Wednesday, February 12, 2014

 

Longshots



In grad school, I had a beater of a car that I didn’t drive much.  I would routinely go several days without driving it, since I could walk to most of the places I needed to go.  A roommate’s girlfriend once asked me why I bothered keeping it at all.  I told her that just knowing it was there kept me from feeling trapped.  I didn’t have to drive it every day, but I knew that I could.  Sometimes, that was enough.

I thought again of that conversation in reading this exchange about targeting financial aid. Should financial aid be directed only at the students most likely to succeed?

The idea makes sense if your priority is “efficiency.”  Taken in the aggregate, some students are likelier to graduate smoothly than others.  If the goal is to get the cost-per-degree as low as possible, then directing financial aid only to the students with the fewest strikes against them makes sense.  

But that’s the wrong goal.  And that’s why I get twitchy when discussions of higher education reduce it to an assembly line for stamping hands.  

Open-door public colleges exist to give people options.  Some people will take maximum advantage of those options in quick and obvious ways.  Some will take longer.  Some will take left turns.  Some will take other paths.  It’s possible to use data to predict, in the aggregate, which groups will tend to graduate at higher rates than others.  (I had to grimace when I read a few days ago that SAT scores now correlate so tightly with family income that they’ve become useless as independent variables.  That should not be.)  But anyone who has spent time in a community college or similar place knows multiple stories of students who succeeded beyond what their demographics would have predicted.  We live for that.

Discovering buried treasure is rewarding, but it’s “inefficient” in the short term.  Some students take a little while to find their grooves.  Some follow blind alleys.  Any system that serves large numbers of students like that will require a certain amount of tolerance for risk.  At their best, community colleges create environments in which students whom the data would consider longshots can surprise everybody.  

If we continue to squeeze resources to the point that risk tolerance goes away, then so will the openness to longshots.  And I don’t think we’ve thought through what that means.

On a systemic level, higher education cannot, by itself, be the country’s entire jobs policy.  But for people who start in modest circumstances, college remains the best bet available.  “Remains” is the key word in that sentence.  Unionized, well-paid blue collar jobs are much scarcer than they used to be, and many of those that still exist survive only with “tiered” contracts in which new workers get permanently lower pay than people hired years ago.  Startups are great, but they’ll never be for everybody.  Middle-class salaried positions are hard to capture without some sort of degree.  (They can be hard even with a degree, for that matter.)  Deciding to take a chance on an inexpensive public college can be the best available option.

Take that option away, whether explicitly or just through continued austerity, and what do we expect people in modest circumstances to do?

Hope matters.  Tangible, legible, accessible opportunity -- even if it’s difficult -- offers a reason for hope.  It suggests a reward for trying.  The absence of opportunity can lead to an absence of hope.  And that doesn’t lead anywhere good at all.

Yes, providing second chances will always be a little bit messy.  It will cost some money and time, and not every longshot will come in.  But the function of opportunity goes beyond whether everybody succeeds.  Just having the option matters.  That’s part of what’s missing from the conversation.  The presence of second chances brings hope.  Remove that hope, and the loss will be far greater than some leak in a pipeline.  Direct aid only to those who fit the traditional mold, and you’re telling everyone else that they’re locked out.  Take away the car, and the walking that used to feel virtuous suddenly feels like punishment.  

Efficiency is fine, if we know what we’re actually trying to do.  What we’re trying to do is so much more than just enabling grocery runs.  Let’s not focus so narrowly that we forget that.

Comments:
I only had time yesterday to read the argument by the Brookings Institution, and it infuriated me. I understand "betting on a winner," but that argument is based entirely on an outdated idea of what "access" means and who goes to college. Limiting Pell grant support only to students who take AP courses, meet ACT benchmarks, or who take a college prep curriculum, then we are agreeing only to support students who have been the lucky few at their high schools. It does nothing for students who were not given access to those courses at their school for various reasons, adult learners, people who, as DD says, take some time to find their path.

I was pretty outraged at the very idea, and think it comes from a particularly Randian view of the world--something to which I greatly object.
 
How can people learning and developing critical thinking skills not be a success, even if they have to take remedial classes?

Don't we want the populace to be capable of listening to and participating in complex arguments? Don't we want them to be informed enough to ask meaningful questions? Or do we want them to swallow what they are told and be satisfied by overly simplistic anecdotes and explanations.

I failed Algebra II in high school back in the late 80's. I started teaching my self in my early thirties. It took that long to overcome the belief that I was just too damned stupid to get it. I already knew the question, "What do I need it for?" was bogus. All around me was evidence of its usefulness.

I needed to learn math so I could pursue other interests in a deep way. I needed to learn it so I could explain why the politician that I heard on the radio lambasting the Clinton administration for claiming that there were "rates of rates" was lying or ignorant. I needed it so one day I might help someone else with it. So I could think about complex problems and not succumb so easily to those that would abuse my wallet and my vote.

It took longer than I wanted. There were some breaks. Still I recently received my B.S. in Applied Mathematics. Thank you for contributing to the taxes that helped me pay for that first class, Introduction to Algebra.
 
"LIKE" the last comment above.

I could tell the article by Isabel Sawhill was bogus from the first sentence. The "cost" of college has actually decreased where I live, so she must be talking about "private college" or ignorant of the difference between the price (tuition) and the cost of college (perhaps, again, with "private" in mind). The actual cost of educating a student has gone down at my CC and some regional state universities where I have seen the data. Tuition has gone up because state appropriations have gone down even faster over the past 5 years as Congress keeps us in the backwash of a depression.

And, of course, she uses IPEDS data and her own wild guesses at the "likely" reason a student drops out, ignoring the minor detail that the first one she mentions (combining job and school) is made necessary by deliberate disinvestment in education over the last few decades.
 
She obviously meant the white kids. The other types don't go to schools that offer AP courses. Crap like that don't deserve to be dealt with politely.
 
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