Doing What’s Easy: Comments on “Who Gets to Graduate?”

May 18, 2014 | Blog, News

I hope the nation reads and attends to Paul Tough’s new article in the New York Times magazine because it draws attention to the enormous income disparities in college completion rates. That attainment gap is one piece of critical evidence that today postsecondary education drives as much inequality as it ameliorates.

I appreciate how Tough takes several common explanations for the graduation gap and deftly knocks them down. For example, he shows the reader that differences in k-12 preparation and achievement matter, yet even after accounting for income differences in these factors, the income gap in college completion persists.  Moreover, he shows us that income gaps are not simply due to the greater representation of students from low-income families attending community colleges rather than four-year schools. These gaps persist even within public flagship institutions like the University of Texas-Austin, and even at elite places like Stanford and Harvard.

But unfortunately, when it comes to the search for solutions, Tough continues down a pathway initiated in his recent book “How Children Succeed,” in which he elevates explanations offered by several rising stars who happen to be psychologists of education.  The unfortunate outcome of the focus on the research of these individuals is that  policymakers and practitioners are being given further reason to view achievement gaps as the cognitive problems of individuals rather than the result of failures in the structures of our schools and societal policies.  In particular, Tough has latched on to psychologists from Angela Duckworth to Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, to most recently David Yaeger; people whose work has been done mainly in the laboratory, only occasionally in the field, and whose results remained widely questioned in the scholarly communities– partly because they cannot account for the often shocking magnitude of their impacts.  The newness of their work isn’t really the problem though; the issue lies in the way that Tough and his colleagues in the media are elevating it in a grossly premature way that has the (perhaps) unintended consequence of giving policymakers and practitioners an excuse to continue to ignore the massively unequal situations into which low-income students are being placed in college.  Instead, they can use this research to simply blame students for having the wrong mindsets to succeed, or being unable to figure out how to “belong”– essentializing the problem to one residing inside students’ minds.

For example, notice how Tough washes away the economic problems of low-income students with one sweeping generalization towards the start of his article, when he writes, “If you want to help low-income students succeed, it’s not enough to deal with their academic and financial obstacles.”  He does this without providing any evidence whatsoever that income gaps in college completion rates exist after financial obstacles are entirely eliminated.  The truth is, financial obstacles for students from low-income families have never been eliminated in the United States in virtually any setting large enough to draw conclusions from.  Even when college has been “free” in places like California and the City University of New York, students have been left with as much as 60% of the total cost to cover, since they must also find the resources to live and the supplies necessary to attend class.  Moreover, even students with “100% of financial need met” by their elite institutions often have untold costs concealed because the “need” calculation (a federal formula) is truncated at zero. This means that  a student from a family earning $25,000 a year is treated the same as one earning $2,000 a year– in the sense that in both cases the family is not expected to contribute to college– yet obviously but their disparate opportunity costs are also incorrectly treated as the same.  The truth is that one or both students from those families likely needs a direct payment, in addition to having the costs of attendance covered, in order to actually be able to be exempt from their family’s economic management system for the duration of their college careers, if they are to be successful. But the current system denies them that payment, if they’ve earned it, for example by accruing multiple academic scholarships.  Instead of asking what the real financial need is of students today, we have decided what we are willing to give them, and calculated their “need” accordingly.

What Tough never says, as he elides the financial barriers in an effort to move on and into students’ minds, is that at the University of Texas-Austin low-income students from families earning less than $30,000 a year are left with almost $9,000 a year in unmet financial need that they must cover each year in order to remain in school.  That fact likely weighs very heavily on their minds indeed.

But nevermind, right? Instead of facing up to those very real financial obstacles faced by students from poor families, let’s instead distract ourselves and the students by lamenting their ability to cope with our current harsh, discriminatory system.  Rather than make college affordable, let’s instead intervene to help students acquire a “yes I can mindset” for at least a few years, so that they will graduate while blithely racking up debt.  Hmm.  Maybe that sounds humane, but it is also notably out-of-step with a critical mission of higher education– to develop critical thinking skills, which include learning to diagnose and remedy structural wrongs, rather than to simply uncritically accept a mind-change somehow advocated that you learn and fall into line.

We must not and cannot forget whom these mind-changing interventions are aimed at: the brown, black, and working-class in this country who are trying to get the education they deserve and we more advantage folks often take for granted. What are we really saying to them when we claim that the solutions to their college graduation problems lie in teaching them to think like the majority, and to accept that they belong in discriminatory settings, rather than learning to critique and change them? There is real risk to these unproven strategies, which Tough and his friends seem to entirely neglect, in a rush to instead show the world that there are cheap and easy solutions we can satisfice ourselves with right now.  How very 21st century American, and how very, very depressing.

Note:  Paul Tough graciously agreed to speak with me about his article, and I found the conversation illuminating. To be clear, I like the story he told, and found the description of Vanessa and the work of the University of Texas administrators compelling.  What I’m saying in this blog is that the all-too-common American policymaker response to articles like these is to continue to confront complex problems with cheap and easy solutions. Based on 15 years of experience interacting with them, I know that many college administrators and policymakers will read Tough’s piece and say, “Instead of actually having to make college affordable, we can do a short psychological intervention with students like Vanessa and get our graduation rates up.”  And that’s not at all what Tough is trying to say, and it’s not what David Yaeger or his colleagues believe.  In fact, Vanessa (the star of the article) did not receive Yaeger’s intervention.  She was in the UT program described, which unfortunately because it’s in its infancy does not yet have efficacy information to report.  We do not know what would happen if instead UT fully met Vanessa’s financial needs– would her chances of success rise further? Far too often higher education scholars, practitioners, and policymakers write off financial problems as too expensive to solve, or non-existent because of the availability of financial aid. That’s the key issue I’m concerned with, it’s the underlying backdrop to the ways in which income inequality is perpetuated in higher education today, and it needs to be brought to the forefront of all thoughtful discussions about who crosses the college finish line.


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