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Who Gets to Graduate?
May 15, 2014 11:20 PM   Subscribe

Who Gets to Graduate? "If you compare college students with the same standardized-test scores who come from different family backgrounds, you find that their educational outcomes reflect their parents’ income, not their test scores."
posted by epimorph (48 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite

 
By the time I hit law school, I remember the "academic success" materials we'd get that'd talk about the stereotypical importance of getting a good night's sleep before your final exam, but I don't think I can recall ever having any proper instruction on stuff like how to organize study materials, how to actually use flash cards well, how preparation needed to differ between open- and closed-book exams. If you're missing those things and you do poorly and you think you belong, you assume you just need to find better ways to study. If you don't think you belong, you're more likely to assume doing poorly is a sign of that, not just a sign that you needed to do more practice problems and install Anki. And the higher you go, the more chances you have to hit that point where you suddenly don't know how to do it.

Like, I managed business school and law school and I still have to remind myself that the CPA exam prep I'm working on right now is not actually specifically written to baffle and demoralize me, because it sure does seem like it.
posted by Sequence at 11:43 PM on May 15 [18 favorites]


Fascinating! I fit in very well in the Chemistry department, and graduated with excellent marks. Never quite got the hang of the Engineering department though (all the guys seemed to be managing fine), and whilst I finished, I spent my last two years perpetually slightly confused, and I didn't get the marks I should have gotten.
posted by kjs4 at 11:57 PM on May 15


“I died inside when she said that,” Vanessa told me. “I didn’t want to leave. But it felt like that was maybe the reality of the situation. You know, moms are usually right. I just started questioning everything: Am I supposed to be here? Am I good enough?”
A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students.
posted by Jpfed at 12:00 AM on May 16 [8 favorites]


Oops, looks like that work is mentioned in the OP, just not the specific paper.
posted by Jpfed at 12:03 AM on May 16


You learn social skills from your parents, but you also learn study skills, etc. As described, this program addresses both these issues, not just "belonging".
posted by jeffburdges at 12:10 AM on May 16


Alright, the experiments described later address belonging more narrowly.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:22 AM on May 16


The key phrase that jumped out at me in the article was, "the kids who have need are going to have been denied a lot of the academic preparation and opportunities for identity formation that the affluent kids have been given. "

I went to college in my mid-twenties after years of failure & stagnation, and my first semester I only took a single class and even then I almost failed. It was devastating.

But there was something that kept me going, and I gave it another shot, eventually getting good grades & winning essay contests & stuff, & kind of kicking ass.

That one thing that kept me from just giving up altogether was the simple meta-feeling that "I am not the kind of person who fails at this." It was simply my own expectation for myself - part of my identity - that made me fight my way through the disappointment.

To be clear, I'm not saying that in a boot-strappy way. To the contrary. I feel damn lucky that I was the passive recipient of enough external positive messages about my intelligence & overall "value" as a human being that I was motivated to persevere.

That is indeed privilege.

It's heartwarming that efforts are being made to compensate for the lack of such signals in more impoverished environments. But I fear that some on the right will seize on this to say that poverty is not a function of economics at all. That people just need to tighten up their study habits.
posted by univac at 12:37 AM on May 16 [23 favorites]


I taught briefly at a high school in Seattle that is, among other things, very low-income. The standards for success at that school were simply not the same as they were in other schools. Of my three classes of juniors, only one was ready for junior-level work. The other two were not, and it should be noted they were straight-up hostile to me from the moment I walked in (I took over at the start of the spring semester for a teacher who did basically nothing with them). Of my two classes of sophomores, one of them was basically fine, and the other was a daily nightmare battle of classroom management in which I would inevitably have to throw one of four girls and/or one boy out of class because they would rapidly escalate to a point where I had no other choice. A good day at that school would have still been intolerable at most other schools.

And yeah, my own standards slipped. The other teachers talked a good game of holding students to high standards, but I saw only one of them backing that up with his actions. (I had a very good impression of a science teacher, too, but she taught on the other end of campus so I can't say much for certain.) The social studies teacher that everyone loudly respected and admired would come to me with shockingly basic content questions ("Hey, what's the difference between an initiative, a referendum and a recall?"). I couldn't bring my students up to snuff in under four months. It was all I could do to get freshman-level work out of most of my classes. And, I should note, the school was poor enough that I never taught with a full set of actual books; I wound up xeroxing novels, chapter by chapter, and handing them packets. We had a fully-functioning copy room (and Smart boards and computers and loads of tech), but not enough novels to go around for a class set in anything that these kids could handle. These kids knew quite well the difference between holding a xeroxed packet and holding an actual, real book.

Near the end of the year, I caught a kid red-handed stealing and copying another student's essay. It should have been a straight-up failure in the class. His parents begged me to let it slide and just have him do the essay over again, and while the VP shrugged and told me it was my call, every non-verbal cue I got from her was that she agreed with the parents. "We're just trying to get him into college," they said.

It felt awful. I wanted to do right by those kids, but the entire frame of reference there was just... different from almost any other school I'd been to, and I've been to many, given that I've subbed in multiple districts for years.

Many of my kids were allegedly college-bound. I couldn't understand that. I wanted to see them go to college, obviously, but I just couldn't see how they could handle it. And then, one day toward the end of the year, I was in the counseling office when a couple of recent grads came in for some records or something and I heard them talking about how the professors at the community college were such assholes because they didn't want them texting on their phone all through class, didn't want them eating in class, kept telling them not to interrupt... and I wasn't remotely shocked, because I knew their high school had never prepared them for these things.

I don't remotely think that kids are unworthy or incapable of college work based on their economic level. That's patently ridiculous. But having worked in some low-income schools, I can certainly understand how many low-income kids aren't being sent off to college with the skills and preparation they need to succeed.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:53 AM on May 16 [33 favorites]


I don't remotely think that kids are unworthy or incapable of college work based on their economic level. That's patently ridiculous. But having worked in some low-income schools, I can certainly understand how many low-income kids aren't being sent off to college with the skills and preparation they need to succeed.

From my experience as the low-income student, I think the problem is that we've only got ~13 years of public school to work with, and the public has this idea that the educational process is supposed to result in a head full of Facts, but the reality is that what we need is to make sure that by age 18, if you have an interest in learning something, you'll be able to learn it. So I think stuff like letting a kid like that redo an essay is, in the long run, the right call. Poor kids are much more likely overall to get the message that failure is a permanent state, and need a lot more messages to the effect of, "This was a huge, enormous screw-up--and now you are going to get back up and do it again and the next time you are not going to make that mistake and you are actually going to be okay."
posted by Sequence at 1:13 AM on May 16 [13 favorites]


Despite the quoted statistic of Board scores being irrelevant, the UT program the article explores at length uses them as the key criterion for selection. And it makes sense: the featured student might be perfectly able to earn a BA, but coming from a high school where someone with a 22 ACT score can be in the top 10% she's never going to have seen the amount of competition or expectations she would encounter at UT.

I think that super smart kids can benefit from study skill programs too. I saw plenty of well-off white and Asian kids flail at Berkeley because they Kaplaned and high IQ'd their way through high school and the SAT, but never actually had to develop the focus needed to keep up with the reading, get though O-Chem or 5-day-a-week plus language lab Japanese classes.
posted by MattD at 4:30 AM on May 16 [4 favorites]


I think that super smart kids can benefit from study skill programs too.

One of the things I try to impress on the first-year ROTC cadets I help teach is "You are not the smartest person in the room anymore." For a lot of college freshmen, that has just never happened before, and it is a huge shock.
posted by Etrigan at 4:54 AM on May 16 [17 favorites]


Higher Education is America has become a disgusting mess on many levels. More oppressive than the banksters.

And, unlike with the banksters, which have left-wing groups rallying to protest against them - the university system is entrenched in the left wing, and so gets a pass from the left.
posted by Flood at 5:03 AM on May 16 [5 favorites]


It seems to me that a hefty dose of what makes academic success possible (albeit not inevitable) is inculcation of the belief that education and academic success are important. These are values that largely come from family culture, and except for the occasional exceptionally motivated student, it is almost impossible to instill them in school alone. Of course, plenty (most?) parents would say they think things such as education and intellectual life and academic success are important. But that doesn't necessarily mean they do the things that will inculcate these values in their children by exemplifying in their daily lives the extent to which they, too, value these things. This is among a number of reasons why different demographic populations of low-income students can have such widely differing outcomes. Low-income students whose families value and practice things like intellectual life, hard work, education, academic achievement, success, etc. tend to do pretty well in school, especially if these are things that are highly valued as a norm in their (sub)culture.
posted by slkinsey at 5:33 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


College is a promise the economy does not keep

(linked from Atrios earlier this week, if you've seen it before recently)
posted by gimonca at 5:43 AM on May 16 [6 favorites]


Seconding MattD, above. I was one of those "super smart" kids that sailed through high school, and went on to university with multiple scholarships...and promptly blew it in my first year, because I didn't know how to study (I'd never needed to, before), or do any of the other hard work necessary. Lost my scholarships, failed some courses, and wound up taking a year off to get my head straight.

Which I did, and now I'm fine, but there's a couple of lost years in there that I'd like to have back...
posted by Mogur at 5:43 AM on May 16 [10 favorites]


So I think stuff like letting a kid like that redo an essay is, in the long run, the right call. Poor kids are much more likely overall to get the message that failure is a permanent state, and need a lot more messages to the effect of, "This was a huge, enormous screw-up--and now you are going to get back up and do it again and the next time you are not going to make that mistake and you are actually going to be okay."

And more, it's basic fairness in that students from well-off families have all kinds of errors forgiven -- it helps to have involved parents who will come in and advocate for their child, potentially to the point of being willing to hire a lawyer. They know what the consequence of having an F on the transcript is, and will fight that tooth and nail, whereas the poorer student is much more likely to face the disciplinary action alone and unsupported.

I've never taught high school, but I did teach undergraduates, and the only parents who ever showed up to advocate for their kids (perhaps less usefully at that level, especially given the restrictions of FERPA) were white and wealthy; I never got so much as a phone call or email from a parent of a non-wealthy or non-white student.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:49 AM on May 16


This is really exciting research. As someone in higher ed, I see the struggles some students have in these areas, and this makes me really hopeful. It takes a systemic approach at any institution to be able to do the kinds of psychologically based work described here. I mean, this:
In the experiment, 288 community-college students enrolled in developmental math were randomly assigned, at the beginning of the semester, to read one of two articles. The control group read a generic article about the brain. The treatment group read an article that laid out the scientific evidence against the entity theory of intelligence. “When people learn and practice new ways of doing algebra or statistics,” the article explained, “it can grow their brains — even if they haven’t done well in math in the past.” After reading the article, the students wrote a mentoring letter to future students explaining its key points. The whole exercise took 30 minutes, and there was no follow-up of any kind. But at the end of the semester, 20 percent of the students in the control group had dropped out of developmental math, compared with just 9 percent of the treatment group. In other words, a half-hour online intervention, done at almost no cost, had apparently cut the community-college math dropout rate by more than half.
That's pretty remarkable.
posted by MythMaker at 5:53 AM on May 16 [21 favorites]


Stereotype threat is probably still a factor.
posted by fuse theorem at 5:55 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]


Stereotype threat, lack of preparation, lack of support networks, etc, all important and good points. Re:college graduation, there is a wider context to all of this. I stand by my previous comment.
posted by lalochezia at 6:02 AM on May 16 [5 favorites]


Except, slkinsey, there are a lot of minority communities who really do value education and hard work a lot. Valuing education and effort doesn't mean that you actually know how to navigate those systems in order to make that education happen.

It's my experience that the groups where people are routinely able to accomplish such transitions more quickly, it's because for some reason or another it's easier for those groups to believe they're entitled to be as successful academically as anyone else. Like, it's generally well-established that the Cuban-American community has done as well as it has because a large portion of it was built from educated and well-off anti-communists in the 60s. They might have started in this country with less than they had where they came from, but they knew they'd done it once. My Mexican grandmother not only didn't finish high school, she didn't even finish middle school. Not a values problem; she needed to work. My dad was a college dropout--but a high school graduate. By the time he got to college he was so far out of my grandmother's realm of experience that he might as well have been an astronaut.
posted by Sequence at 6:09 AM on May 16 [6 favorites]


I was a low-income kid, but my mom was in grad school for much of my young childhood, and I grew up falling asleep at grad student potlucks, surrounded by adults talking about ideas and books and papers that had to be written. When we moved to a new city we kind of accidentally ended up living in a place with a very good public school system, and a lot of the peer pressure I got was of the get-good-grades kind. Going to college was assumed, like you go from kindergarten to first grade, and getting there (to college) was a well-mapped route that had guidance counselors and all kinds of other resources to make sure we knew what to do and by when - including stuff like when to tell your parent(s) that they needed to fill out the financial waiver form so you didn't have to pay $$$money$$$ for college board tests and applications and stuff.
posted by rtha at 6:15 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


Poor kids are much more likely overall to get the message that failure is a permanent state, and need a lot more messages to the effect of, "This was a huge, enormous screw-up--and now you are going to get back up and do it again and the next time you are not going to make that mistake and you are actually going to be okay."

As grumblebee put it so well...
posted by Jpfed at 6:27 AM on May 16 [12 favorites]


My Mexican grandmother not only didn't finish high school, she didn't even finish middle school. Not a values problem; she needed to work. My dad was a college dropout--but a high school graduate. By the time he got to college he was so far out of my grandmother's realm of experience that he might as well have been an astronaut.

Yes, exactly. My father had to leave school at fourteen. He's never taken a final in his life, and he's an immigrant from a non-English-speaking country besides. Was he going to be able to "advocate" for me with the school administration or help with homework? No, not really. To be honest, I doubt it even occurred to him that he was supposed to "advocate." Lots of the kids who I went to grade school and high school with came from similar backgrounds, though, so the schools had some supports in place to compensate. College was a different story. I could still pretty much power through there, but when it came to things like money management or job searching, it was like I was from a different planet from my peers and the college wasn't set up to help with that. Grad school has been a nightmare in terms of culture shock and flailing around trying to learn study skills on the fly.

I don't want to extrapolate too much from my individual experience, but I do think it's a *major* issue when entering higher education means that you're entering a whole new culture that your family and childhood friends know nothing about but that you have to pretend to have been a part of all along (except when you're among your family or childhood friends again, of course). It can be immensely difficult and exhausting, and deeply emotional.

The kids this article is talking about were top students in high school, and are applying to and enrolling in college -- they clearly have the will and raw ability for higher education, so I don't think it's an issue of them (or their families) not valuing education enough. I think the issue is that these very young adults are having to make a major cultural transition with little or no support as they face academic challenges.
posted by rue72 at 6:46 AM on May 16 [6 favorites]


Dip Flash: "I've never taught high school, but I did teach undergraduates, and the only parents who ever showed up to advocate for their kids (perhaps less usefully at that level, especially given the restrictions of FERPA) were white and wealthy; I never got so much as a phone call or email from a parent of a non-wealthy or non-white student."

No one appeared on behalf of the student.

We have a couple of interventions in place for college-bound students. First, there's a class they do that's sort-of like a highly-structured study hall, where they learn how to take notes and how to study. (A couple of days a week they work on study skills, like spaced repetition and active reading and Cornell notes, and then the other three days a week they apply these to their actual classes with a teacher to actively supervise their studying and help them figure out how to do it effectively.) At first I had this viscerally negative reaction to this; it took me a while to unpack it, but what I realized was that I didn't like this class because I'd sat through SO MANY excruciating, unnecessary "how to take notes" sorts of things that were way below my level and I hate that kind of time-wasting, and second, that I had (like most high academic achievers) stumbled my own way to a system of note-taking and studying that worked for me, cobbled together from watching others, trying things, getting tips from older cousins or parents, overhearing people, etc., and I didn't want anyone to mess with it (because like many ad hoc systems, it was pretty fragile). I probably would have been a lot better off in the long run if someone had sat me down and walked me through a systematic way of doing it. But two of the most powerful forces to overcome when you try to change anything about a school are middle-class parents who think "This is a waste of time" and "I didn't do it this way when I was in school," so it worries me that those were my two reactions and are probably the reactions of a lot of middle-class parents.

Our second intervention is a series of classes for families that are given in the evening, once a month, on location at schools, and freshman and sophomore families learn about choosing classes and requirements to get in to state schools. Juniors and Seniors learn about the ACT, the SAT, AP tests, how to fill out FERPA paperwork, how to calculate student loan costs, how to apply for scholarships, what to do if you get waitlisted, how student housing works, etc. Translators are available at all classes and we put them on in Spanish at least once a year. I've been really surprised by the number of families who come to these, parents who didn't go to college or only went to a couple of years, recent immigrants, etc., who aren't very good at navigating bureaucracy, who are willing to sit through three-hour classes to learn it. (We provide dinner at all of them and younger siblings are welcome to run around in the gym, usually. We also have internet-enabled computers and aides so parents can set up e-mail accounts and things to use for the process if they need to.) There is a big cohort of parents who want to understand these things and don't have anyone to ask, and will come and be just as detail-oriented, stay-on-their-kid's-back, verify-things-with-the-school, as any middle-class parent, once they know what details they're supposed to be chasing down.

It's been successful in increasing applications to college and in admissions (and in admissions to better schools ... more kids getting in to the flagship instead of the directional states, for example), but it's only been three years now, so it's a small effect and it'll take time to see how well it plays out in retention and graduation, and how much the programs can expand (like, are we already reaching all the families who want this help? Or are there more out there who will be lured in as it becomes more established?).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:03 AM on May 16 [22 favorites]


I was (am!) smart, and glided through school with no study skills, and close to no studying ever; my wife is smart, and worked her way through school to great grades. No one in my magnet program or private schools ever showed me how to study, and I certainly didn't learn what Cornell notes were until a couple of years ago.

Now that my oldest daughter is in high school, my wife is showing her how to study -- and I am humbly following along since it's something that I ought to know! When any of the kids need a partner for going through their flash cards, or someone to check homework, I shut up and sit down and help out.

But better late than never: as a liberal arts grad I am happy to be a "life-long learner" for real.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:34 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]


I think this hits on an unpleasant truth: higher education is its own separate culture with its own norms and value systems that will be different from those who didn't grow up with it as the "norm." Preparing for higher education is in part related to preparing yourself to be part of this culture.

But we run into a few problems: talented people from impoverished families who are nonetheless very talented and academically successful generally attend less rigorous high schools because what can you do? Schools can't necessarily gear their curriculum for what the top 5% of students are capable of, leaving the rest behind. And it probably wouldn't be popular or practical to expend resources on "learn to think, act, comport yourself, and live like a college student" classes which sounds like something that would get targetted for mockery in a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay. "College prep" high schools are supposed to teach this implicitly, but once again, the idea of having two separate programs within a high school with separate cultural norms is considered distasteful.
posted by deanc at 8:02 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


It may sound simplistic, but the emphasis on a four year degree is so daunting to some kids. Especially the ones who grew up in a home where college is an anomaly, and not something that is just assumed.

There are so many programs for high school kids that teach trades, certification programs for HVAC, auto repair, EMT, etc. And very few high school counselors know anything about them. From my experience, they push college, or they push nothing. Kids with parents who insist on a four year degree are oftentimes shepherded through the maze of financial aid applications, college applications, ACT redoes, orientations by their hyper involved parents and the counselors who are pushed by said parents.

The kids from impoverished backgrounds, who aren't doing as well...you don't see their parents in the counseling office demanding to know where their child can go to continued education, community colleges do a terrible job recruiting at the high schools (at least in my city they do) and the kids who graduate high school with a C or lower average, a low ACT score and no clue about financial aid assistance wind up at McDonalds or Forever 21 with no idea how to get out of there.
posted by Kokopuff at 8:31 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]


My parents didn't go to college, and one of them barely graduated high school. My Dad was lucky enough to have a draft number in the 300s, so he didn't get sent off to Vietnam like the rest of his town.

Two of their kids are now Ivy League PhD students. What did they do differently?

Lived in decent areas of New Jersey and paid high property taxes for good public schools.

I didn't learn how to 'navigate' an educational system from my parents, I got that from having a good public school system.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:33 AM on May 16 [5 favorites]


The kids from impoverished backgrounds, who aren't doing as well...you don't see their parents in the counseling office demanding to know where their child can go to continued education

Why?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:34 AM on May 16


The kids from impoverished backgrounds, who aren't doing as well...you don't see their parents in the counseling office demanding to know where their child can go to continued education

Why?


Many possible reasons (and put "by and large" in all of these, because obviously there will be anecdotes to the contrary):
They don't have the time to take off their hourly-wage jobs to come to the counseling office between 9 and 3.
They don't see how, if the teachers aren't doing their job in educating their kids, appealing to another member of the academic establishment will help.
Their experience with authority figures generally isn't good.
They dislike "begging" for help.
They don't know that counselors exist -- they never sat in someone's office who told them, "Hey, here's what you need to do in order to go to college / get into a vocational program."
They don't know that their kids aren't doing well, because they don't know what to look for.
posted by Etrigan at 8:50 AM on May 16 [15 favorites]


MisantropicPainforest: "The kids from impoverished backgrounds, who aren't doing as well...you don't see their parents in the counseling office demanding to know where their child can go to continued education
Why?
"

Their parents don't know they have to; their parents work two jobs and there are no times the counselors are available to meet with the parents; the parents only speak Spanish; the parents speak a language OTHER than English or Spanish; the parents are only 15 years older than the child; the parents are grandparents who are 60 years older than the child; the parents are intimidated by going to an office of college-educated professionals who will talk down to theme; the parents have had only negative interactions with school authorities up to this point; the parents have been repeatedly shamed or chided by school authorities for missing vaccination deadlines, parent-teacher conferences, etc.; the parents don't believe it's affordable and don't want their child to get too excited and not be able to go; the parents don't want the child to leave them behind (socially, economically, physically); the parents know no one who went to college other than teachers and doctors; the parents are foster parents who themselves are low-education; the parents are abusive or neglectful; the parents are struggling with addiction; the parents are in jail; the parents are illiterate or low-IQ and struggle with the process; -- do you need more?

Parents have got to be out there advocating for their child, sure. But some parents don't know how or struggle with the system. You have GOT to have school employees who will meet with parents at night or on weekends, who will go down to the jail to meet with a father about FERPA and get necessary papers signed, who will find translators, who can help bridge cultural gaps. And some kids have no parent, or no parent who will advocate for them, and those children need to have access to college too, and a lot of support to get there.

I can't tell you what a difference it's made for us to have two employees (one is fluent in Spanish) whose titles are "community coordinator" or something like that but whose jobs are "figure out how to connect with parents," who do things like arrange 4 a.m. meetings with the parents when dad has just come off-shift, or visit the jail and spend an hour going over college application paperwork, or come see mom on her lunch break at the hospital, or explain the process in Spanish, or help arrange transportation for a child to get a physical, or whatever needs to occur to get these parents through the school system. There are a lot of parents out there who WANT to be involved but are limited by things as simple as job hours or English-language fluency. And these things are very contagious within social networks ... if you can hook in to one or two parents who were previously uninvolved and get them involved, they spread that knowledge and involvement among their social networks and help it become a community norm.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:52 AM on May 16 [51 favorites]


It may seem counterintuitive, but the more selective the college you choose, the higher your likelihood of graduating.
So much for that oft-repeated canard of the anti-affirmative-action brigade that AA puts minority students in institutions for which they are ill-prepared and at which they will be uncompetitive when they might otherwise have thrived at less-selective schools.
posted by yoink at 8:52 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


And more, it's basic fairness in that students from well-off families have all kinds of errors forgiven -- it helps to have involved parents who will come in and advocate for their child, potentially to the point of being willing to hire a lawyer. They know what the consequence of having an F on the transcript is, and will fight that tooth and nail, whereas the poorer student is much more likely to face the disciplinary action alone and unsupported.

Plagiarism wouldn't result in an automatic F in the whole class, but it would result in an F on the assignment, and given the current standing, a much lower grade in the class.

In the year before, at a considerably more affluent school, I caught two kids (also juniors) who pulled their whole essays directly off of SparkNotes. Both got an F on the assignment, both got straight-up suspended for three days (which, as it happened, included something like the junior prom and that mattered to both of them)... and from what I recall, the parents were totally in support of it. And yes, it hurt their grades in the class as a whole.

Obviously, what I'm relating is anecdotal. It's entirely understood that minority kids, particularly black kids, are statistically punished more often and harsher than white kids. And teachers & faculty know that, which can cause some double-edged drawbacks. You get into a mode of trying not to punish for bad behavior, which leads to some insane thinking and utterly fails to correct the behavior and in effect encourages more. I'm positive that this was going on at the low-income (predominantly black) school I mentioned, and the effects seemed pretty obvious to me. But I also understand the equity concern, and the concern that we shouldn't get kids into a mode where they self-identify as failures and "bad" kids. It's a very tough problem and I've yet to see anyone advocate a solution that works.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:54 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]


As an educator, this is one of those things that just makes you tear your hair out, because it is so hard to address at the classroom level. I mean, if you have two students, one of whom will read a bad grade as "well, maybe it's time to go talk to the instructor and figure out where I'm failing to understand the material and work on my study techniques etc. etc." and another who will read it simply as "you are unworthy of attending this institution and are utterly wasting my time" it really doesn't matter if you tell yourself you're treating all your students equally and fairly. But it is amazing how hard it can be to convince students who feel themselves not to really "belong" at university that you're genuinely trying to help them improve, not just telling they're worthless human beings.
posted by yoink at 8:58 AM on May 16 [9 favorites]


I was a first gen college student with a D average in high school (13 Failed courses and summer school every single year!) who went on to a Phd program (that i dropped out of).

I think University success is about 3 things:
1) Strategy and System Gaming - know what you are doing - how to manage your time, how to study effectively, how to complete your program - pre-reqs, scholarships, dates and such. Don't be fooled because you coasted in high school. It's not the same game. Understand the cumulative value of small gains. Also understand the cost of cumulative small loses.

2) How to take a gut punch - understand that it is feedback rather than an enduring evaluation when you fail. I failed my first 3 essays in University and got all the grades in the same week. I took the punch and changed my approach accordingly. You're a little fish now in huge pond. High school cred means nothing. You have to earn respect all over again and bragging about not studying doesn't do it except amongst the other soon to drop out people. Your ego doesn't go on your transcript so leave it at home.

3) How to minimize commitments. You need to be selfish to get your degree with honours. Family takes a backseat. Drama has to be amputated and cauterized (I was in a bad relationship during my undergrad and my partner always choose my periods of high stress to fight. I went to school early in the morning and stopped coming home for dinner). While you are at university you should have just one goal and that should be ensuring your success.

I sometimes think of it as a physics model and the goal is increase your acceleration, reduce your friction and be accurate on the route to graduation. Strategy is about acceleration, taking the punch (feedback) is about accuracy and minimizing external commitments is about reducing friction.

Higher SES students get a lot of these either formally via education and counseling or informally through family support. Lower SES students get less formally and family support can entail considerable friction because of commitments - baby sitting, social obligation and expectations due to high relative levels of support (if they are lucky) that high SES are less likely to have. Plus lower SES are often longer distance commuters and that is a giant unpleasant daily time suck with an underestimated impact.

And that is all without throwing psychological or social variables like self-esteem, race or gender into the mix.

Also 4 year graduation rates for 4 year degrees are not the best statistic because it is possible students may need to take time off to earn mid-degree. Straight completion would be a better number. I finished in 4.3 years and my wife took 5 and she is now a tenured professor. On time completion is nice from the university graduate as widgit manufacturing perspective but it isn't necessarily tied to actual student life success.
posted by srboisvert at 9:37 AM on May 16 [11 favorites]


What a fantastic article. I appreciate that it explains UT Austin's unusual top-10% admissions policy, it's really changed the whole face of education in Texas. Texas A&M and the other UT schools now get a lot more high quality students. And the big prestigious school is now apparently trying to solve the challenge of educating its students no matter their background. Seems like a win for a lot of people.
posted by Nelson at 9:42 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


It's a very tough problem and I've yet to see anyone advocate a solution that works.

Abolish grading systems entirely. Stop using the publicly mandated educational system to sort kids into economic classes with preferential status for the children of people who are already in the upper economic classes, and focus the whole thing on maximizing the education level of the general populace in the years allotted before they attain nominal adulthood. If giving someone an F does not teach that person more than their writing a paper, have them write the paper and stop thinking about how that effects how well they rank against their peers and whether the option that increases overall learning results in "unfair advantages".

Ideally. I don't think the problem with this is that it wouldn't "work" in the sense of being better socially and certainly for kids from traditionally disadvantaged groups, but it certainly wouldn't work in the sense of being acceptable to those who usually win when it's a competition. That's why good schools already prep people for college but very few people are fundamentally outraged that we have such things as "good schools" and "bad schools". But I don't mean to be too glib about this--it really is hard that we cannot have a system that simultaneously gives every kid an equal opportunity to succeed in the world and a system that rewards parents for being actively involved and informed. Not that I expect us to do the former perfectly, but we're doing poorly at it because the whole system is built with different goals.
posted by Sequence at 10:15 AM on May 16


Abolish grading systems entirely.

As a TA in the US, grading homework assignments, I often reflected that the main advantage of taking a class rather than trying to learn the material by myself from a book was that if I took a class, there was someone to grade my homework, and to motivate me to do it.

I studied abroad in England for a year in college, and thought that their system was interesting: you get scored on homework and quizzes through the year, but those scores are purely feedback to yourself and do not count much if at all, toward your final "grade" for the year or toward the determination of whether you get a first class, second class (divided into upper and lower divisions), or third class degree. Those degree classifications serve the same functions of signalling your ability to the rest of the world as the GPA does in the US, but which you get is based almost entirely on your scores on the final exams at the end of your final year.

Personally I thought this system was rather less forgiving that the continuous evaluation system used in the US. It was easier to procrastinate, harder to motivate oneself to really study for a test or try hard on an assignment since they didn't "count," and easier to find yourself in over your head at the end of the year, with not enough time to learn the material and the final exam looming.

Of course, you could also drop the signalling function entirely and make someone's performance in school have zero real-world consequences for their life, but 1) this would make it harder for employers and others to find relatively fair ways to choose between different candidates for some position, likley resulting in more use of unfair ways of choosing and 2) even for an upper middle class kid like me, who liked school and reading, not having some kind of concrete reward for working at a class would really remove almost all the sense of urgency and motivation to work hard. It would be like a soccer league where nobody keeps score and there's no trophy to be won. I think it would be human nature to stop trying so hard to make goals, in that case... If there's no competition, what would motivate kids to care?
posted by OnceUponATime at 10:50 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to answer my own question -- could kids be motivated to care because they actually see the need for the skills they're learning in their desired career? But that's asking kids to see around a lot of corners (how many adults could have predicted their eventual career when they were 14?) and the value of some of these skills is pretty abstract, more in the struggle to learn than in the material itself. And these are literally children that we're talking about. I don't even try to motivate my pre-school age kids with rewards more than an hour away; they just don't have the brain development yet to defer gratification that way. High school students may be able to control themselves better than pre-schoolers, but asking them to wait, not until the end of the semester, but until adulthood for any sort of reward for the effort of staying in to study, showing up for class, drilling on skills...

External rewards, like money for good scores (but no record of those scores) might work for some kids... But in general external motivations aren't nearly as powerful as internal motivations, and "gamification" (like grades, and GPAs which are effectively "high scorer" lists) is a way of creating internal motivations.

And then, again, how would employers know which people actually had learned the necessary skills? I can imagine a world where the first step in applying for a job is to take an aptitude test... But then I imagine how quickly most companies would outsource that testing, and how the firms which offer that service would quickly become more efficient by using the same aptitude tests for a lot of different companies, and how those aptitude tests would end up serving basically the same role as the British high stakes final exam at the ends of secondary school and then university...
posted by OnceUponATime at 11:13 AM on May 16


3) How to minimize commitments. You need to be selfish to get your degree with honours. Family takes a backseat. Drama has to be amputated and cauterized

One major class difference I've seen when it comes to students is that upper middle class students both have families that "let them go" when they leave for college and expect that their primary job is for them to go to college, while many lower class students have a bevy of obligations to their families back home that need to be attended to, including financial help. Also, a lot of students from non-college-going backgrounds showed up to school with serious boyfriends/girlfriends-- sometimes even engaged when they showed up to campus. While this makes sense from their backgrounds-- many people back home no doubt marry their high school sweethearts and/or go to a local college close to home where their high school social life continues on without interruption-- this isn't compatible with the "move several hours away from home and dedicate your time to school while you figure out your life" model of education. Lots of students from college-going backgrounds quickly broke up with their hometown SOs within a semester of college. Many people are unable to "amputate and cauterize" those obligations in favor of school.

Sometimes I wonder whether it would be helpful or an impediment to tell students up-front what going to a residential university is like, in the same way people are given rules for boot camp or a retreat: "don't go home every weekend, live on or close to campus, you are required to attend X number of campus events/orientations/activities to ensure you remain engaged with the community."

The example of Texas's admissions policies is that it brings in a lot of students to a residential flagship state university who would have otherwise attended a commuter college while living at home. The expectations and dynamics are going to have to shift dramatically to make this work.
posted by deanc at 11:35 AM on May 16 [8 favorites]


while many lower class students have a bevy of obligations to their families back home that need to be attended to, including financial help

In graduate school, I knew a lot of people* who were sending a significant amount of money home every month out of their graduate stipends (which in case it needs to be emphasized, are not generous). Very few of the professors were aware that quite a few of their students were doing this, or appeared to have considered how that might impact things like being able to attend conferences, go on field trips that were not fully funded, or even just the complications of a paperwork error causing a delay in a stipend check.

* I'm referring to US students; that some foreign students were sending money home was much more widely known by the staff and faculty.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:21 PM on May 16


I am part of an intervention taking place at another Texas university (we have direct contact with each and every student in the massive freshman class at specified times to make them aware of all the amenities and support they are entitled to and to offer them a person they can rely on to form some of their new support network at college) and this was a fascinating read. We have so far to go, though.

At the university where I work, we have a special obligation to pay attention to this research because the majority of our students are the first generation to attend college, the majority of our students are from historically under-served populations in terms of both economics and social class, the majority of our students are from this region and contribute directly to this region's growth...and the majority of our students don't graduate in six years.

Low dollar cost, low time-intensive interventions that increase graduation rates are the holy grail.

In the meantime, there's some resources listed at the bottom of an MIT page (http://fgp.mit.edu/resources) with links to books and documentaries speaking to the first generation culture shock and needs. It can be especially helpful for those folks navigating grad school and finding the culture to be utterly confusing.
posted by librarylis at 3:22 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


Also 4 year graduation rates for 4 year degrees are not the best statistic because it is possible students may need to take time off to earn mid-degree. Straight completion would be a better number. I finished in 4.3 years and my wife took 5 and she is now a tenured professor

Minor point but the standard measure (in ed policy although not of course the brochures of elite residential colleges) and the measure used by statistics in the article is six years, which would include you and your wife. More on the six-year graduation rate as a measure.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:01 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


Any duration under six years would be unfair to institutions that actually maintain high academic standards, like engineering schools. There are liberal arts schools with 98% four year graduation rates, that's simply not possible unless a notable fragment of passing students should not have passed. Even MIT has only a 84% 4 year graduation rate. A six year graduation rate better captures how many students benefit from institutions' efforts to help struggling students.

Also, there is a stereotype that first generation collage students do engineering because it leads to a concrete job. I now wonder if engineering homework grades also provide a more objective measure of success that's easier to improve if you're a disadvantaged student. In particular, you might never need any "study skills" if the professors handle homeworks appropriately, well you're studying all the time just to keep your grades up.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:21 AM on May 17




Why is no one concluding that maybe college is broken, not the students?

The entire article is focused on helping vulnerable students fit in better, and how higher education can do that. Why can't we work more on alternatives to college so people can learn how to earn a decent living without an educational system that isn't working?
posted by Violet Hour at 1:21 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]






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