College Culture Shock

I'm a big fan of YES Prep in Houston. This video shows their seniors "College Signing" day. The event is modeled a bit on how coveted high school athletes declare their college intentions.

The YES founder, Chris Barbic, is featured in the video. He moved his family this year to Tennessee, taking a job running the state's turnaround schools. Chris may have moved on, but YES is humming along. I just a read a blog post by a teacher there, Fernando Reyes, on Robert Pondiscio's site. Fernando writes:

Equally important, however, is preparing them for the culture shock that many collegiate environments will be for them, particularly the further away they get from the city of Houston.

A couple of quick anecdotes will suffice: only 6 of my 125 students have seen any Star Wars movie. Only one had seen The Godfather. The concept of ‘philosophy’ is completely foreign to them. Even the game of baseball is a mystery to most them.

These are not dumb students. Most of them are hard working, quick-witted and sharp. They are held to more rigorous standards that I and many of my fellow Yale alumni were held during high school. However, the gaps in certain cultural knowledge is extreme.

This matters. Knowledge of baseball, the Godfather and Star Wars may seem trivial, but they are symptoms of a much larger conundrum: the inability to gather the tokens of a privileged culture they will have to enter in college and in larger American life.

Read the whole thing, including comments that follow.

Our alumni director, Bob, has been visiting our recent grads, now in college. From one of his reports:

X likes Z college, but that there were an “awful lot of white people here.” We discussed his minority experience on campus. Without having (MATCH Alum 1) and (MATCH Alum 2) on campus (X has dinner with them every day and they live in the same dorm), I think X might feel more isolated. But since he does have those two close connections, I don’t think he feels isolated. He did reveal that it is hard to meet people and that there was one group that he “could spend more time with” but doesn’t. He gets along with his roommates J and K, but he smiled when he reported it....because he is amazed that three different people get along so well.

But the larger context was that the kid seems okay in this area. At the end of the day, Bob and the student agreed that the biggest pressing need was to prepare more for his science classes. They discussed a plan to do just that.

A fairly new line of inquiry among No Excuses charter schools is that while state test score gains are big, there are many grads who don't seem to thrive in college. What are the causes and solutions?

One idea, of course, is to combat the social isolation of college that kids from fairly low-income backgrounds tend to feel. "Do I belong?"

I tend to be a zero sum guy, which can be an annoying quality. But I wonder. If you have limited time and money to help an alum who is now in college, is it best to attempt to help him with social needs, or financial needs, or academic needs? All matter. What matters most?

I had a lovely trip to KIPP Lynn last week. They described their alumni support (which, to date, has mostly been for middle school alums who have gone to various high schools). As they described various social challenges, the other folks from the trenches -- counselors for alumni from other nearby charter schools -- nodded vigorously. Everyone agreed this was a key need.

But when I asked what to do with very limited money to support alums in college, the counselor switched gears to financial: with limited resources, her instinct was "Give money to students to buy books and things." Hmm.

Josh mentioned that KIPP New York City has some 800 alums, and 15 full-time staff supporting them. While we and the other local charters can't come even close to that level of resource, we do need to try to learn from them. What's worked, what hasn't.

My own sense of things -- and it's far from empirical -- is that our graduates who start college but do not finish rarely have high college GPAs. I.e., few stories of "I was working hard on my studies, a B+ student, but I ran out of money." Or "I was consistently in the library, took advantage of tutoring, and was pulling good grades....but I felt like I didn't belong."

A common response is to contend that social isolation and financial pressure cause the low college grades. Now surely there is some truth to that. But are those the chief causes? Not studying 3 hours a day seems like the chief cause.

In fact, if you wanted to be contrarian, you'd argue that social isolation creates (implicitly) opportunities for more studying. Certainly we're all familiar with social "non-isolation" -- lots of friends, lots of hanging out, lots of partying -- that leads to less studying.

There are various ways one could test these ideas. For example, let's say you surveyed college students who are from low-income families. Four weeks into the school year, you asked them to rate

a. How hard they're studying b. How comfortable/connected they feel socially

What do you think best predicts college success? I.e., which you bet on to finish college?

a. Someone with so-so study habits, but who feels very comfortable socially in college? b. Someone with so-so sense of belonging, but who works very hard on studies?

My guess is "b." But it's just a guess. I'm not sure yet what data exists in this domain.

I'm so pleased we have Bob doing this college success work with our alums, and with such an open mind. There are many (often strongly held) beliefs about what it takes to "flip" a kid who is enrolled in college but struggling. But there is seemingly a lot to learn.