes the norm and tools to measure human functioning become more popular- the have's will have all the tools they need to identify and eliminate the undesirables from their society. That would be fine with me if they would at least give the rest of us some land to grow vegetables and make housing out of trees and such. One own the air. One pay to breath. Sorry for the cheesy reference.

If I take a slot at the bottom, maybe someone else will get a shot higher up.
posted by xarnop at 8:07 PM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Fizzix - the subject of your undergrad thesis is really interesting, and I think the topic would make a good companion post to this (in fact, was what I was primarily thinking about yesterday)! nudge, nudge
posted by eviemath at 8:12 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


xarnop, I understand (and am sympathetic) to your point.

Here's the tension - students need to know how to do basic math, how to read, how to write, and how to think critically. But it's also true that we learn more when we are engaged and interested. Before they reach high school, many students have been told they are failures and can't possibly be successful, etc. Failure is as much a part of their schooling as pens or notebooks.

And I can definitely say this about my last (low income, urban, underprivileged) school: they had teachers who knew their background and worked hard with them to teach them what it looked like to be successful. We had kids who had failed since first grade and got their first passing report card as a freshman in high school. And yes, failing for that long created a mentality that was hard to overcome.

But you know what is MUCH harder to overcome? Being five to six grade levels behind in every major subject. Having parents who pulled them out of school to babysit. Staying up until 3 AM playing Call of Duty WITH THEIR PARENTS then falling asleep in school.

It's easy to say "make it relevant" to them - we do, but we also show relevance by caring about them. And it's also not terribly difficult to help them learn the behaviours they need to be an academic success - taking notes, organising, scheduling, etc.

What's a lot harder is convincing them to buy in after they realise that their skills are in such deficit that they can't catch up. I had a 17 year old 9th grader - held back in kindergarden and again in grade school - who had been born in this country and in the same school district his whole life. He asked me what "male" meant one day. When his friend started joking with him (we all thought he was joking, until I realised he wasn't), he had an epiphany: he was so far behind that it was laughable to his friends. I shut down the behaviour in my room, but you could see that the damage was done. His parents were always frustrated with him for failing, but even when he tried, his skills were so weak that he couldn't pass any of his classes...even with grossly adjusted grading in his favour. That's not to mention the fact that he couldn't see the board, but also wouldn't wear the glasses the free health care the school gave them provided. He "lost" three pairs before the school figured out he was throwing them away. His parents just told him to move closer to the board.

All that to say: this kid saw the relevance of the education we offered. He knew we cared about him. He learned how to be organised - his binder was meticulous actually.

But his skills were so low that he tested BR - beginning reader, or pre-K level - as a 9th grader. He turned 18 after failing 9th grade for the first time. We had him trying and bought in...until he saw that he couldn't possibly pass on his own, even with the subsidising of his grade and an enormous amount of school resources. He was in remedial English for most of his school career - even though he didn't see it as anything but a helpful way to give himself a better chance of passing, it couldn't get him to the point that he needed to be to pass his classes.

I can't even imagine him trying to pass the GED or go to college. And I know this is an extreme example...but not that extreme. In the decade I've taught, I've seen hundreds of kids like this kid. The lucky ones got involved in a family business. I don't know what else we could have done for him.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:14 PM on December 26, 2012 [10 favorites]


What's to stop anyone else from doing what I did?

In short, not everyone is or can be as smart as you. There is no shortage of news articles about educational woes, but nary one of them mentions a fact that everyone knows: not everyone is or can be equally smart. I was struck by this article last year about a student who studies from before dawn until past midnight in a program that provides free tutoring and SAT prep to low-income students. Despite this, her SAT scores are crap and this high school senior says "oh my God" to fractions. She cannot handle a university curriculum but thinks she will succeed at an elite college. (the comical part was that the day before, the same paper ran this story about how innate ability matters)

If we had a tired educational system like Germany, I think many of those lower ability students would be a lot better off pursuing careers as skilled tradesman earning more than they do in dead-end office jobs.

When deciding whether to invest in a future employee, they need something and there really isn't a good replacement for that college diploma.

There used to be a great method called entrance testing, but Griggs v. Duke Power put an end to that, so now employers use the bachelor's degree as a very expensive proxy.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:15 PM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


I read the NY Times a few days ago and it made me think of my nieces who started college this fall. One is a Kauffman Scholar and went through their multi-year program to get her ready for college and it pays for her to go the school of her choice in Kansas. Yet, she chose a no-name school because it was small instead of KU or Kansas State. She wants to be a nurse. She's the daughter of a single mother and she's black.

What's disappointing for me is that she chose a low-ranked school and to be a nurse. There is nothing wrong with being a nurse but it follows in the footsteps of educated black women of my mother's generation who all became nurses or teachers. Those were the only jobs available to them and also the only ones they knew about. I wish she would think bigger. I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with her choices but I know her world view is small and narrow. Her mother has worked for the government for 30 years, job security is paramount for her; she's rarely left Kansas, has no desire to see any of the world and doesn't trust private enterprise.

My other niece is going to school in Missouri, also to a small no-name state school. She wants to be a doctor and plans to join the Air Force and have them pay for medical school. She's hard working, also the daughter of a single mother who through welfare and working for years at Red Lobster put herself through school to become a teacher and she now has two master's degrees. I don't know anything about getting into medical school so I hope her plan is feasible. Her mother is working a second job to pay her college tuition and housing and I think she's received some financial aid, so she should earn her BS without incurring much debt.

Neither of these girls has any exposure to corporate America. Almost everyone they know with a job works for the government in some way - teacher, fireman, federal government. At this point, I'm glad they're going to college and both should earn their degrees without incurring debt and that's a good thing so they're better off than a lot of people including the girls in this article. There is lots of family support but I know that their choices are driven by their lack of exposure.
posted by shoesietart at 8:16 PM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


guster4lovers- sorry that wasn't really directed at you but at the general societal ideology that there is something wrong with the kids for being fd up in a family life and society that is utterly failing to meet their needs.

I think the main thing is that we need to serve families. And part of that is starting with minimum wage.

What's more working with disabled kids, many of whom had messed up families, tended to do a lot better when there is LESS obsession about meeting standards and more work on practice building abilities.

Less focus on "You are Failing so you need to be better" and more focus on "You are ok as you are and we will help you grow and learn new skills that will help you in life"

The thing is we DON'T make a commitment to support the disabled or low functioning people. I honestly think if we started with making the commitment to provide support even to people who can't master basic skills, we could actually help people improve skills and do better in the workplace much better.

What's more if we know that many families fail to function in predictable ways, then we could use technology and services to actually provide support to families that matches their actual needs. That includes educating parents about what children's actual needs are, finding out what sort of obstacles parents are actually facing carrying out these duties (communication WITH rather than down to parents) and better access to services that make it easier for parents to follow through with the things their children need. Many parents are undiognosed differently functioning people and on top of that altering behavior is really hard. Most people have a hard time letting go of long used coping behaviors that helped them through adversity.
posted by xarnop at 8:33 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


[Folks, thread needs to be a conversation not a soapbox, please try to make it that way. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:23 PM on December 26, 2012


I didn't read it as being directed at me, xarnop. Thanks for the clarification though.

The heart of this issue, it seems, is that talking about getting kids to college is only the surface. Really, it encompasses all levels of education, implications of too many kids being poor and underprivileged, failure of colleges to help students adjust once they make it in, lack of support/technology for students and their families, generational addiction, etc.

Whenever education is brought up on the blue, it comes back to this point: there are just too many factors to make a reductive argument. It's why teachers end up getting the shit stick all the time - it's too hard to make a nuanced argument about what's wrong with education. It's a lot easier to say the teachers are failing our students, and it's all the teachers' fault. Or the teachers' union. Or whatever.

To take it back to the article, there were so many factors outside of the control of the schools - whether high school or college - that those girls did well to make it as far as they did. Frankly, that's a better outcome than many of my former students had, facing similar circumstances. Don't get me wrong - I am a firm believer in changing what doesn't work in education. I'm part of the flipped teaching movement, where we want to make our classrooms far more student centred and responsive to students' individual and collective needs. I wish more teachers would try what I'm trying because I have seen how it works with the Best of the Best students as well as with the Very Under-Served students. But I'm only one teacher. I only get 300 students a year in one subject. That's not much in the Big Picture.

Because changing the students and changing their families and changing their socio-economic class is tough. That's why no one's figured out how to do it in this country (other countries are another matter...don't get me started about how much more awesome other countries educational systems are). And the sad fact remains: the best predictor of high school graduation is 4th grade standardised test scores. The kids who get it then, who are on track, who have early literacy support, are the ones who are still getting it when they reach high school. Most of my former students were behind before they could pack their own school lunch.

I saw so many of my former students in those three girls. I also saw myself: chaotic upbringing, childhood trauma (my counsellor told me that it was a miracle I'm not a complete sex or substance addict), boyfriend back home, for whom I almost stayed behind, early learning disability, inadequate schooling or preparation...etc. And yet, I was lucky. Blessed is a better word. I graduated early, worked 40-50 hours a week during college, and found a career that I love and that (sort of) pays off my student debt (50k-ish).

And I'm one of the lucky ones. That's the really, horribly depressing part. My heart goes out to those girls. I could have easily been one of them.
posted by guster4lovers at 12:06 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


but this is totally unhelpful for people who don't have the resources to come in for in-person appointments. This is inexcusable for any publicly-minded institution,

At UF, advisors are really good at saying no when they should say yes. However, there are some iron-clad rules about talking to students in person. When you have a "hold" on your record, advisors have to talk to you in person: not on the phone, not over email. I'd imagine that eliminates some critical misunderstandings.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:48 AM on December 27, 2012


The NYT article hit just a little too close to home. I'm the first one in my family to graduate from college, as far as I know. I now have a Master's (in Humanities, God help me -- and I'm looking for a job), but it took more than 10 years to get my BA, and many of the mistakes I made along the way were because my family and I had no clue how the system worked.

(I wrote about 5 paragraphs here about how mistakes going right back to elementary school made a big difference in my later opportunities -- mistakes made because we didn't know what we needed to be doing. But I will spare you from reading them. The tl;dr: I turned down a full scholarship to a private high school and didn't take the classes I should have been taking in high school and it was stupid. But we just didn't realize.)

I was a National Merit Semifinalist, which gave me a lot of hope that I could go to a good school. But then, like the students in the article, I didn't apply to the best schools. (My lack of math and science might have caused me a problem there anyway -- but my math SAT was high, which helped.) I got in to all but one of the schools I did apply to, with the exception being the highest-ranked school of the bunch. My first choice of the others offered no financial aid at all. I am honestly not sure why, because we were very poor. They didn't even offer a Pell Grant!

My second choice gave me two scholarships, and a loan, and a Pell Grant, and some other grants, until there was an $800 gap between what they offered and what we could come up with. (Which was very little -- basically, what I earned over the summer, and no real contribution from my parents, who couldn't afford anything. The $800 was supposed to be their contribution.) It was a private college, out of state, a good school though not top-tier.

My parents said "There is no way we can come up with any contribution at all, definitely not $800. You'll have to do something else." (This was 1983 -- $800 meant a bit more.) So, at the last minute, I applied to a public school in my home state that had no deadline and a reputation for being easy to get into as long as you could write a good essay. I got in (no scholarships -- too late to apply -- but tuition there was $333/quarter, and the loan I'd already gotten for the other school covered it), bummed that my other plans had all fallen through, and headed off to college.

Then I got a call from the college that had offered me those scholarships. "Where are you?" they asked.

"I thought we notified you -- I can't go, we can't afford the $800 parental contribution."

The college rep's reply: "Why didn't you tell us that was the problem? We gave you scholarships because we wanted you here. We would have made up the $800 for you."

... How was I to know that was how things worked?

I was already in the public school, so I stayed. And it was a good place for me. But I often wonder where I would be now if I hadn't.

There is more I could tell about how poverty affects you. There was the time when my financial aid was being cut off for academic reasons. (You had to average 12 credits a quarter, and I started a single summer class the previous year and then dropped it. Since I had enrolled in one single 4-credit class that quarter -- without using any aid, I might add -- I had to average 12 credits including that summer quarter. Otherwise it wouldn't have been included.) I appealed the decision, and was told that the school would contact me and let me know if I could go back.

I waited all summer for the letter. It didn't come. I didn't have a phone, because I couldn't afford one. I was sharing a roach-infested studio apartment with a friend, $110/month each.

September came and I figured I didn't win the appeal. So I gave up and went on with my life.

I found out eventually that I had won, and that they had sent me a letter -- which I never received. They could not call because I didn't have a phone they could reach me at. So... I didn't know.

What's worse is that I had been selected as the school's newspaper editor for that fall, and had to give it up since I didn't go back.

If I had more money for a phone, I could have at least gotten a message from the school. If I had enough money not to require aid at all, of course things would have been very different. Of course, I should have known to contact the school myself when I didn't hear from them. But I know that now. At 20, I was just stupid, I guess.

I wanted that BA so much. Eventually I was able to go back and finish. I fought hard to finish. But I lost a lot of time, and a lot of networking, and so many other things that gave other people advantages I didn't have. And now I try to help some of my younger relatives who are running into the same problems I had, but I don't know if they actually listen to my advice. I hope they do.
posted by litlnemo at 7:13 AM on December 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


I find the "didn't know to ask for help" thread through much of this fascinating. I grew up an enlisted USAF brat, so we certainly never had any extra money in the family, and the sum total of college for my parents was one semester for my dad, before he dropped out and joined the Air Force. I had to figure out the application and financial aid stuff myself and the sum total of my high school counselor's input was that I would definitely get into one of the three schools I applied to, so I had no worries. I took the SAT hungover on 3 hours of sleep. It never occurred to me to study for it or even treat it as anything special.

However, when my dad got laid off during my 2nd semester of my sophomore year of school it never even occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to return. I actually flew back to school in the fall without the funds to pay - confident it would all work itself out. It did, as the school found more aid for me. I ended up at that school because the application was free and I was familiar with the football team. I really had no idea I was applying to one of the country's best public schools. Had I know that, I probably would have assumed that I could not get in, especially as an out of state student.

It's almost like my ignorance of the system worked to my advantage because I just assumed it would work like I needed it to, and it did. FWIW, I''m a white male so I suspect the system, even if I didn't really understand it back then, had sort of always been falling in my favor, and that probably accounts the optimism that led me to assume help was available even when it wasn't readily apparent.
posted by COD at 8:51 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


What's disappointing for me is that she chose a low-ranked school and to be a nurse. There is nothing wrong with being a nurse but it follows in the footsteps of educated black women of my mother's generation who all became nurses or teachers. Those were the only jobs available to them and also the only ones they knew about. I wish she would think bigger. I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with her choices but I know her world view is small and narrow. Her mother has worked for the government for 30 years, job security is paramount for her; she's rarely left Kansas, has no desire to see any of the world and doesn't trust private enterprise.

I see your point, but on the other hand, their worldview doesn't seem much more narrow than many others I've encountered. Stability is underrated. Too many young people are all too willing to squabble over underpaid but romantic or ambitious-sounding white collar opportunities, without ever thinking about which jobs will be steadier, less stressful, and better-paid.

After all, nursing and teaching are solid careers. Most of the RNs and teachers that I know have better overall quality of life than most of the attorneys that I know. And hell, working for the government can be pretty great.

Of course there are many more careers beyond nursing and teaching. I hear what you're saying. But, bigger is not necessarily better.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:31 AM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Rational astrologies
Candidates with prestige degrees end up disproportionately holding higher paid jobs, for reasons that have nothing to do with what the degree says about them, and everything to do with what the degree offers to the person who hires them.

This is not rocket science. It is a commonplace to point out that "no one ever got fired for going with [ Harvard / Microsoft / IBM / Goldman Sachs ]." An obvious corollary of that is that it would be very valuable to become the thing that no one ever got fired for buying. One way of becoming the safe choice is by being really, really good, sure. But I don't think it's overly cynical to suggest that actual quality is not always well correlated with being the unimpeachable hire, and that once, somehow, an organization gains that cachet, a lot of hiring occurs that is somewhat insulated from the actual merit of the choice. [ Harvard / Microsoft / IBM / Goldman Sachs ] credentials may be informative of quality, or they may not, but they are very valuable regardless, once it becomes conventional to treat them as if they signify quality.

Rational astrologies are very difficult to dislodge. People who have relied upon them in the past have a stake in their persisting. More importantly, present and future decisionmakers require safe harbors and conventional choices, and unless it is clear what new convention is to be coordinated around, the old convention remains the obvious focal point. Very visible anomalies are insufficient to undo a rational astrology. There needs to be a clear alternative that is immune to whatever called the old beliefs into question. The major US ratings agencies are a fantastic example. They could not have performed more poorly during last decade's credit bubble. But regulators and asset managers require some conventional measure of quality around which to build safe harbors. Lacking a clearly superior alternative, we prefer to collectively ignore indisputable evidence of inadequacy and corruption, and have doubled down on the convention that ratings are informative markers of quality. Asset managers still find safety in purchasing AAA debt rather than unrated securities on which they've done their own due diligence. We invent and sustain astrologies because we require them, not because they are true.
Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?
It was the end of term at Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School in Espoo, a sprawling suburb west of Helsinki, when Kari Louhivuori, a veteran teacher and the school's principal, decided to try something extreme—by Finnish standards. One of his sixth-grade students, a Kosovo-Albanian boy, had drifted far off the learning grid, resisting his teacher's best efforts. The school's team of special educators—including a social worker, a nurse and a psychologist—convinced Louhivuori that laziness was not to blame. So he decided to hold the boy back a year, a measure so rare in Finland it's practically obsolete.

Finland has vastly improved in reading, math and science literacy over the past decade in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around. This 13-year-old, Besart Kabashi, received something akin to royal tutoring.

"I took Besart on that year as my private student," Louhivuori told me in his office, which boasted a Beatles "Yellow Submarine" poster on the wall and an electric guitar in the closet. When Besart was not studying science, geography and math, he was parked next to Louhivuori's desk at the front of his class of 9- and 10-year-olds, cracking open books from a tall stack, slowly reading one, then another, then devouring them by the dozens. By the end of the year, the son of Kosovo war refugees had conquered his adopted country's vowel-rich language and arrived at the realization that he could, in fact, learn.

Years later, a 20-year-old Besart showed up at Kirkkojarvi's Christmas party with a bottle of Cognac and a big grin. "You helped me," he told his former teacher. Besart had opened his own car repair firm and a cleaning company. "No big fuss," Louhivuori told me. "This is what we do every day, prepare kids for life."

This tale of a single rescued child hints at some of the reasons for the tiny Nordic nation's staggering record of education success, a phenomenon that has inspired, baffled and even irked many of America's parents and educators...
previously
posted by kliuless at 9:33 AM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


Was education ever an equalizer? Such an assumption reeks of the "good ol' days" myth. Ubiquitous education is a fairly recent development of civilization.
posted by Ardiril at 11:10 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Such a sad article and such an interesting thread.
I'm another "first college degree in the family" person, and this made me realize that out of the huge crowd of siblings and cousins, we are still less than a handful. Because of the poor-people culture gsh described, which I recognize completely. And as a family, we're not even really poor anymore, but the culture lives on, and drags people down.

This is very different from immigrant culture, regardless of country of origin. Immigrants can be poor, but they are struggling for a better life. The relative prosperity we have is from the immigrant side of our family (not Asian), and the only person who encouraged me to study was from that side of the family.

Today I am a university professor, in a country with no or very small tuition fees. Yet I see the same development here. Students from poor or working class backgrounds are becoming more and more scarce, because they are loosing already at the primary and secondary school levels, and don't even apply.
It's depressing
posted by mumimor at 1:56 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Frowner: "One of the reasons that I am a secretary today is simply that I didn't know any of the upper middle class stuff about how you got a career - I just knew how to get good grades and keep my head down. And I was a relatively advantaged student. Not knowing how to work the system is a real thing."

There's a very strong narrative in this thread that revolves around this theme, which can be summarized as "if I knew then (when I entered college) what I know now (how to take full advantage of college), I would be a more successful person today".

On the other hand, we have people from all over the world who come to the US to study, and couldn't "work the system" because the system is absolutely and literally alien to them. Many of these people manage to stay here and build successful careers. And I bet if you ask them, they feel exactly the same - if I knew then what I know now, I would have had an easier run, with better results.

I think this feeling is a "it might have been" kind of situation that can be chalked up to human nature and not a lot can be done about it.
posted by gertzedek at 4:06 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


No time for a long reply, but gertzedek, many if not most colleges in the US have people whose job is to make sure international students navigate the system well. But they are much, much less likely to have a "Poor Student Support Office" or organized social activities and clubs for "Lower-income Collegians."

Also, those international students are not usually poor themselves. They tend to be upper class in their own countries, and as such, they may have resources including other relatives who have been through the US system -- and they may have the money needed to avoid many of the problems discussed in the article and in this thread. (Not always, certainly -- and some of those who do still struggle.) Though they will struggle in many ways, I believe they are more analogous to the upper-class American students than the low-income ones.

I don't think it's right to say that "the international students succeed pretty well, so why not the poor ones?" Apples and oranges. And many of the poor students manage to succeed anyway, it's just that the deck is a bit stacked against them. It's important to address the reasons why.
posted by litlnemo at 6:14 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


On the other hand, we have people from all over the world who come to the US to study, and couldn't "work the system" because the system is absolutely and literally alien to them. Many of these people manage to stay here and build successful careers. And I bet if you ask them, they feel exactly the same - if I knew then what I know now, I would have had an easier run, with better results.

These people overwhelmingly come from well-off families who pay college admissions companies in their home country to take them through the process. This is a huge problem with Chinese applications, for example, because these admissions companies will outright manufacture some of the data on the applications. Here's a NYT article on the heavy coaching even non-faking students go through. Besides this, many have friends or relatives in the States to provide additional support through the process. Once arrived, international students tend to be aggressively targeted both by universities and student groups from their home country for more support in a way poor students are not. Being an international student has difficulties but it is not a good analogy.
posted by schroedinger at 10:17 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Two things about international students. First of all, it's true that they often come from very privileged backgrounds and have better institutional support. Also, they know that they don't understand the system, and it's not a source of shame or embarrassment. They often work together to figure out the system, which is something that disadvantaged American students don't always feel comfortable doing, because it would mean admitting that they don't know what's going on. But the second thing is that international students do sometimes struggle. We don't have good data yet about the new influx of undergrads from China, but my personal experience has been that some of those students are having a pretty tough time, despite all their resources and support. And there is some evidence that international grad students, particularly those from South and East Asia in STEM fields, face some significant barriers to success in US institutions. They're less likely than US students (and those from Europe, Canada or Australia) to get tenure track positions, they're more likely to end up in poorly-supported permanent research positions, and they report having trouble finding mentors. I don't think it's particularly useful to ask "why do US students struggle when international students don't?" It's apples and oranges, and it relies on some unproven premises.
But they are much, much less likely to have a "Poor Student Support Office" or organized social activities and clubs for "Lower-income Collegians."
This is actually changing. The current buzz-phrase is "first generation students," as in the first generation of their families to go to college. There is increasingly programming and support for this population, because there's a lot of research that shows that they're vulnerable. My university has a club for first-generation students and next year will have a special housing unit in which first-generation first-year students can opt to live. (One issue that students sometimes report is feeling stupid about not knowing things that their roommates or friends take for granted. The idea is that if they live together, they'll be able to help and support each other.) When I get a list of students in my caseload, the first-generation students are identified so I can offer them some extra help negotiating the system. I've found over the past couple of years that students are more likely to identify themselves as first-generation and say things like "can you explain to me how important it is to have a minor? I'm first generation and I don't really get what a minor is." We have to be a little careful with this, I think, because there's some potential to convey to students an expectation that they'll struggle. But we are paying attention.

Here's the thing, though. This programming costs money, and it's one of the things that's driving the increase in tuition. There's a trade-off: do you want increased support for disadvantaged students if it comes with a price-tag that they'll have to pay? And frankly, I love my job, but I'm not really being paid a living wage, and I don't expect to stick with it forever. It's difficult to recruit and retain competent people to do these jobs at the prices that universities can afford to pay us.
posted by sockpuppy at 7:03 AM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Has anyone done similar graphics for the UK? or Europe? I'd be fascinated.

I knew someone who knew someone who grew up in a children's home for the disabled in Britain, seemed to be totally learning-disabled, but turned out in teenage years to be high-functioning autistic and somehow a genius at maths, and was at Cambridge doing a PhD or something. Where they were raped, being extremely autistic they didn't realise what had happened to them. A third person, whom i shall forever admire for this, befriended her (everyone else including me just thought she was extremely angry as she glowered at you all the time) and found this out.

A programme on british TV about people who'd died alone and their bodies found, councils used to investigate the deaths (the cuts now coming mean councils won't even be able to provide home care, let alone nonsense like this) and one was an extremely promising and talented African kid who'd arrived with all his father's money in cash (banks being a little scarce in the Sahel) and paid for his masters at UCL, London but not been able to make the final payment, stayed on illegally somehow, earnt somehow enough to take the Masters in hydro-engineering or some kind of liquid mechanics elsewhere, got distinction (extremely rare) but died of, it seemed to me, starvation.

So i give british pastoral care zero. (Personal whinge: Also, because at UCL, i had big problems at one point because i was convinced i must kill myself, but i could only get help via UCL, and i could only get mental health problems help via the counselling service, and i had to fill out a form online. It took me a whole day (it's weird how unable to complete even basic tasks you are when affected) but the form wouldn't submit, i couldn't figure out why. Nor did i fit any of the eligible categories for treatment, which included 'being worried about your grades', 'being an ethnic minority' but, under suicidal, 'have made suicide attempts'. Great. (When affected, i'm unable to tell lies, even on a form.) So from my own experience i give it zero too.) Back to topic: it doesn't seem that hard to just make a person available with sufficient time and on basic wage to go through forms with low income students and fill it out with them though.

The end bit, about Emory saying 'she did not approach us with concerns' just reminded me of the really heart-breaking bit in Gladwell's Outliers (recommended, as it's a quick read and available v cheap on ebay, although it kind of repeats itself in parts, but unlike freakonomics its more generous in crediting the research it uses and includes more of his own) where the american guy with the incredibly high IQ whose childhood made these girls' look cushy couldn't even get himself allowed to switch to afternoon class because his car had broken down and was told to leave college instead, and still thought, despite being a fully-functioning successful fiftysomething, that university lecturers were told what to teach and didn't have free rein to explore so he hadn't lost so much not becoming one....the huge knowledge gap that means people don't even imagine or know what exists and is possible, let alone how you ask for it. Maybe there should be a knowledge-sharing board for people to post problems and suggestions, perhaps anonymously, on the internet at colleges, or maybe some kind of mentor or helper system?
posted by maiamaia at 2:15 PM on December 28, 2012


Haha, reading more comments: i remember the extremely, like billionaire, rich Chinese kid in my halls had no idea LSE was a good school to apply for an economics Masters. Because the whatsitsname rankings they use to judge everything by give it a low grade! (She did go- and got in - she might've been rich, but she worked every second of every hour too.)

The first time i went to university, i picked Wolverhampton Polytechnic. Because it was the only place i could do philosophy and art. The lectures were so bad (long ago, and not british social history which was excellent) that i kept suspecting they were rubbish, but only later did i find out i was right. One lecture was a debate on pornography with the conclusion 'the women are in fact exploiting the men because they are getting money out of them for doing it'!!!!!!! (Person is paid for job therefore holds balance of power - even at 19 i wasn't sure about that.) A lot of the other lectures were just as bad. They taught behaviourism as cutting-edge (it died out in the 50s). When i went back to university a second time, age 35, i knew what i didn't before: snob value, high % of foreign and public school kids are signs to look for in the comparisons book (in the UK, they all fit into one book) - those rich people know what to look for. Research rankings matter - exciting research = cutting-edge teaching. If in doubt, follow the snobs! They get intensive tuition and advice from their teachers at private school, teachers know how to make the best choices. I noticed, amongst mature students there were many from a poor background, but i only met about 5 young people who'd been to State School.
posted by maiamaia at 2:35 PM on December 28, 2012


Suggestion: i think, that it's not worth very/poor students doing college. (And quite what they spend five years on in the USA beats me. It's 5 years in Europe, but that's a Masters....better than our degrees. The old Russian degree system (you have to be lucky enough to live in the catchment area of a good university for a subject you like, the system as a whole sucks - i believe it is possible to live outside the catchment area of any university) is the hardest/most thorough/best. Poor/very poor/socially obliged kids (like that girl in south wales who got so fat they had to break down the wall of her house to take her to hospital - she was full-time carer to both her extremely old parents) should just take a one-year vocational course (not the NVQ crap like hairdressing/mechanic, unless they love that) but the 1-year post-18 HNC that you can easily extend to an HND (2yrs) and even do the 3rd year later on in the kind of subject that allows you to work even in a recession, earn a lot, and work your way up - eg. logistics, engineering etc - and study later when they are older and richer.
posted by maiamaia at 2:50 PM on December 28, 2012


Briefly: those of you talking inflation: i'm 40 & live in UK, but: everything, literally everything, has got unbelievably cheaper in my lifetime. When i left home at 18, i was given a hairdryer as a leaving+Christmas present. Because that's how expensive a hairdryer was - a plain one, not one with forty bits and bobs that 'feeds your hair protein' (thanks argos for boggling my mind). One that now seems to sigh warmly by comparison with modern blasters of boiling air. Ok we were poor (then) and ok Christmas has got stupid (one present for an adult child was enough, although in my family i was spoilt & got chocolates etc too) but still... Music meant vinyl or taping off the radio - tapes were cheap, but vinyl was about £8 an LP. Roughly, double the value of money every ten years: so £8 in 1995 is probably about £25 now, feels right. You'd hear a couple of singles on the radio and then the huge debate: to risk buying it or not... Earrings were about £3 up at the crappy end of the market. Bread about the same as now. There weren't supermarket loss leaders. Plastic was the same. Only rents have changed incomprehensibly, you could easily get a room for £30/week then it'd be £100 minimum now, usually £150+

I met a man from Bahrain whose nephew was studying in Olomouc, Czech Rep, for £100/term including accommodation, Economics or Law as only those were taught in English, and i did think, given my grades, that's what i should have done!
posted by maiamaia at 3:39 PM on December 28, 2012


How to Navigate College 101

You know, I was going to write my own thoughts on public education and my experience in undergrad and the work world and blah blah blah.

Instead, I pose this thought to the wonderful and thoughtful citizens of Metafilter.

What in the world is stopping us from doing a series of YouTube videos (a la "It Gets Better") aimed at those young students who want to grab that brass ring of higher education and don't know where to start?

For the students who don't know about the community college to university switch? Or what an office hours conversation looks like so it isn't scary to ask? Or even what FAFSA is? Because, honestly, even though there are a ton of books and articles and university created materials out there to help a college applicant navigate the process, I have never seen/read anything directed at a completely clueless first time university applicant whose parents did not attend college and who has no one to guide him/her, written from the perspective of someone who really gets it. And, even more important, no one to explain how things LOOK, SOUND, and FEEL when going right/wrong.

I was one of those kids. Seems like we have more than our fair share of them on here. I'd be happy to re-enact an office hours conversation or a "how to ask for help about X" or "how to navigate a college library" or "how to read an academic article" or any of those videos with any of you all.
posted by jeanmari at 8:11 PM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Forget culture.

Really, I thought the answer was far more simple. It's also the most obvious answer: student debt. Do you have the money or do you need to borrow it?

Maybe there is some wisdom in this "mentality of poverty". Maybe having upper-class values with regards to education when you don't have the money to back it up is not a good survival strategy. It might even be one of the factors destroying - not strengthening - class mobility.

My family had plenty of cultural factors that are supposed to lead to this "college success": my parents are both well-educated and place a very high-value on education. Not simply job training, but a holistic, humanistic education. My-- I hesitate to label them 'working-class' because they weren't poorer than me-- high school classmates who didn't share these values were oriented toward a practical, job-oriented trajectory: nursing school, joining dad's car dealership, getting real estate training, becoming a hair stylist, etc. In high school, I on the other hand had high ambitions: top of my class, top SAT scores, with a pile of honors and extracurriculars to my name. When I applied to colleges, the no-name state schools and community colleges were not good enough for me. I wanted a top education to become a top scholar. I imagined myself working for the UN or being an archaeologist, a geneticist, a historian, a zoologist, an economist, a museum curator...anything...I wanted an interesting and intellectual career, not just a job to pay the bills like all of my classmates.

The problem is that my parents had middle/upper-class cultural capital (and the values that come with it) without the middle/upper-class monetary capital to back it up. Not poor by any means, but not wealthy enough for me to receive substantial enough need-based aid. Despite this, 18-year-old me chose to attend a very prestigious private university so I could have "the life of the mind". Sure, I had to take out a whole ton of loans but, hey, 'follow your dreams', right?

In college, I had a boyfriend who came from a very wealthy family. He was not stupid, but not brilliant either, and very much a slacker with few ambitions. He took the minimum number of classes and never held a job throughout college. He did well enough to graduate with mediocre grades. I continued my relentless work ethic from high school - took extra classes, worked part-time and interned, graduated with honors and accolades from professors. I had no financial help from my parents, because they were constantly teetering on bankruptcy, so I relied on my jobs and loans.

After graduation, I was unemployed for 8 months, then I worked a job whose only requirements were basic literacy and the ability to lift 50 lbs. Most of my salary was going toward paying my loans (thankfully, I lived with someone and didn't have to pay rent). Meanwhile, my (now) ex-boyfriend did a prestigious unpaid internship while his parents supported him financially, then got himself a prestigious Master's degree (paid for by his parents), and is on the track towards a prestigious and high-paying career.

Silly me...I thought I could do the same thing: now I'm in a Master's program, after taking out even more loans. Even if it does improve my chances on the job market, the amount of debt I owe is going eat up every bit of my salary. Forget health insurance, or a house, or children. Forget middle-class ambitions. No wonder poor people are suspicious of college education. You can do everything "right" in college, but if you have to borrow 20K a year for the privilege of being an unemployed college grad, then what's the point? So maybe this "mentality of poverty" is actually a cynical defense mechanism that recognizes the truth: that meritocracy in the US is largely a sham.

"Is Culture the Key to College Success?" No. Not having to become an indentured servant in exchange for an education is the key to success. The End.
posted by adso at 8:38 PM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'd imagine land and houses being insanely overvalued now plays some role as well, adso. We won't permit house prices to fall visibly so we need inflation elsewhere to erode their value more subtly.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:46 AM on December 29, 2012


If in doubt, follow the snobs!

Not only do they have access to resources to find out which unis are best, they are in positions of power that effectively decide which are best. The reputation of a university is effectively the distributed opinion of people who matter in a variety of ways. Academic reputation depends on what academics think of it, reputation in the non-academic job market depends on what hiring managers think.
If you want to enter a competitive field, it's a good bet to have gone to the same university as the gate-keepers because they have an investment in perceiving their own alma mater as prestigious.
posted by atrazine at 5:30 PM on December 29, 2012


adso: "and is on the track towards a prestigious and high-paying career."

Obviously you know the situation better than I do, but it reads like family wealth is just delaying the inevitable for this guy.
posted by pwnguin at 9:20 PM on December 29, 2012


Obviously you know the situation better than I do, but it reads like family wealth is just delaying the inevitable for this guy.

Quite possibly not. One of the advantages of wealth is that you get more chances to get a solid start on a career, it sounds like this guy was able to use his family's money to buy enough time for him to find something he was passionate about and to mature a bit. Meanwhile, people without those resources have to make all the right choices the first time around and can't afford a single miss-step.

His parents are providing financial scaffolding, for some people that scaffolding holds together a fundamentally unsound structure and as soon as it goes away the whole thing disappears, other people are able to use that support to build up a career that stands on its own. If he used the money for a prestigious internship and a related masters degree then it sounds more like he's in the latter category.
posted by atrazine at 9:31 AM on December 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


How more easily college might've gone for me if I'd read this thread, and had an inkling of how important a thread like this could be to me (which I didn't cos I was a very unworldly teen) when I was 17.

Really a lot of this comes down to the right person (a parent, an older sibling, an uncle or aunt, mentor etc..) opening a kids eyes to these issues.

I bet the kids who go into college understanding and being comfortable with, and unafraid of the assimilation challenges of going off to college alone at 17 or 18 already have a HUGE advantage.

The ones whose parents provide that and have already through years of interaction and example acclimated them to the socialization skills required (and by that I mean coping mechanisms, understanding signals and proper modes of approaching others and communicating, speaking properly, asking questions properly, even dealing with the opposite sex smoothly...) have an even greater advantage and are more likely to reasonably comfortably pursue higher degrees including medical and Phd's.

I get so tired of meeting people who went to Ivy's or have Phd's whose parents are already teachers, professors, doctors and lawyers or paid intellectuals of one sort or another. It becomes much too predictable, and can make one very bitter if one comes from a lower-class or immigrant background, and one's parents mannerisms of dealing with the world are rooted in a coarser, more old-world culture, and their education levels isn't even beyond grade school and you've somehow being being pigheaded achieved a higher degree, and yet see how easy things were for those with professional parents.

The paradigm for the sort of life that's doable and achievable for them, and the manner in which they can earn a living is already established for them. It's a real thing that they've seen done by others close to them with great inside knowledge already (and probably connections) to at least, bring their offspring up to their own already high-level of professional level and perhaps provide the springboard for an even more exclusive economic paradigm (if there's some talent) that includes being established in some sort of art field, for example...

For those without that paradigm it's a real fight to make it something real in your mind and you waste an incredible amount of creative and intellectual energy and end up exhausted by the fight. (Probably because your not focusing on the right things that only someone on the inside or within that paradigm can provide the answers too)

Fantastic thread. Thanks nikayla_luv and thank you everyone sharing personal stories and observations.
posted by Skygazer at 5:10 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


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