College isn’t just about social mobility

Poor kids are told college is the key to social mobility, writes Andrew Simmons in The Atlantic. What about learning?

One of his 12th-grade students, “Isabella,” wrote a college admissions essay about wanting to pursue a career in oceanography.

The essay’s core concerned the rhetoric that educators had used to motivate her and her peers—other minority students from low-income communities. . . . Since elementary school, teachers had rhapsodized about the opportunities that four years of higher education could unlock. Administrators had rattled off statistics about the gulf in earnings between college graduates and those with only high-school diplomas. She’d been told to think about her family, their hopes for her, what they hadn’t had and what she could have if she remained diligent. She’d been promised that good grades and a ticket to a good college would lead to a good job, one that would guarantee her financial independence and enable her to give back to those hard-working people who had placed their faith in her.

Thankfully, Isabella decried this characterization as shortsighted and simplistic.

Simmons teaches black and Latino students in Los Angeles. Educators repeatedly tell them “that intellectual curiosity plays second fiddle to financial security,” he writes.

His students care a great deal about money because their families have so little of it, he writes. They fantasize about well-paid careers, but don’t understand the work they’d do as a lawyer or doctor. “According to ACT’s College Choice Report from November 2013, 32 percent of students pick a college major that doesn’t really interest them,” lowering their odds of completing a degree.

College should be “sold” to all students as an opportunity to experience an intellectual awakening. . . . we need to proactively teach our most marginalized students that honing an intellectually curious frame of mind is as essential to leading an invigorating working life as ambition and work ethic.

How many  high school students have an intellectual passion (or interest) they want to pursue in college? Isabella will get scholarships to pursue her dream. (If she earns a PhD, the money’s good.) But the B and C students really do need to worry about qualifying for a decent job without going into debt.

Why I let my daughter get a “useless” college degree gives the upper-middle-class parent’s perspective. The daughter is majoring in American Studies “with a focus on the politics and culture of food at a small liberal arts school.”

My daughter majored in American Studies with a minor in Creative Writing, worked as a book publicist, earned a law degree and now works as a literary agent.

57% of students get federal aid

For the first time,  a majority of undergraduates — 57 percent — are receiving Pell Grants and other federal student aid. Forty-one percent are taking out student loans, also a record.

College learning provides social mobility for disadvantaged students.

Getting poor kids to good colleges — for $6 per student

Informing low-income, high-achieving students about college options and financial aid is a very cost-effective way to encourage more low-income students to attend top colleges, where they’re more likely to earn a degree, make valuable connections and move up the social and economic ladder. An information program cost $6 per student, financial aid assistance cost $100 per additional student enrolled and increasing Stafford loans costs $20,000 per additional student, estimates Brookings researchers.

Secrets of a Princeton marriage

Princeton women should look for a husband on campus, advised Susan Patton, a Princeton alum and mother (of two sons), in the student newspaper.

For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

The advice aroused and annoyed pundits), writes Walter Russell Meade on The American Interest. “For both women and men—even the over-achievers among them—happiness is about more than professional fulfillment,” he writes.

Too many elite collegians are marrying each other, writes Mead, citing a New York Times column by Ross Douthat.

Of course, Ivy League schools double as dating services,” wrote Douthat. It’s just considered gauche to say it in public.

That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!

We need a national baccalaureate to recognize students’ knowledge rather than their ability to impress an admissions officer at age 17, Meade argues.

Today’s blue meritocracy, the degenerate descendant of the upper middle class Progressives of the early 20th century, has a problem: it is formally committed to ideas like equality, social justice and an open society, but what it really wants to do is to protect its own power and privilege. The Ivy League system of elite colleges is a key element in the system of exclusion and privilege that helps perpetuate both the power of the American elite and its comforting delusion that because elite status is based on ‘merit’ it is therefore legitimate.

America “needs to become a more open society”  that can recognize the Princeton kid who’s “an empty polo shirt” and the hard-working Ohio State kid who’s “a serious person,” he concludes.

College’s ‘party pathway’ maintains inequality

Seeking the “college experience,” young women in “party dorms” — especially those from working-class families — are distracted from their academic goals by social pressures, according to Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality Elizabeth-A.-Armstrong, a University of Michigan sociology professor, and Laura T. Hamilton, of the University of California at Merced, followed 53 women for five years after they first moved into a dorm at a middle-tier public university.

Even ambitious students were tempted by the “party pathway,”  which included a Greek party scene and an array of easy majors, researchers found.

. . . Taylor and Emma had strong academic records entering college and both aspired to be dentists. At the end of the study, Taylor was in dental school while Emma was working as a dental assistant—a job that does not require a college degree. Their fates diverged when Emma made it into an elite sorority and Taylor opted into a more studious sorority—a move supported by her college-savvy parents. Without highly educated parents like Taylor’s, Emma needed academic and social supports not offered at this school to succeed.

“College did not act as a pathway to upward mobility for most,” Armstrong said.

“Party schools” cater to “the social and educational needs of affluent, full-freight students,” write Hamilton and Armstrong.  For students who can’t afford five or six years to earn a soft degree — or no degree at all — the “college experience” is too costly.

CCs offer shot at social mobility

Community colleges offer a shot at social mobility — sometimes the only shot — but need to improve the quality of education.

Low-income, high scores, no degree

Even when low-income students earn high test scores, they struggle to complete a college degree, reports the New York Times.  The story looks at three Galveston girls who spent weekends and summers in a college readiness program. One went to community college so she could stay near her boyfriend and her family. Another went to a distant Texas State University campus because the application form was the easiest. The third went to Emory, but didn’t get the financial aid she was due.

Four years later, the community college student has earned an associate degree, but didn’t transfer to go for a bachelor’s because she thought it was “selfish” to leave her family. She works as a beach-bar cashier and a spa receptionist.. The Texas State student is still working on a bachelor’s degree, owes $44,000 and will need graduate school to qualify for a job. The Emory student quit owing $61,000. She works for $8.50 an hour at her boyfriend’s family’s furniture store.

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.”

Fewer low-income students have the support of two parents, notes the Times. “Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools.” And college costs have risen sharply, even with financial aid.

“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.”

The Galveston three worked at low-wage jobs while in college, sometimes skipping — and then failing — classes to earn a little more money.

 Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution has found that low-income students finish college less often than affluent peers even when they outscore them on skills tests. Only 26 percent of eighth graders with below-average incomes but above-average scores go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, compared with 30 percent of students with subpar performances but more money.

The Galveston friends had help getting on the college track when they were in high school. But they weren’t prepared to advocate for themselves in college — especially the Emory student. She never went to the financial aid office to find out why she was getting a raw deal. She didn’t meet with academic advisors or tutors when she was doing poorly. It’s not so much that she lacked “grit.” She lacked chutzpah.

The best bang-for-the-buck colleges

The University of California at San Diego tops Washington Monthly‘s list of the top colleges for social mobility (enrolling and graduating low-income students at an affordable price), research and service. Next in line are Texas A&M, Stanford, University of North Carolina and Berkeley.

Only one of U.S. News‘ top ten schools, Stanford, makes the Washington Monthy’s top ten. Yale fails even to crack the top 40. New York University, which has floated to national prominence on a sea of student debt, is 77th. NYU does particularly poorly on the new “bang for the buck” measure.
Thirteen of the top 20 Washington Monthly universities are public, while all the top-ranked U.S. News colleges are “private institutions that spend more, charge more, and cater almost exclusively to the rich and upper-upper middle class.”
Also in the Washington Monthly, Stephen Burd calls for Getting Rid of the College Loan Repo Man who fails to distinguish between deadbeats and people who just can’t pay.

Can schools raise social mobility?

Can schools spur social mobility? asks Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

No way, says Charles Murray, who visited Fordham to promote his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray sees a growing division between well-educated elites, who marry college classmates, and a semi-educated class who are less likely to marry at all.


New York Times columnist David Brooks worries about “the opportunity gap.” College-educated parents spend more time with their children — “reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines” — than working-class parents. Affluent kids are more active in sports, theater, yearbook, scouting, etc. They’re more likely to go to church and to volunteer. It all adds up.

What to do? asks Petrilli

Our argument, as it goes, is that we’ve never really tried. Because of low expectations, mediocre teachers, a lack of options, ill-designed curricula—name your poison—poor kids have never had a chance to see their talents flourish. Put them into the right educational environment, surround them with supportive adults, and (if you’re of the broader/bolder persuasion) provide them with all kinds of social supports too, and we’ll see our elite college campuses—gateways to the new Upper Class—democratize before our eyes.

But academic ability isn’t evenly distributed. Whether by nature or nurture, successful parents are raising successful children.

“We’ve gotten really, really good” at identifying talented children from low-income and working-class communities and providing scholarships to good colleges, Murray says. Petrilli thinks online learning could provide more access, but there are limits to how many diamonds will be found in the rough.

 The second strategy is to be more realistic about the kind of social mobility we hope to spur. Getting a big chunk of America’s poor kids into the New Elite in one generation might be a fool’s errand—our meritocracy has put them at too great a disadvantage. But getting them into working -class or middle-class jobs isn’t so impossible. Here’s a question for the KIPPs and YES Preps of the world: Would you be happy if, ten years from now, your middle schoolers were working as cops, firefighters, teachers, plumbers, electricians, and nurses? This would be a huge accomplishment, it seems to me, as most poor kids will go on to work in low-paid service jobs a decade hence.

Rewarding people based on “real merit” — skills and performance — rather than credentials — SATs and degrees — would mean less social equality, writes Mickey Kaus. “Web-schooled winners” who rise without a university degree are likely to be smart people who have smart children who do well in school and out. “The social centrifuge separating the meritorious from the less meritorious won’t have stopped spinning. In some ways it will be spinning faster, with greater precision. Sorry.”

 

Alfie Kohn’s message: Half-crazy, half-true

Alfie Kohn’s arguments are “half-crazy and half-true,” argues Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

Like most demagogues, Kohn knows how to tap into his audience’s raw emotions—anger, feelings of powerlessness, and resentment of a ruling elite. In his case, he puts voice to what many educators already believe: That school reform is a corporate plot to turn young people into docile employees; that an obsession with standardized testing is crowding out any real intellectual engagement in our schools; and that teachers have no say over what happens inside their own classrooms.

Kohn is right about “mindless, soul-killing” schools, writes Petrilli, who concedes test-based accountability has narrowed the curriculum at many inner-city schools. But Kohn is wrong in calling for Dewey-style progressivism, Petrilli writes.

What Kohn refuses to wrestle with is the argument—made by Core Knowledge creator E.D. Hirsch Jr., among others—that progressive education might work well for children of the affluent but tends to be disastrous for children of the poor.

Democratic decision-making, self-directed studies, internal motivation, and the like are wonderful aspirations. But when it comes to lifting children out of poverty, heavy doses of basic skills, rich content, and clear expectations have been proven time and again to be more effective.

The modern school reform movement is is fueled by “outrage at the nation’s lack of social mobility,” Petrilli writes. “Backing away from accountability, teacher effectiveness, and academic ‘rigor’ would likely create an even bleaker future for children growing up in poverty—children for whom school matters most.”