Thursday, July 1, 2010

Closing the College Achievement Gap

There is an understanding implicit in the city college and state university systems, and to a lesser degree (through scholarships) at private universities, that diversity is good for higher education.  Not just racially, but in broader terms providing a hand up to those who are willing to put in the effort required to succeed.  This is no where more clear than the city college model, where almost anyone is accepted, and remedial courses and support is built in from day one.  While less so at the state university level (I don't believe they offer remedial courses), there is still a community ethos and more attempts are made to promote diversity - especially in the subsidized tuition.

We have known for a while now that disadvantaged students at these institutions are much more likely to fail, even despite attempts at support and intervention.  Some students are probably beyond help, whether due to financial, cognitive or emotional limitations that are too great.  But the degree to which the students "just aren't cut out for college" is over-assumed.  There are structural problems at the institutional level that, were they resolved, many more students would find success. 

To the degree to which adequate support is unavailable, these students are at the mercy of success in the classroom; whatever outside pressures come to bear, a failing grade is going to be the last thing many of them see before they return to the workforce, sans-degree.  This places the professor in the difficult position of handing out what, in essence, are college death-sentences.  It would make sense that this could result in grade inflation.  The logic is likely that, considering the hardship the student faces, there is a social injustice in giving them a failing grade.  If inflation is implemented, even marginally, that student might find a way to make it in the end.

Of course, at the system level, this can be pathological.  Standards are gradually reduced, which is unfair to all students.  Getting an inflated grade in one class might give the student a false sense of efficacy, setting them up for failure later on, in another class.  At city colleges, this pressure is lessened by the existence of extensive support: classes are far cheaper, night courses are widely available, failing students can be sent to a writing lab, or remedial courses.  At the state or private level, few of these options are going to exist, and failure will be quick.  However, admission at these institutions will have already removed at-risk students through stricter admissions.  At city college, as they accept anyone, the demand for support services is all the more crucial.

Matt Yglesias points out that there are many models that have shown great success in supporting students, and could theoretically be instituted at every level of academia.  He links to Monica Potts:
A new program at the University of North Carolina pairs low-income students with faculty and peer mentors, monitors their grades, and instills them with basic job-hunting skills like business etiquette. Graduation rates for program participants were 17 percent higher than for students in the control group. Low-income students simply need more resources, and that’s as true for students at the college level as it is for those in elementary and high school. The kinds of schools most likely to serve lower-income students, though, often have the fewest resources. And state-level higher-education funds are vulnerable as states shrink their costs in a difficult budgetary environment.
Yglesias writes:
It’s worth underscoring how perverse the allocation of resources inside American higher education is. We expend the most time, money, and effort on helping the set of high school graduates who need the least help, even though these very same people tend overwhelmingly to come from families who have the most resources (in terms of both money and social capital) with which to help them. It’s nuts.
An important thing to note here is that, assuming the students are academically equivalent, there are still going to be large disparities in student capital (human+social capital). This means anything from navigation of campus norms, peer-group isolation, parent support, financial issues, etc.

Then, in situations where the academic equivalence is not there (usually in city college), students are going to be taking remedial courses and in many cases the “tricks” that may have worked in high school just won’t cut it. These students face the double challenge of having to succeed in college-level courses that may rely on work that they aren’t ready for.

The solutions don’t seem to difficult – counseling, cohorts, etc. But they do require resources.
*One last thing to note: my wife taught English at a PA state university and had students from one of these low-income cohorts. The papers they turned in, while often slightly sub-par in grammar, etc., were generally heads and tails above the other students in terms of a sort of wisdom of life experience. Far from vacuous and cloistered, these students represented a form of striving that seemed invaluable.

These are exactly the sorts of voices that we need at the university level, and we should be giving them any support necessary to see them succeed academically.

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