Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why Poor Kids Fail in College

The New York Times today has a very interesting and detailed analysis of stalled class mobility and the failure of university education to eliminate barriers to mobility. The story follows working class female students success in graduating from high school and failure to graduate from college 

For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall. Jason De Parle and Kitty Bennett (contributing to research). December 22, 2012 The New York Times

[Excerpted] Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net. 

… “Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.” 
The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe. 

… “It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.” 

Majia here: I've been teaching at a university campus that primarily serves working class students, including many minority students, since 1994. Here are my observations about why working class students struggle in college:

1. University education has become very expensive so students must work more than they had to in the past. When I started San Diego State University in 1983 tuition was $265 a semester. The university I currently teach at runs about $4,500 a semester. Students must work far more than in the past and most of my students work at least 30 hours a week.

2. Students typically work in the service economy. Often their work schedules vary and their employers are not always sympathetic about the need for students to attend class regularly. So they don't. I believe that failure to attend class regularly is the number one reason for failure at my campus. Our classes are reasonably small so if a student is struggling but attends class I can meet with them and make sure they get the help they need to succeed.

3. Many of our students have poor reading comprehension skills and struggle with writing. So, they don't read the course materials and they procrastinate. These are deficits that can be overcome with diligent hard work (I've seen tremendous improvement occur with motivated students), but if students are not coming to class because of work pressures (or laziness) then they will quickly fail.

3. The move toward online education is exacerbating these problems tremendously. Online education offers opportunities for working students, but it must be done well. Too often online education is poor because classes are too large, classes are often taught by graduate students or contract employees, and the online environment is less conducive to the kind of peer support and faculty mentoring that help students succeed.

Furthermore, online education is "contaminating" the physical classroom environment because it implicitly teaches students that physical attendance is not necessary. Never before have faculty at my campus had such problems getting students to attend. My mandatory attendance policy has enraged students (as evident by their comments on class evaluations), yet regular attendance is the most significant predictor of success!

This semester I was pleased to see one of my working class students from a deeply impoverished family succeed in graduating from college with less than $10,000. in debt. This student is an exemplar in many ways. She worked very hard and diligently in class. She was organized and professional in her efforts. She sought out educational help and emotional support from her professors. She worked in jobs with supervisors willing to work around her class schedule.

She is a success. Yet, she is struggling now to find a professional job in an economy that offers few opportunities for recent college graduates. My fear is that she will fail, like so many college graduates today, to find a job offering professional growth and end up in a low-wage service sector position despite having done "everything right."

The one thing the New York Times article fails to address adequately is the lack of professional jobs available for students who do succeed in navigating the economic and social challenges of accomplishing a four year degree.

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