Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Fear, Blame, and Financial Aid

Some stories have deeper roots than others.

This story is about a change to Federal financial aid policy that’s taking effect July 1.  At that point, no new students can receive financial aid -- or from what I’ve been told, could even pay their own way if the college itself is financial aid eligible -- to attend college if they don’t already have a high school diploma or a GED.  (Dual or concurrent enrollment programs are exempted.)  That means that the “ability to benefit” test will no longer work; students who show up without either a diploma or a GED have to go get one.  (Students previously admitted under ATB will be allowed to finish.)

At the same time, as an outgrowth of No Child Left Behind and the various state-based “accountability” movements, 28 states have instituted high-stakes, must-pass standardized tests that students have to pass to graduate high school and receive a diploma.  Depending on the state, students who finish the twelfth grade but don’t pass the test fall into a sort of limbo.  They’ve run out of high school, but they don’t get diplomas or GEDs.  

I don’t think the new policy was written with this cohort in mind, but it’s not a trivial-sized group. Yes, theoretically they could get GEDs, and maybe, eventually, a few will, but it’s one more hurdle, and a uniquely dispiriting one.  

Worse, Adult Basic Education programs are often oversubscribed already.  Adding a whole new client base without adding new funding -- call me cynical, but I’m not holding my breath here -- is just asking for trouble.

The punish-the-dropouts movement is colliding with the test-’em-all movement to create a cohort of students who stuck out high school until the end, only to leave without diplomas and without eligibility for a second chance in community college.  Add an underfunded ABE network and you’ve created a real problem.

Underlying the collision, I think, is a tension between a drive to punish and a need to offer second chances.  

American culture gets scarily enthusiastic about punishment.  We lead the industrialized world in incarceration rates, and still apparently feel so scared of dark people that we’re willing to look the other way when a gun nut chases down an unarmed black teenager carrying nothing but iced tea and skittles and shoots him in the chest.  We’re scared enough of women being sexual that we pass laws mandating stillbirths to be carried to term because, well, that’ll teach ‘em to have sex.  And we’re scared enough of failure that we want to believe that people who fail are somehow at fault themselves, and that failure will go away if they do.  

But that’s not how things work.

If half of the students in a given high school don’t graduate -- some drop out, others run out the clock but never pass the test -- who do you punish?  Punishing the students, which is what the new policy will do, has the undesirable effect of essentially punishing the poor for being poor.  It also leads to a loss of hope, which can lead to some awful places.  

Punishing the teachers doesn’t solve issues of student transience, unstable home lives, or suboptimal peer groups, and it virtually guarantees that good teachers will avoid those districts in the future.  Punishing principals doesn’t seem to help, judging by the “meh” effects that the charter school movement has had nationally.  

No.  We’re not going to get through this by punishing our way out.  Okay, some school districts struggle more than others; the statistics are easily available, and we all know the major variables involved.  Are we content with that, or can we find ways to help people climb out?  (Knowing that one could climb out -- even if the option is never taken -- has value.  Nothing is more dangerous than fatalism.)  Yes, eventually it would be lovely if every school did a great job the first time, nobody ever needed remediation, everyone was college-ready, and the economy was begging for new employees at all skill levels.  That would be nifty; sign me up.  But in the absence of that option, we have choices to make.

By all means, let’s work on improving the high schools.  But we have students graduating now for whom even the best improvements will come too late.  What to do about them?

Where fear and hope collide, let’s choose the second chance over the punishment.  Let’s not write off entire classes of students when they turn 18, if they even make it that far.  We need to get past the destructive and self-defeating drive to punish people who have already lost, and instead get serious about bringing the outsiders back in.  This should be an easy place to start.  Let them in.  And then let’s get serious about facing those fears.

This is something where the decision should be data driven, based on success rates of each cohort. I'd guess that the odds a student will benefit are low, but don't know of any analysis of this at my CC.

I come from a state that has had an exit test for a full HS diploma from a public HS for many years. You identify two of the alternatives (dropping out and earning a GED or sticking around and getting merely proof that you attended HS), but not the third. You can get a full diploma by transferring to a private HS and graduating there, where no exit exam is required. I don't know the rules for home school graduation, which is a fourth option.

Each type of HS degree is indicated on their transcript if they are FTIC so it could be studied if anyone wanted to.

In my state, there isn't much difference between those with a GED and those with the lowest possible graduation score on the exit exam. Both usually (but not always) need to do some or a lot of prep classes. Those who only completed HS but couldn't pass those easy tests are always in prep classes, but there don't seem to be very many of them based on my experience. We run a GED program at the CC, so I suspect most go through that rather than directly into college.
I forgot to mention that the phrase "college-bound high school dropouts" in the IHE article sounded like a line from "Grease".
If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. CC's are the hammer, but they may not (in present form) be the right tool for the challenge, which is underprepared students who, even when they enroll, rarely graduate or get a technical certificate. Students without a HS diploma or GED are the extreme version of that challenge. There might be ways to alter this dynamic that make more sense: better funding for Adult Basic Education strikes me as a more viable one than allowing students w/o diplomas to take out large loans that they won't be able to pay back. And, I agree with CCPhysicist that the graduation exams, in most states, are pretty easy to pass. DD, if you could point to statistics indicating that the CC experience actually moves non-HS grads along to some reasonable extent, you should share them with your readers; otherwise, I fear that the desire to admit these students and give them financial aid is driven by the reality that we haven't figured out what to do for these students (at the HS and ES level, more than in CC).
I am not familiar enough with the problems of "ability to benefit" changes to be able to offer suggestions to help. But I'm an adjunct teaching developmental level classes, so I can speak to hope. And I am a person who has not always been successful in whatever I tried to do, so I can speak to failure.

As DD said, take away a person's hope and you have no reason for the person to do anything but live in the present. He/She has no chance of a future which he/she might want when he/she is older and more mature. Many of my students are in my classes because they have matured and now are working toward a better economic future. They had hope that someday they could go back to school and get a degree or certificate. And they are. Sometimes hope is the only thing which keeps one going.

This is a democracy. These HS students are citizens. This country has a tradition of educating its citizens. By cutting off second chances at education/training, the country's leaders and other citizens are not continuing that tradition.

Telling a whole cohort of citizens they messed up and so will be punished by not having second chances is not what a country which aspires to democracy does, in my opinion.

I agree with DD. There is a tendency in this country to punish people who mess up in some way which does not meet someone's ideal of "proper" behavior or worthiness. The attitude toward someone messing up seems to be: students should pass their HS tests and if they don't, they are punished and women should not have contraception because they should only have sex when they intend to get pregnant, and pregnancy resulting from sex without that intent is their punishment.

Shame on lawmakers for making pregnancy a punishment.

Shame on lawmakers for making poor living and learning conditions punishment.

And shame on lawmakers for prying into the private lives of other lawmakers to find instances of moral or personal failures with which to punish them publicly.

And finally, shame on citizens who are not branded as failures for letting any lawmaker get away with such meanness toward other citizens.
The Great Conservative Lie is that you can do something to keep them from coming for you eventually.
Great post and some good comments. All I can think of is that if this emphasis on not making mistakes continues, it will only harm formal education in the long run. Once people see education as a bunch of hoops to jump through, instead of actually enlightening activities, everyone loses. Not to mention the fact that as employers start figuring out that education credentials don't actually signal too much, it's game over for higher ed.
1) the punishment culture explanation rings kind of true, and that is depressing as all get out
2) do we need microloans for GED test fees? Could we just subvert the private loan market with a non-profit system here? It'd be annoying to make everyone jump through the GED hoop, but it seems to me that these are small sums of money serving as huge barriers.

Also, ick on states that have standardized tests for high school AND convoluted rules that will prevent those students from taking the GED right away (most states seem to have higher barriers to the GED for students who aren't already 18 or 19 years old).
You've gone a bit over the top today, so I will as well. This change is not about punishment or blame, it's about wise allocation of scarce educational resources. To suggest otherwise is demagoguery.

How much education spending is enough? We are now spending roughly $200,000 to send each student from K to 12. More in some districts, less in others, but in CT the highest spending per student is already in the inner cities of Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport? Why isn't $200,000 a sufficient claim on the public's responsibility to educate its citizens? I think it is.

We gave these students a "second chance" when we promoted them from grade to grade, even though they hadn't satisfactorily developed the skills to keep going. We gave many of them several "second chances." We did them no favors with social promotion, but we avoided confrontation. It was the easy path. What evidence can you provide that yet one more "second chance" has made any difference to these students in the past? What were the outcomes for the college-bound high school dropouts? Show me the numbers.

The money barrel is already empty. Which students do you want to disenfranchise to make room for your second-chancers? Why is that more fair?

Rather than spend still more money on education, which is already overfunded, we should be focused on growing the economy, to create more job opportunities for citizens of all educational backgrounds. That is one idea that gets lip service from all parties (who but an ardent environmentalist could be opposed?), but nearly all government action is going the opposite direction.
This policy change, and you in your statements, assume that everyone who drops out of high school lacks the skills to succeed in college. This just isn't the case. I went to a crappy high school. Despite having the academic skills to succeed (I scored 1430/1600 on the SAT), I made so-so grades and eventually dropped out. I found high school unbearable.

I attended community college for the next three years and earned an A.A. degree. Since then, I've been working full-time and attending school off and on. I'll graduate with a B.S. degree later this year with a 4.0 GPA. I'm planning to attend grad school.

My brother dropped out of the same high school. He's brilliant, but we don't reward that around here. He attended community college for a semester or two before moving out of state. He'll graduate from a good regional university with his B.A. next year. When I visited him last, I met one of his English professors and she told me that he's one of the most well-read people she's ever met.

Sure, most of the students who fail to graduate high school are lacking the academic skills they need to do well in college, but so are many of the students who do graduate. The Ability To Benefit test is supposed to assist the students who do have the skills, but fell through the cracks. The ATB exists with good reason; we should keep it.

If you want to grow the economy, spend more on education, not less. Education spending is an investment in the workforce. The government should also stimulate the economy in other ways(e.g. with infrastructure spending), but cutting one to pay for the other with the objective of boosting the economy makes no sense. We need more educated workers, especially in engineering, technology, and health care. There are probably ways we could be more efficient in our spending (such as the new unit restrictions on financial aid), but turning away good students is bad policy.
OK -- the story on this in Community Collge Spotlight sheds some light on the success rate for ATB students: same as other students (which unfortunately, is not that great but there seems to be no reason to single out ATB students for withdrawal of financial aid). Those ATB students do, however, default on their loans at higher rates than HS grad and GED students do.
Anonymous at 8:56- it might be sane to modulate loan terms for ATB students (a lower cap on the amount they can take out prior to successful completion of X classes, or even charging them a higher rate), but preventing them from getting a pell grant (or worse, attending at all) seems totally unfounded.
Becca, I'm not suggesting that aid be withheld; just commenting on the ways that ATB students do and do not resemble other students in terms of outcomes.
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