Thursday, July 08, 2010



This piece, and its attendant comments, stuck in my craw a little. It’s a discussion with an author of a book about the obstacles to low-income students’ success in college.

The author obviously means well, and wants to see students succeed. And there isn’t much arguing with much of what he mentions: complicated family lives, shaky academic preparation, and finances all pose real obstacles. Yup, they do. In the cc world, we see that every day. And I absolutely agree with him that community colleges have a key role to play, especially when the K-12 system in some areas just isn’t getting the job done.

All of that said, though, sometimes I wonder if we’re asking higher ed to do too much.

It’s great when we’re able to help students become truly competitive for the good jobs out there. But when the economy just isn’t producing those jobs in sufficient number, getting even more students prepared is of limited short-term value.

Of course, economic mobility isn’t the only ‘good’ that education serves. I like to think that, say, a literate and numerate electorate will generally make better choices; a literate and numerate population will make for better jury pools; and that the very real expansion of mental horizons that good education can foster is a good in itself, in addition to whatever eventual economic payoff it may generate.

But to the extent that ‘income polarization’ is the problem and ‘higher education’ is the solution, I suspect we’re outgunned.

To see that, we don’t have to go much farther than higher education itself. For a putatively liberal population, we have a markedly inegalitarian reward structure. That’s true within institutions -- compare the salary per course of senior tenured faculty to the pay adjuncts receive for the same courses -- and between them; the salary scale at the typical cc is far below that of a state university, even with higher teaching loads. (One of my recurring fantasies has Gail Mellow achieving high political office and actually enacting the per-student funding parity between sectors of higher ed that she has advocated for years.)

Outside of higher ed, the trend is actually somewhat less pronounced, but it’s still there. Routes into the middle class from below are fewer and slipperier than they once were. More education can help with that to some degree, but at some level, if the demand for employees just isn’t there, it just isn’t there.

Put differently, student loans don’t seem so burdensome when you have a well-paying job upon graduation. When the job isn’t there, the loans suddenly loom large, but they’re really more a symptom than a cause. The lack of the job is the cause.

This is probably obvious at some level, but political discourse sometimes skips important steps. I’d hate to see higher education punished for the sins of the broader economy. Assuming that Achieving the Dream and the Gates-funded projects bear fruit, and colleges do a better job of helping struggling students brush up their skills and complete degree programs, I wouldn’t necessarily expect the jobs to follow. Over time, I’d guess that an educated workforce would be more productive than an uneducated one, but there could be a delay long enough to obscure the connection. And in the meantime, those student loan payments don’t win many friends.

I don't know; I thought the comments were generally supportive of your point. They note, correctly, that an unmotivated and underprepared 18-year-old with limited time and resources is, basically, screwed beyond a college's ability to fix.

What we should do about that as a society is another matter, of course. But I don't think "more college!" is the answer.
You could always advocate for Bush's solution: if you don't want to be poor, get married.

Probably beyond the scope of the CC as well...but not the fed. gov't.

On a more serious note, there have been several programs attempting to get very low income students into college or tech training. Sadly, they have not been terribly successful. I actually think that changing the situation in high school is a better solution...but not so easy to do.
It's actually fairly easy to do -- add 30% to the high schools' budgets or cancel Senior Year and distribute the savings. High School is either college prep (in which case senior year is useless) or it's life prep (in which case most of HS is useless).

Anyways, this feels like another manifestation of the collapsing economic social contract and the desperate invokation of the "education" shibboleth. Conservatives assured us that what they really wanted to do was hurt the uneducated, so all you had to do was go to college enough, and you'd be safe. You didn't have to outrun the bear, just the slow guy next to you. But that was never true; conservatives had the entire middle class in their sights, classic divide and conquer. So now commentators are amazed to discover that the world they thought they were building for themselves, using the blood of their unfortunate "unworthy" brethren as mortar, is perfectly happy to be built with any blood. Any blood at all.
There are jobs out there and the competition is daunting. Having a degree is not the be-all, end-all to getting a job. There are the requisite character and personality qualities that make the difference. Things like initiative, reliability, responsibility, and so forth.

Oh yeah, people need those to get through college successfully too.

Perhaps we should focus on teaching students how to synthesize learning, manage time, and set priorities early on in K12 grades and then more students will be successful in college, on the job, and just life in general.
I detect a minor bait-and-switch in Dean Dad's post. The InsideHigherEd article/book review speaks to Berg's research on obstacles to success in college (admissions, study habits, etc.). Success after college is not necessarily the focus of Berg's work. Indeed, what one does after college depends on one's "pluck" less than her/his credential. But job skills and post-college wealth were traditionally, and should still be, immaterial to whether one attends and succeeds in college. The point of college is to learn new things and ways to think. The point is to become a better "critical thinker" than you were at the start. The fact that colleges, whether CCs or otherwise, also offer job training is not essential to what their main thrust should be. It's in relation to that main thrust that Berg's research matters.
Despite mention of data in the article, both the article and the comments were remarkably short of data. For example, that for-profits enroll a larger fraction of low income students is not surprising. Does the author have data showing that low-income students taking that path show a larger income gain than those attending non-profits? That is what is relevant to the cost-benefit analysis suggested by the topic of the book.

There are some relevant data on mobility, because I saw a great story about it in the NY Times many moons ago, complete with a graphical tool to explore various variables. One thing I remember quite well is that the data showed a modest amount of mobility between income quintiles. It seemed fairly easy to move up (or down) one quintile, but very difficult to move from the bottom all the way to the top. Those data alone would argue that the premise of this book (that education can completely level the playing field) is false.

Of course, those are all retrospective analyses. Contrary to DD, I'd argue that merely staying in the middle class is a slippery slope today due to the extreme asymmetry in pay within a given company.

BTW, the commenter on the main article at IHE who blamed use of adjuncts in college for the lack of basic reading skills coming out of K-12 is just one of several who missed the boat.

I'd also add that about half of the pre-college classes taught at my CC are taught by full-time tenured faculty who specialize in those courses. Does anyone here work at a CC that has a wildly different ft/pt ratio for pre-college and college-level writing classes?
This kind of post - putting the higher education in a broader socio-economic context - is one of my favourite aspects of your blog, Dean Dad. Keep up the good work!

The social capital building (getting connections!) is another invaluable aspect of college. My family was in the middle class by income but not by educational attainment. The chance to mix with, work with and study with people "higher up the ladder" was valuable.

On a policy level, the goals in the UK, USA and Canada of simply putting more people through post-secondary education is one that needs to be thought through a bit more. Funnelling 35-50% of the population through college/university has potentially good civic effects (there's been very good research in Canada that university degree holders vote more than non-degree holders), but this mass education movement may have some downsides too.
It was hard for me to get past this:
"Economically disadvantaged students face challenges with needing to learn how to read and write at the college level. Many of the students I interviewed for my book commented on their basic challenge in understanding and using college textbooks."

Expecting college students to be able to use college textbooks is apparently classist and unfair?
Dr. Sparky: It is, if their school districts were prevented from teaching that skill to them by a classist K-12 system.
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