Bo Knows College

My friend Bo is a professor in Amsterdam. Back in the day, he taught at Taft High School in the Bronx. He writes:

Given the massive costs of kids dropping out without degrees, or taking way way way too long to finish, why can’t we find ways to re-create versions of high-dosage tutoring in higher education—at least for the truly disadvantaged who make it there?

For obvious reasons, I offer loads of this to my PhD students, a bit of it to my thesis writing MA students (although often in small groups), and virtually none to my countless BA students.

The average kid from a high poverty neighborhood/poorly educated family who makes it to Univ of Amsterdam gets very close to ZERO tutoring. (This was only true in the past until they got to the a BA thesis stage but, alas, BA theses no longer exist because — you guessed it — the one on one tutoring was “too expensive”).

We hold out this goal of ‘getting into college’ on both sides of the Atlantic. You found the ultimate way to make it happen for disadvantaged kids, based largely on new versions of this ancient situation. Then, they arrive, and at least on my side of the pond, we forget everything you taught us. They get a bit of mentoring (at best icing on the cake, at worst stigmatizing because framed in terms of them being ‘ethnic minorities’ even though they are native born in most cases) but they get almost none of what should be the foundation.

Big picture:

1. Colleges have become way more expensive over many years.

2. Most of this expense is not adding professors (high level teachers) or tutors/academic help (lower-level teachers, if you will). Instead, huge growth in number of administrators and nice gyms.

3. Now cost pressure is beginning to hit universities from online providers. This will only accelerate.

One day question will be do you want your econ degree from Assumption College or from Stanford Online at a third of the price? And like with online dating, once people get used to the idea of online education, the skepticism will decline.

4. Brick and mortar colleges that don't have top brands -- Tier 2, 3, 4, 5 schools -- will need to create a new value proposition to get students to buy their product.

High dosage tutoring for college students may be one of those things.

Last week Robert Pondiscio and I were chatting about the nature of college help.

Very specifically, I think colleges typically offer many types of academic support, but miss a biggie. Typically they offer:

a. Essay writing help.

b. Problem-solving help for courses that have problem sets -- math, sci, econ, engineering, etc.

c. Research help. Navigating the web, libraries, etc.

d. "Knowledge clarification" help. Don't understand a key idea? Office hours.

What isn't offered? Reading help.

Specifically, reading with dense non-fiction. You can get someone to sit next to you for an hour and just grind through calculus problems with you. But typically nobody thinks to get equivalent help to grind through "Intro To Archaeology" textbook.

Remember, for a typical college student, that sort of reading is challenging -- lots of new ideas and terms -- but manageable.

Even for a gritty student, but who has a lower vocabulary, that type of reading is really tough. I.e., if you run into one new word in a sentence, you can figure it out. If you run into 3 new words, you can't. If you run into an occasional new word, you can look it up. If several, and you look them up, it slows down the process so much you lose the main idea of the passage.

I'm surprised that colleges offer many types of academic help, but not the type that is probably most needed by struggling students: dense non-fiction reading help that is sort of equivalent in "feel" to math and science help that colleges do offer.

Entrepreneurs out there: maybe there's a market for you. I don't know what the marginal profit is for a college on each student they retain. Maybe none. I.e., soph flunks out? No prob, don't expend resources, cuz you can replace with another frosh, and hold total capacity constant.

But if there's a financial interest for colleges in getting more students to ultimately graduate, or at least a political interest because of Arne Duncan push for more transparency on completion data, then an opt-in high-dosage non-fiction reading tutoring program might be something they'd pay for....particularly if they can add it to a tuition bill.