Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Broadcasting and Narrowcasting

Like many colleges, mine is wrestling with a twofold issue: how to improve student success rates generally, and especially how to improve the success rates of students from underrepresented groups (typically defined by race and income, though “first-generation” status would also count).. While the two issues obviously overlap, they aren’t interchangeable.

Some programs are designed with specific populations in mind. Many grant-funded programs, for example, will identify as serving only ALANA students, say, or only women over 25. These programs typically bundle a set of services -- academic advisement, personal counseling, group social activities -- for a given subset of the student population, with the goal of improving the outcomes for that subset. (Demographically-specific programs tend to be clustered in the “student affairs” side of the house; the academic offerings are open to whomever is qualifed.)

Other interventions affect students as a whole. Changes in course scheduling, for example, affect the entire student population. Parking is a great equalizer, too. (Generally speaking, colleges get to choose between declining enrollments and a parking shortage.)

Given limited resources, possible interventions compete with each other for funding and attention. The dilemma goes something like this:

Generalized interventions tend to affect everyone a little bit, but they don’t close achievement gaps. Narrowly targeted interventions make large differences on a small scale; they help close gaps, but they don’t do much for the overall completion number.

I’m trying to find a happy medium by looking at interventions that affect everyone in a positive way, but that disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged. For example, while it’s true that developmental math is open to anyone who needs it -- and most of our students do -- it’s also true that underrepresented groups are disproportionately concentrated in developmental courses. So improving the outcomes in developmental math, while not demographically specific, will redound especially to the benefit of the least advantaged. (For those keeping score at home, this is pretty much John Rawls’ “difference principle” in action. Rawls argues that differential treatment is okay only as long as the benefits accrue most to those who have the least.) The key here is that the gap-closing benefit is a side effect of a larger benefit. If we do a better job with developmental math, then everyone in it will benefit; if that “everyone” happens to be more low-income than the student body as a whole, then so be it.

It’s a tricky position to get funded in grants, since the demographic payoff is indirect. Grants are much easier to get when the target is defined narrowly and specifically. It’s also a difficult sell internally to the folks who identify most strongly with underrepresented groups. But it strikes me as a reasonable response to a difficult circumstance, since it elides some of the trickier elements of demographic specificity (“you don’t look...”) and it sticks to the basics academically. Math is math, and it’s quite independent of the person trying to solve it.

I’m looking for more effective or accessible ways to make the case for this kind of intervention. Is there a sexier way to explain the difference principle?