‘Free’ college won’t raise graduation rates

College is too late, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni in response to President Obama’s call for free community college in the State of the Union speech. Subsidizing tuition won’t help if students aren’t ready to do college-level work.

It’s easy to get students to enroll in community college, writes his colleague, David Brooks. Helping students graduate is hard.

Spending $60 billion over 10 years to make community college free won’t change sky-high dropout rates, Brooks writes.

. . . community college is already free for most poor and working-class students who qualify for Pell grants and other aid. In 2012, 38 percent of community-college students had their tuition covered entirely by grant aid and an additional 33 percent had fees of less than $1,000.

The Obama plan would largely be a subsidy for the middle- and upper-middle-class students who are now paying tuition and who could afford to pay it in the years ahead.

To increase graduation rates, spend some of that $60 billion to subsidize books, transportation, child care and housing, Brooks argues. That way students could work fewer hours and spend more time on their studies.

Community colleges also need funding for guidance counselors to help first-generation students develop a study plan and choose courses that get them quickly to their vocational or academic goal.

And they need to fix remediation, writes Brooks.

Actually, community colleges are trying all sort of remedial ed reforms, but it all goes back to Bruni’s point. If K-12 doesn’t work, then college won’t work.

First to college — but not to a degree

More low-income students are enrolling in college, but few go on to earn a degree, reports Liz Riggs in The Atlantic. Just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

Many are poorly prepared for college work, struggling with financial burdens and working long hours, writes Riggs.

When Nijay Williams entered college last fall as a first-generation student and Jamaican immigrant, he was—despite being admitted to the school—academically unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Like many first-generation students, he enrolled in a medium-sized state university many of his high school peers were also attending, received a Pell grant, and took out some small federal loans to cover other costs. Given the high price of room and board and the proximity of the school to his family, he opted to live at home and worked between 30 and 40 hours a week while taking a full class schedule.

What Williams didn’t realize about his school—Tennessee State University—was its frighteningly low graduation rate: a mere 29 percent for its first-generation students. At the end of his first year, Williams lost his Pell Grant of over $5,000 after narrowly missing the 2.0 GPA cut-off, making it impossible for him to continue paying for school.

Tennessee State’s overall graduation rate is only 39 percent. By comparison, the state’s flagship university, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, graduates 71 percent of students and 54 percent of its first-generation students.

A minority of four-year schools provide adequate support to first-generation students, says Matt Rubinoff, who directs a new nonprofit called I’m First.

Most disadvantaged students choose unselective state universities, community colleges or online programs with low graduation rates and little funding for support services.

If President Obama’s proposal for “free” community college tuition passes — which it won’t — then first-generation, low-income students who could get into a selective university may decide to start at community college instead. (Actually, few low-income students pay any community college tuition, but they might get more Pell dollars to cover their living expenses.) That would be a high-risk decision.

A piece of the philanthropic pie

Donors give billions of dollars to higher education. Community colleges are trying to get a small piece of the philanthropic pie, reports the New York Times.

At La Guardia Community College in Queens, Karen Dubinsky is trying to “forge a closer union between the school and the wider world of moneyed New York,” writes Ginia Bellafante. The goal is to cultivate a donor base — and to expose students to the “experiences and possibilities and habits from which they have been excluded,” writes Ginia Bellafante.

Dubinsky also created the “Pushy Moms Club.”

Observing her friends uptown, Ms. Dubinsky realized that many had children who now required less of their time, but the mothers themselves were still running on surplus energy from years of meeting the obligations that the obsessive culture of modern parenting imposes. At LaGuardia there were many students with absent parents, so she paired up the women and the students, to get through the complicated process of college transfer admissions.

I think every college aspirant needs a pushy middle-class (or upper-middle-class)  mother.

UW seeks ‘equity’ in grades, majors

Blacks and Latinos should achieve “equity” in grades and high-demand majors at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, according to the Framework for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence passed by the Faculty Senate. No one challenged the plan or debated the consequences, charges W. Lee Hansen, an emeritus economics professor, in Madness in Madison.

The framework is vague, a “thicket of cliches,” writes Hansen. However, an Ad Hoc Diversity Planning Committee has formulated goals and recommendations based on “Inclusive Excellence” framework  adopted earlier by the Board of Regents.

The  “representational equity” section calls for “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades.”

What does that mean?

 Suppose there were a surge of interest in a high demand field such as computer science. Under the “equity” policy, it seems that some of those who want to study this field would be told that they’ll have to choose another major because computer science already has “enough” students from their “difference” group.

Especially shocking is the language about “equity” in the distribution of grades. Professors, instead of just awarding the grade that each student earns, would apparently have to adjust them so that academically weaker, “historically underrepresented racial/ethnic” students perform at the same level and receive the same grades as academically stronger students.

At the very least, this means even greater expenditures on special tutoring for weaker targeted minority students. It is also likely to trigger a new outbreak of grade inflation, as professors find out that they can avoid trouble over “inequitable” grade distributions by giving every student a high grade.

I’m sure “equity” in grades and majors is a goal, not a mandate. UW professors wouldn’t turn Asian-American males away from computer science majors and tell them to try sociology, Spanish or African-American Studies instead. They wouldn’t set different grading standards by race and ethnicity or give everyone A’s to erase an achievement gap.

Right?

If UW wants to help underprepared students succeed in demanding majors, there are real things the university could do. Work with high schools and community colleges to improve readiness. Rethink counseling and tutoring. Set up summer jobs in STEM fields.

Helping minority students earn good grades is a worthy goal, writes Ann Althouse, also a UW professor. “We want all our students to do well.” 

Career planning starts in 8th grade

Is 8th Grade Too Early to Pick a Career? asks the National Journal. In South Carolina, counselors help middle schoolers set career goals through the Personal Pathways to Success program.

(Patricia) Reid begins by meeting and talking with each student about her interests, hobbies, and academic preferences. Together, the two identify a career path that the student can focus on during high school—perhaps technology, engineering, veterinary science, or manufacturing.

Then Reid meets with the student and parents to develop an individual graduation plan, which allows students to take electives throughout high school to bolster particular interests. So, if a student expresses interest in becoming, say, a veterinarian, he could sign up for an agricultural science or animal-care classes in high school in addition to enrolling in required courses such as English, math, science, and history.

South Carolina saw textile jobs move overseas in the 1990s. Attracting new manufacturing jobs was hampered by a shortage of skilled workers.

The state has required schools to include career exploration in the curriculum since 2005. By eighth grade, students meet one-on-one with counselors, choose a career cluster and take a few career-related electives in high school.

Counselors are the key to success, a five-year study concluded.

“School counseling used to be focused on college, college, college,” says Natalie Stipanovic, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville, who has extensively studied the counseling portion of the South Carolina program. “With all of the kids who don’t go to college, what do we do? This program makes sure that every student is seen as important to talk to.”

Career discussions should be more than college or bust, says Anthony P. Carnevale, director and research professor of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. “If you want upward mobility in America for low-income kids, you have to get them to think about how they will use their education to make a living,” Carnevale says. “Right now, we act like there’s only one pathway.”

In southern California, San Bernardino Unified hopes to put every student on a career path by 2017.

Students in career pathways programs have higher graduation and college enrollment rates, research shows. “Programs in visual and performing arts, construction technology, finance, and digital design and communication are joining long-standing district pathways, such as the Educators for Tomorrow program, and others in public safety, green technology and business,” reports EdSource.

Feds won’t tolerate ‘zero tolerance’

“Zero tolerance” policies — adopted to ensure uniform punishments — are too harsh, says the Obama administration, which issued an advisory on school discipline.

“Ordinary troublemaking can sometimes provoke responses that are overly severe, including out of school suspensions, expulsions and even referral to law enforcement and then you end up with kids that end up in police precincts instead of the principal’s office,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Blacks, Latinos and students with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended or expelled than non-disabled whites, according to federal civil rights data. That’s fueled the campaign for more flexible school discipline.

The recommendations encourage schools to train teachers and staff in classroom management and conflict resolution, offer counseling to students, teach social and emotional skills and avoid using security or police officers to handle routine discipline issues.

Training school administrators to make common-sense decisions about school safety. . . Can it be done?

Under “disparate impact doublespeak,” schools must make punishments fit the percentages, writes Joshua Dunn, a University of Colorado political science professor, on Flypaper.

. . . schools still “violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies” that were adopted with no intent to discriminate “but nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race.”  Ordinary English users can be forgiven if they find themselves scratching their heads asking, “How could evenhanded and neutral policies actually be discriminatory?  Doesn’t discrimination require someone, you know, actually discriminating?”

. . . If we accept the guideline’s assumption that disruptive behavior should be evenly distributed across racial groups, Asian students are woefully underpunished.

Students who want to learn will be the losers, he predicts. Federal bureaucrats will be “winners since these guidelines give them another pretext to meddle in local schools.”

Building a ‘completion culture’

A community college honor society is trying to build a “culture of completion” on campuses where graduation rates are low.

An online tool helps students track their progress toward their goals at a California college with limited counseling staff.

If not suspension, then what?

California schools are reducing suspension rates, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News.

Pressed by law enforcement, civil-rights advocates and the realization that the way they disciplined students was failing, schools are keeping on campus more kids who talk back, throw tantrums or even threaten teachers.

Some educators say they’ve found better alternatives. Five years ago, Yerba Buena High in East San Jose lost 1,062 days to suspension. Last school year, that was down to 23 days. “Suspending students is not effective,” said Yerba Buena Principal Tom Huynh.

Instead of sending students home on a mini-vacation, YB requires detention. At a recent session, a counselor talked about her own rebellious childhood.

Oak Grove High, which serves high-poverty San Jose neighborhoods, uses detention, Saturday school or litter patrol, as well as referrals to a counselor, anger-management help or a substance abuse support group.

But some teachers say “taking away the option to suspend creates a disciplinary void and sticks them with rowdy or even dangerous kids in class,” writes Noguchi.

 “For an experienced teacher who knows how to deal with intense behavioral management — we get that,” said one Oakland Unified teacher who didn’t want to be identified for fear of reprisal. “But for a new teacher, it’s a disaster.”

Even worse, Oakland teachers allege, the pressure not to suspend has led schools to fudge their numbers by not documenting fights or even weapons violations, or the ensuing punishments.

Oakland Unified was forced to reduce suspensions as part of a settlement with the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Instead, the district promotes “restorative justice,” which “tries to get scofflaws to make amends, combatants to reconcile and students to come to terms with any harm they’ve done.” The district stresses conflict resolution and support for African-American boys.

“All of this is done to try to put a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. It leaves a lot of kids feeling unsafe,” one teacher said.

You can look at school suspension rates by district, courtesy of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, which is leading the anti-suspension crusade.

Violent sports teach manhood in Chicago

“Athletics help young men channel their aggression in acceptable ways,” develop “grit” and move toward success, writes guestblogger Collin Hitt on Jay Greene’s blog.

. . . some of  Chicago’s toughest high schools that are embracing a new sports program that often includes violent sports. It is called Becoming a Man – Sports Edition, which is teaching adolescent boys boxing, wrestling, martial arts, archery and other Olympic sports like handball.

Young athletes in the privately run program receiving coaching and counseling and meet to discuss family issues.

Students were randomly assigned to the sports program or a control group. Arrests for violent crimes were 44 percent lower for participants and grades were significantly higher, a University of Chicago study found. Researcher Sara Heller predicted higher grades would lead to higher graduation rates.

‘Restorative justice’ vs. suspension

Instead of suspending misbehaving students, schools are trying “restorative justice” programs, reports the New York Times. At Oakland’s Ralph Bunche High School, an alternative school for students who’ve been in trouble,  coordinator Eric Butler tries to teach students to defuse conflict, “come up with meaningful reparations for their wrongdoing” and develop empathy with others.

Even before her father’s arrest on a charge of shooting at a car, Mercedes was prone to anger. “When I get angry, I blank out,” she said. She listed some reasons on a white board — the names of friends and classmates who lost their lives to Oakland’s escalating violence. Among them was Kiante Campbell, a senior shot and killed during a downtown arts festival in February. His photocopied image was plastered around Mr. Butler’s room, along with white roses left from a restorative “grief circle.”

. . . “A lot of these young people don’t have adults to cry to,” said Be-Naiah Williams, an after-school coordinator at Bunche whose 21-year-old brother was gunned down two years ago in a nightclub. “So whatever emotion they feel, they go do.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office is investigating Oakland’s high suspension and expulsion rates. African-American boys make up 17 percent of the district’s enrollment but 42 percent of all suspensions. (It would be more useful to look at their percentage of male enrollment vs. male suspensions.) Many disciplinary actions were for “defiance,” such as cursing at a teacher, rather than violence, notes the Times.

Even advocates of restorative justice admit it doesn’t work for all students. Programs vary across the country. Some schools are reducing suspensions by putting students on “administrative leave,” reports the Times. ”
Restorative justice can mean formal mediation and reparation or more spontaneous discussions.

A recent circle at Bunche for Jeffrey, who was on the verge of expulsion for habitual vandalism, included an Oakland police officer, and the conversation turned to the probability that Jeffrey would wind up incarcerated or on the streets. The student had told Mr. Butler that he was being pressured to join a gang.

“Cat, you got five people right now invested in your well-being,” Mr. Butler told him. “This is a matter of life or death.” Jeffrey agreed to go to Mr. Butler’s classroom every day at third period to do his schoolwork.

Butler’s sister was murdered by her boyfriend, he told Bunche students. When the boyfriend’s mother knocked on his door to ask forgiveness, “The want for revenge in my stomach lifted.”

Sending disruptive, defiant and violent students to an alternative school that focuses on teaching them to get along with others and build self-control sounds like a good idea to me. I’m sure it helps their former teachers and classmates. I hope it helps them.

In New York City, schools are sending students to the emergency room for behavioral outbursts, charges public advocate Bill de Blasio, who’s suing the city for data on 911 calls.