NY Times: "For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall"

The NY Times had a front-page story about 3 girls from Galveston Texas. One went to community college, one to Texas State, one to Emory.

Joanne Jacobs's view here.

The Galveston friends had help getting on the college track when they were in high school. But they weren’t prepared

to advocate for themselves in college — especially the Emory student. She never went to the financial aid office to find out why she was getting a raw deal. She didn’t meet with academic advisors or tutors when she was doing poorly. It’s not so much that she lacked “grit.” She lacked chutzpah.

We've seen that sometimes among Match grads.

Dai Ellis's view here.

But (Emory) pours $94 million into financial aid and then won’t get off its ass to take a no-excuses approach to getting low-income kids to graduation? The vice provost for financial aid comes off as if he can’t even conceive of someone not understanding the byzantine policies or feeling confident enough to fight for themselves. The dean for academic advising saying ‘we reached out to her and she didn’t respond.’ Really?! You didn’t just go find her? She’s, um, enrolled at your school.

That's the flip side of Joanne's point. Who steps up? Kid or college?

Ed Glaeser, a Harvard economist, reacts here. He believes a change in incentives would lead universities to engage in more of the behavior that Dai seeks.

The Pell grants program should be made not smaller but smarter — so that it motivates colleges to help their students graduate. Pell payments to schools should be increased, and split between an up-front payment and a later conditional payment based upon a student’s college completion and employment success. If the maximum annual Pell grant is increased to, say, $7,000, the University of Phoenix could get $3,500 now, and $3,500 later, when the student has a degree and when Social Security records confirm that she has held a decent job for three months. After four years, the school will have $14,000 riding on the student’s employment.

We need schools to be passionate about their students’ long-run success. Stronger financial incentives should make schools more aggressive about ensuring that students don’t get lost in the system, and get summer internships. Incoming freshmen may not have the best information about what skills will lead to gainful employment. Schools with stronger incentives can nudge them toward majors more likely to lead to success. Students from poorer families are more likely to benefit from greater guidance and help from their colleges.

But does this put all the burden on the college, and not the student? No, explains Glaeser.

Schools will bear some risk, since the student bears the ultimate responsibility for subsequent employment, but schools are large enough to diversify away much of that risk, and the government can provide a little extra help when the entire job market goes sour. Schools will try to attract students who are likely to excel in life. But if schools compete harder for poorer students with good prospects, that is a good result.

Well said. Of course then he wins my heart here:

Regardless, some kind of experimentation is crucial if America is to remain a place of opportunity for struggling young students in Galveston and elsewhere.

Experimentation! Hmm, we don't know what works, so we should create hypotheses and test them under controlled conditions? Instead of our usual approach (mostly inertia, then occasionally trying several new things at the same time, making it hard to figure out if anything worked)?

Oh well. I'll give the last word to Joanne. She blogs that a new study argues college payoff is exaggerated.


I take the opposite approach. Doing unto college what "reform" has done to public schools will fail just as badly, helping a few poor kids and damaging the many. The blame game has failed. Get over it. Besides, college is just one of the more complex institutions that have become more complicated to navigate. But, "reform" mostly (except for a very few unscalable charters), does not allow schools to teach kids real life skills anymore. Now, teachers are prohibitted from discussing anything but "'instruction." If we want to prepare kids to have better futures we must admit two heresies, A, its the economy and B, we must help take the place of fathers who are no longer doing their jobs. But, again, while fathers along with everyone else and their dog, deserve blame, we've got to get away from the essense of reform, which is trying to use metrics to punish. Fathers left because they couldn't negotiate the post-industrial economy. (Many [most?] absent fathers are now blaming themselves also, but that does no good for the kids they didn't raise.) By the way, will the next "reform" be incentives for the criminal justice system to guide kids through it? Will we then demand that the shopping mall teach young customers to make better decisions? Of course, that all would be wonderful. But don't hold your breath. The real world won't submit to the theories that have been imposed on schools. http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2012/12/john_thompson.html

I'm highly skeptical of purely incentive-based solutions to complex problems like this, though it's not surprising than at an economist would first look to incentives as a policy mechanism. To a hammer, everything is a nail! Of course, incentive schemes can be really powerful, but they are hard to get right and oven have unintended/unforeseen consequences. For instance, if some part of the Pell grant were withheld, would this actually disincentivize colleges from admitting as many poor students as they currently do? It's also dangerous to treat complex organizations like individuals, who make rational decisions based on externally set incentives. The question should be what the local incentives are for the various individuals who might be in a place to influence the students who are the target of the policy. What are the incentives for faculty to emphasize teaching more (over research), and view themselves as more responsible for whether students actually learn? What are the incentives for financial office staff to follow up on forms that aren't turned in, or what policies and discretionary budgets need to be put in place to allow the to adjust awards when new information comes in? Often it's the internal organizational structures, accountability systems, culture and norms that drive the processes that either support or fail students, especially working class students in elite universities. I've been fortunate enough to have attended and worked in a variety of educational contexts. I grew up in an upward mobile immigrant family and attended public elementary school, private secondary school and elite higher ed institutions, as well as worked with low income and very high income students as an educator, etc. These experiences have imprinted in me the big influence that social class and social networks play in kids life outcomes. Unlike Dai, I am not at all surprised that the advisors at Emory did not track down the working class students because Emory, like most elite institutions, operates under a set of assumptions that come from being a upper class/upper middle class institution. They expect students and families to have chutzpah, to advocate from themselves, to feel entitled to support and to negotiate rules. Also upper middle class students and families sometimes bristle at high handed intervention. Working class kids, on the other hand, tend to grow up believing (and being taught) rules are rules... Viewing them as non-negotiable, they are less willing to contest them, ask for exceptions, etc. I think this is one thing No Excuses Schools might want to reflect on. To what extent does their strict enforcement of rules actually reinforce a certain view of rules (and individual agency) that later on disadvantages students in college? In other words, are students less likely to ask for extensions that they might deserve, advocate for themselves, etc, because they either don't feel entitled to so or internalize all the blame for the situation. I think in general, teaching kids to own their decisions and outcomes (and not make excuses) is important. Indeed, some of the sense of entitlement that affluent students exhibit is frustrating from a teachers' point of view (expecting too much hand holding, automatic extensions on assignments, high grades), but they do know how to "work the system" much better than working class kids. This is why I think preparing kids for success after K-12 is much more than about academics. The "curriculum" has to be much broader and more sophisticated to develop truly empowered students who both have the skills to do well in higher ed and who are empowered to advocate for themselves.

Stepping outside of policy (public or institutional) and trying to remember what life was like as a 18-22 year old ... Pre-Frosh Emory Student from Galveston (a 17 or 18 year old) I have tremendous empathy for. My gut reaction is that the university is responsible for onboarding her appropriately. We should not expect her to know better, since she's still basically a high school kid. If she's not checking email before stepping foot on campus - and that prevents her from getting financial aid - someone from Emory needs to hunt her down Dai-style. Rising Senior Emory Student (a 21 or 22 year old) I have some empathy for ... but she needs to be ready for the real world. Now she's an adult. Getting distracted by rocky relationships and college parties (and yes, the job) is understandable. But she needs to be employable in 10 months. And Emory isn't going to be there in 10 months (unless the Glaeser scenario creates an Office of Unintended Consequences, in which Emory keeps grads in shell jobs until they recoup the promised federal loans).

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