Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Access and Limits

Aspazia, characteristically, has a thought-provoking post about applied ethics. This time it's about some partial scholarships that her husband's college has extended to some economically challenged students. In essence, the scholarships are enough to make the college seem affordable, but the students still have to work outside of class a significant number of hours to make ends meet. The time suck of those jobs cuts into their study time, and therefore their academic performance. Aspazia asks whether the college is doing these students any favors. As she puts it:

One could argue that the ethical good here is getting these women a college degree, regardless of their G.P.A. or level of mastery of the material (hat tip to SteveG on this). On the other hand, the college is admitting students that they know full well will be unable to really excel or just do average work because they will have to work so many hours to pay for their education. So, they are paying thousands of dollars to the institution and barely passing their classes. I should add that the college is wholly committed to its mission to educate women from impoverished backgrounds and stresses diversity. 45% of their student population is diverse (a statistic that my LAC wishes it could accomplish).

Given that this (and many) institutions simply do not have enough money to give these women full rides, they stick to their mission by giving these partial scholarships that force them to work. Is this really living the commitment to their mission?

I don't usually just hijack discussions wholesale, but since she name-checked me (and lesboprof), I'll take a shot.

My first thought is that whatever else it signifies, a college degree should indicate a meaningful level of academic success – and therefore ability – in a given field. So I reject the “regardless of their GPA or mastery of the material” standard on the grounds that it defeats higher education's reason to exist. If we declare that students without money don't really need to know what they're doing, I'm at a loss to explain just what, exactly, our degrees are supposed to signify at all. And I certainly don't want my medical care in the hands of doctors and nurses who were given degrees regardless of whether they knew what they were doing.

(I'll also admit being jumpy at a line like “45% of their student population is diverse.” So the rest is monolithic? The percentage, I assume, reflects counting individual heads. But diversity, by definition, cannot be a trait of an individual. It's a trait of a group. Either the group is diverse or it isn't; it can't be 45 percent diverse. (I once heard a student declare “I'm diverse!” Uh, no, you're not. You're one person.) I know what she means, but I bristle at the phrasing.)

All of that said, I think the heart of her question – and it's a good one – is what a commitment to access and diversity actually entails, especially in the face of limited resources.

If low-income students are given access to classes, but can only afford to stay in those classes by taking on outside work obligations far beyond what other students have to take, are they being set up to fail?

Ever the administrator, I'll answer with “yes, but.” There are things we can control, and things we can't.

Once, in trying to explain my politics to someone who kept trying to make me into a hippie, I stumbled on the phrase “law and order liberal.” What I meant by that was that I believe that laws should be both fair (the 'liberal') and enforced (the 'law and order'). So don't pass a drinking age of 21 to get alcohol out of high schools, while turning a selectively blind eye to college students. Set the age at 18, and enforce it. Don't set speed limits 10-15 mph below what you actually enforce; set what you mean, and enforce what you set. If you aren't willing to enforce a law, repeal it.

I know that's not always achievable, but it strikes me as a pretty good goal.

For colleges, I'd say pick a level of subsidy you can sustain, and do it right. Instead of bringing in, say, two hundred students, and supporting them almost-but-not-quite-enough, bring in one hundred and do right by them. (Six hours of work-study a week? Okay. Thirty hours of Wal-Mart a week? Not okay.) And in 'doing right,' accept that some will still fail. Some people are drama-prone, and will find ways to find fault with whatever level of help they're given. At some point, you need to be able to say, with a clear conscience, there. This much is what we're willing to do; the rest is up to you. What that level would be in any given setting will vary, and that's fine. (If it were up to me, for example, we'd have some kind of evening child care available for students with jobs and families, and we'd have much better public transportation.) But there's a difference between getting the background conditions to a relatively even level and guaranteeing perfect results. To my mind, if a student has been given a genuinely fair shot and still crapped out, that's on the student.

As a manager of people, I've noticed that the weather is always worse at some people's houses than others', even when it isn't. Some people manage to run into awful traffic every single day, even while their colleagues who take the same routes somehow get to work on time. And some people are just perpetually crabby, no matter how many of their grievances get addressed. You can't control how other people feel, or how they choose to live their lives. You need to decide what institutional conditions need to be addressed so that people with reasonable drive and life skills will have a genuine shot at success, and call it good. There will always be some who will condemn your efforts as inadequate, based on their own life drama, and some will even call you horrible names and question your personal integrity in the process. That's just a cost of doing business. Go for substantial – rather than total – fairness, and you may achieve it. Go for perfection, and I can guarantee heartbreak and failure.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

First off: DD, I heart your "law and order liberal" position. I think you and I might disagree to a certain extent about what counts as "fair", but I'm all about the idea that laws should either be consistently enforced or repealed. (The War on Drugs is Exhibit A on what happens when laws are neither fair nor consistently applied, IMO.)

OK, back to the topic. Aspazia's post makes it clear that these students are very poor, not the struggling-lower-middle-class kid who can make it with a half-price scholarship. So, these are students who really need to not be paying major bucks to cover their tuition and books.

I'm curious to know more. Did the school sit down with these students and give them some idea of how many hours/week college takes? Did they partner with other agencies to provide additional need-based assistance, in the form of scholarships or loans?

Also, how much $ are the students expected to come up with on their own? If it's $2-3K a year, that's not 30 hours a week; that's 10 hours a week at minimum wage. I did that in college; they can too. If it's more like $10K, these students would be better served at another school, or by a scholarship/loan package.

(OK, they may need to be making living expenses too, but if they have to work full time to support themselves, they're going to have problems studying for a full course load even with a free ride on tuition.)
As someone who turned down a full scholarship to take a partial one at a university I liked better, and then worked 16 hours a week, more or less throughout college, to make it work, I'm all for the partial scholarships.

People want the chance to go to college, to a *good* college, and some of them are willing to work really, really hard to make that happen. To tell them it's not worth it or that they can't possibly succeed is to prejudge them and deny them an opportunity they're willing to sacrifice so much for. Give them their shot.

Probably they'll fail at a higher rate, but they won't thank you for denying them the chance even to try.

You're right that degrees shouldn't be handed out as charity, but a partial scholarship *isn't* a degree. They still have to take and pass the classes. I'm wouldn't say they should be held to a different standard -- their papers should be graded the same way as everyone else's. And if they do well, it will mean all the more because they had to overcome more obstacles to do it. And that they most likely cared about college more than the people whose parents pressure them into going and then pick up the tab.

If somebody's willing to put themselves through the grind of 30 hours at Walmart a week plus fifteen credit hours a semester, all for the sake of an education, why would we deny them that education?

Sucked me into another discussion... ;-)

You're right. This is also consistent with some of the things that Florida State is doing right. Education is inherently more intensive than serving someone a meal. I wish that there were a way to "scale up" the socialization process Mike Rose has written about many times, but that's very hard to do.
I am all for partial scholarships. I received several partial scholarships that covered my undergrad expenses. These scholarships ranged from general academic, to experiences prior to college to department specific.

In addition, if I only had received a single partial scholarship, I could have qualified for financial aid due to the income and assets of my parents and myself.
I can't help but wonder why the decision of the student is portrayed as a fault of the school.

It seems to me that the school made an offer to a student. That student, knowing their life situation, chose to accept that offer, and everything that goes with that. That is the student's decision.

Perhaps the student could use "better" counsel. Specifically, ensuring they understand the workloads required for school, and the potential workloads required to pay for school, Only the first half of that should be on the school's shoulders.

There are a wide range of educational opportunities available today. Some include great opportunities for outstanding students in unfortunate situations to attend top-notch schools. Others, such as community colleges, provide access to those who can succeed, but perhaps are not able to get those full rides. Finally, there are many state 4yr school opportunities that are very low cost even without grants and loans. should we work to make every type of opportunity available to every type of student in every life situation? (I think not--and yes, I realize that is my opinion.)

Let's not focus on whether the school is somehow "doing the students wrong" by not giving them enough money. Let's instead focus on helping the students make informed decisions, and then doing our jobs as educators after that.
I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that no one here has actually come from a disadvantaged, urban background or works with significant numbers of the urban poor. I'm going to offer up my perspective as a white woman who grew up in a poor area of Detroit and who attends a university that ostensibly serves the urban poor of Detroit.

It is unethical to give these students partial scholarships that require them to work numbers of hours incompatible with successful study habits. These students are not just trying to make succeed in individual courses but are trying to break out of poverty into the middle class. Those of you who think that they can "choose" the hours of work they need to support themselves need a severe reality check.

Attending university carries with it certain class-based assumptions that a person who is from a background of concentrated poverty will have to learn. Chances are she has not attended schools that are on par with the other students who come from even lower middle class backgrounds. They may not know how to study effectively. They will not know how to navigate a completely foreign and baffling social system and, thus, won't be aware of the help available.

Furthermore, they will not have much support outside of school as well. They know full well that their only ticket out of poverty is through education. However, that doesn't provide housing or food or transportation or childcare or books *now*. The housing they will have will tend to be overcrowded and substandard (have you looked at the housing stock available to the poor?). They will not have computers to do coursework on and will have to find childcare and transportation to the university to use their facilities.

Attending college carries significant opportunity costs for the poor at a time when support - both financial and social - is hard to come by. Helping these students succeed is a social good we can not and should not shrug our shoulders over and just assume these students aren't trying. They are. They are already working twice as hard as a student from a middle class background, yet, they are realizing inferior results. If due to grades or discouragement, they leave their program early, they can look forward to significant student debt from student loans they also took out to support themselves.

Working to pay for school when one comes from a middle class background is a lot different than working to survive AND "change one's stars" as the urban poor students Apazia speaks of must do. I am a little shocked that so many here don't seem to realize that. That said, I agree with Dean Dad's assessment that we need to be "law and order liberals" on this issue. All students should meet the same standards but we owe it to society and these students to provide the support necessary to succeed.
Sorry, Bibkit and Sherman Dorn. I see you "get it" but I was kind of frothing-at-the-mouth annoyed at some of the other comments.
Right on, Miranda!
I'll add to that: I'm a little surprised that no one made a distinction between "scholarship" and "financial aid." Presumably the students are getting scholarships based on their academic potential. I think that students need a "good package" of scholarship, work-study, grants, and maybe loans to make this happen (I am an advocate of only very modest loans). Maybe all of this comes from my perspective in a state where students refuse to submit FAFSAs and my institution refuses to make them to be awarded scholarships, even as we let tens of thousands of federal dollars go to waste.

I also think that a wise advising session should be mandatory. If I were queen of the universe, students would only work on campus, and never--or almost never--off campus. Okay, if I were queen of the Universe, college would be free.
My Ivy did it one better: not only did my ultra poor friend have to work, and do so many hours of community service, she had to meet a descendant of the person who endowed her scholarship. Icing on the cake, she had to get all her work/community service hours in during the school year; summer didn't count.

This always struck me as unfair.
Here's an interesting way to think about it -- how would one set up a student to fail? Simply denying access isn't enough; the purpose would be to convince them them to waste years of productive life, not get a degree of any value, exhaust themselves physically, psychically, and morally -- and come out with nontrivial student loan debt.

I submit that the optimal scheme would look a lot like the scheme described in Aspazia's post.

Thinking about it that way clarified a lot for me.
How about scholarships that require a student to maintain a 3.5 and better. Suck them in and then, bang, a couple of B's and they are back to financial aid. I hate them
The Professor: I can't help but wonder why the decision of the student is portrayed as a fault of the school.

It seems to me that the school made an offer to a student. That student, knowing their life situation, chose to accept that offer, and everything that goes with that. That is the student's decision...Specifically, ensuring that they understand the workloads required for school, and the potential workloads required to pay for school, Only the first half of that should be on the school's shoulders

The Professor's comment seems to discount the implications of the "offering" made to such students, but I do agree with his/her subsequent statement that such students could use better counsel.

However, in my experience this is where schools possibly get it completely and utterly wrong! If in fact, a school is mis-representing, or lacks an understanding of what such students can reasonably accomplish with the resources the school can provide (financially and administratively), I believe they are indeed doing that student a disservice. Dean Dad has touched on this when describing previous experiences at Proprietary U, some of which is at the core of recent scandals surrounding such institutions: aggresive recruitment of students who have no realistic chance of successfully completing those programs given the gap between the inherent demands of the programs, their remedial needs and the school's ability to address those needs.

A recent academic experience has also shown me that such "misrepresentation" is not limited to proprietary schools or disadvantaged students. It is also alive and well at elite private colleges and directed at students who are presumably "qualified" to be there. What would be the motivation? Again the aggresive desire to get butts in the seats. If they were truly honest about the demands and requirements of the program, no way would they get the enrollment they want. Unfortunately, students figure this out way too late in the game, and I am sure many drop out, but only after the school has gotten a sizeable chunk of money out of them. Perhaps similar motivations exist at the school Aspazia is writing about. They are vested in being able to say they fulfill a certain mission with scrutiny focused more on their front-end recruitment efforts, rather than the back-end reality, that is, how many of those students are actually successfully finishing up.

I believe Miranda really hit it on the nose about the peripheral support structure students in general need, but which students coming out impoverished backgrounds may lack, to whatever extent. Financial support is only one leg on that stool, albeit a pretty signficant one. I know of a student who came from a reasonably "stable" background, but who crashed and burned on a full academic scholarship to one of the most prestigious and expensive universities in the country, because of a lack of sufficient social supports.

I know one of the reasons contributing to my own academic success, particularly as a minority on several predominantly white campuses, has a lot to do with the fact that my parents had attended college and were able to provide the necessary support and tools enabling me to navigate my way in that setting.

(bibkit froths at the mouth along with Miranda! :-) )
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