The longer I work in a college environment the more convinced I become that it just widens the privilege and economic gap. And if it doesn’t widen it, it solidifies it.
Education is supposed to be a way out of a troubled or economically challenged past. It’s supposed to be the key to advancement. And yes, for some that is true. There are some who come from nothing, and through education, triumph over their circumstances and go on to do phenomenal things. And colleges and universities everywhere are trying so hard to reach out to first gen students to help them navigate the hidden curriculums of higher ed and get them to where they need to be so that they can keep up with their peers who were raised in privileged homes where college was expected and they were given every tool and every gift they could have desired to make sure they got them where they were successful. Many schools are legitimately trying. But the truth is, the successful students in college are the ones who showed up successful. The students who do well are the ones who have always done well. For the most part a student who starts with an A ends with an A, and a student who struggles in the beginning will struggle throughout. Now, obviously, this is a generalization. There are plenty of students who struggle in the beginning, but then through hard work and determination get it together and by the end are successful. But all too many show up to college either unready, unprepared, incurious, or overwhelmed, and that doesn’t change.
The college dropout rate in America indicates that this stratification between privileged students and those with more challenges is self-perpetuating in a number of ways. According to Melanie Hanson of the Education Data Initiative,
In the United States, the overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is 40%.
- 30% of the dropout rate comes from college freshmen dropping out before their sophomore year. Nearly 1/3 of freshmen drop about before their sophomore year.
- In 4-year colleges, 56% of students drop out within 6 years.
- Black students had the highest college dropout rate at 54%.
- 38% of college dropouts – the largest majority – said they left due to financial pressure.
Students under the age of 19 are the least likely to drop out of college, followed by those 30 or older. Students between the age of 20 and 29 are the most likely to drop out at either a 4 or 2-year institution.
- Asian students were the least likely to drop out at either two- or four-year colleges.
- 10% of Asian students dropped out at four-year institutions.
- 35% of Asian students dropped out at two-year colleges.
- 36% of American Indians/Alaska natives were more likely to drop out after two years at four-year colleges.
- 23% of first-time full-time Native American students graduated within 4 years.
- Between 2000 and 2017 the number of Native Americans who had attained at least a 2 or 4-year degree had declined from 30% to 27%.
- 45.91% of black students complete their degree at four-year public colleges within 6 years.
- Nearly 66% of black undergrad students are women and 33% are men.
- Black male students pursuing a 4-year degree were the most likely to drop out.
Dropping out of college can mean signing up for $25,000 less per year in income than those who graduate. It can mean a higher chance of becoming unemployed and fewer opportunities for jobs. Dropping out can not only decrease that potential but leave some students in an even worse position than before they enrolled.
- The labor force participation rate for college graduates possessing an associate’s degree is: 69.6% vs. 57.7% for high school graduates in 2017.
- Adults who attended some college, but didn’t graduate, earn about $1 less per hour, on average, than those who earned an 2-year degree, and about $5 less per hour, on average, than those earning a 4-year degree.
- College dropouts earn, on average, $21,000 less per year than their college graduate counterparts.
The reasons for dropping out of college vary widely. It’s true that many former students find other economic opportunities. Some students may feel it’s not worth it to complete college. For others, it may be due to failing physical or mental health.
- Some students may be unprepared for the challenges of college studies (academic or structure).
- Another group may have enrolled in college only to meet the expectations of others (family, spouse, teachers, etc.).
- Some students leave after doing a cost-benefit analysis of the level of debt required for completion vs. job prospects upon graduation.
- As many as 25% of students who take standardized tests for college readiness end up being directed to remedial college courses.
- Remedial college courses can become a bottleneck for students as they do not count for credits, delay graduation, and increase tuition costs – fewer than 25% of college students taking remedial coursework go on to declare a major and graduate.
Among the most prominent issues that could cause a student to drop out of college are financial conflicts or money. Both high tuition costs and the difficulties of paying bills while studying are critical factors. Concerns about affordability for higher education keeps many potential high school graduates from even applying.
- The cost of college tuition has continuously increased, skyrocketing by 1375% since 1978.
- Tuition rates are climbing far faster than the cost of living.
- For most students, even part-time college is out of reach without financial aid.
College graduation also affects unemployment rates. The socioeconomic consequences for those who drop out of college are significant. Education has a direct effect on equity. College dropouts or those with no education tend to stay in low-income brackets, place more of a demand on government and social services, and struggle in the labor market to advance.
- In 2017, graduates possessing a bachelor’s degree had unemployment rates around 2.5%.
- Graduates with a two-year or associate’s degree had a 3.2% unemployment rate.
- 12.7% of students with only a high school diploma are more likely to be in poverty.
- Graduates possessing a bachelor’s degree or higher typically see poverty rates close to 4.8 %
- Students who are “first generation” students and the first in their families to go to college fare poorly as well.
- As many as 89% of these students do not receive a degree or credential.
- The likelihood of a student re-enrolling in college after they have dropped out is low, with only 30% returning to finish a degree.
We can see how these issues are cyclical. Lack of college education leads to less money, which means no college for your kids, and so generational wealth becomes impossible.
So getting to college is one battle; staying in college is another battle. And succeeding in college is a whole different battle. The cards are stacked against kids from less affluent backgrounds in myriad ways. It should be that if they can make it to college then they can depend on their own wherewithal to propel them into success. But it’s not that easy.
College just perpetuates these societal rifts. Because the students who excel from the beginning, tend to, not always, but tend to come from middle-class to affluent white homes. And the students who struggle tend to be first generation, low SES, or students of color who did not have all of the advantages of their well-off white counterparts. Schools try to combat this with any number of programs. Schools like Princeton and MIT even make school basically free for students who prove themselves meritorious but come from households that make less than $60,000 a year. How can they afford that, one might ask? Well, the truth is, not too many kids from low-income households can prove themselves meritorious enough to make it into Princeton. That takes the kinds of advantages that only money can buy.
I give my students an opportunity to re-do one of their major assignments for full credit. And I always bang my head against the wall when students who got As redo it to try for a higher A (that’s just more grading for me) and students who failed don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Is anybody learning anything, here? Is anyone making progress? I’m basically trying to hand out points and the opportunity to improve, and so often it just blows up in my face. The students who don’t need it try to be better and better and the students that do don’t see any point in doing the extra work, don’t do the extra work. How can you get past that? What is there to do about that? If there is an attitude that failure is immanent on one hand, and success at its highest peak on the other, and it’s always the same people on either side, how am I supposed to make progress? How am I supposed to bridge the divide?
The problem is that by the time they get to me, these attitudes and issues are baked in. College just re-affirms problems that 13 years of education prior to college have driven in over and over. I can talk for hours about systemic problems in class, and give every opportunity to make progress, and make as many notes on papers and have as many office meetings as I possibly can, but if a student comes to my class unprepared, unready, incurious, and overwhelmed there is little I can do. Because this is a problem beyond my abilities to remedy.
This is a problem that started years ago in a crumbling school with no amenities. Or in a crowded classroom with a teacher that had no resources. This is a problem that started with ridiculous educational mandates that over tested students and had teachers teaching test-taking skills instead of actual thinking skills because their jobs depended on test scores, so kids got to college never having had an original thought. This is a problem that started with school districts that allowed schools in neighborhoods populated by People of Color to languish and suffer while white schools flourished and prospered. This is a problem that started when schools put an outsized focus on athletics and let academics slide, and now students are suffering because they can’t skate by on their physical prowess anymore.
In short, this is a systemic problem. It starts the moment a child begins school. It starts the moment a child begins to be socialized toward a particular future. Will a child be encouraged by their teachers and their peers to be curious, diligent, and studious? Or will they be socialized to be indifferent to learning, and to do the minimum to succeed? I can’t combat 13 years of training in the latter. And let’s be clear, this isn’t always a racialized problem. Students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds can be beaten down by 13 years of bad schooling. You don’t have to have a particular skin tone to have come from a bad school, or to be unprepared and incurious.
Look, college doesn’t start the work of stratification. It just continues the work that has already been going on for these kids’ lifetimes. So if we want college to be a place of equity – we have to start at the root. We’ve got to blow the whole system up.
This is what it MEANS to say classicism, racism and sexism are systemic. They are baked into the system. College can’t fix these problems because by the time students get to college, they are just the reality of life. College is just the next step. If we want to fix these problems, we’ve to look at how they are part of the structures of our major institutions. And be ready to dismantle that.
If we want college to be an equalizer, we have to seriously address the school to prison pipeline.
If we want college to be an equalizer, we have to re-think how we fund schools so that there aren’t wildly wealthy schools with unlimited resources on one side of town and crumbling schools that don’t even have adequate textbooks just a few miles away on the other side of town.
If we want college to be an equalizer, we have to address BOTH the tendency to discourage girls from pursuing math and science, AND the lack of music and arts funding in our schools.
In short, college can’t be an equalizer when the playing field is so wildly unequal from the beginning. That’s just asking too much of four years. And four years that are well entrenched in just as many institutional and systemic problems as the 13 that came before, I might add.
These problems start early. And they are just magnified in college. The well-heeled and those who have had lots of opportunities get into the elite schools, which leads to opportunities that you simply don’t get at middle-of-the-road schools. Which continues their trajectory as well-heeled and having access to lots of opportunity. So the rifts are solidified with acceptance letters your senior year in high school.
Then if you are in a less-than elite school and are deemed unready for college you might be pushed into remedial classes. On the one hand, you need the help. If you’re not ready for college classes, they will eat you up and swallow you whole. Any number of people who are supposedly “ready” for college find their freshman year overwhelming. But if you’re not ready, you get pushed into classes that are supposed to get you ready, but statistically weed out those who lack the privileges that many of their peers have. Because you have to pay for those remedial classes, even though they don’t count toward your degree plan. They’re just hours on your transcript. And more and more colleges are starting to cap the number of hours you can take before it costs more, so those remedial classes are just occupying space that a minor or an elective could have been. They cost money, but the benefit is often marginal. Most students who end up in remedial classes do not finish college, for either academic or financial reasons, so these classes, while a good idea on paper, actually just serve to thin the herd.
And these are the students that need the most help. These are the students that come to college because it is supposed to improve their lives.
College isn’t inherently magic. But it can be. It can be an amazing time of self-discovery and growth. It can be the years where you discover Nietzsche and get all dark and existential for a while. It can be the time when you read Ayn Rand because everyone else is and you realize that all those people who are falling in love with her are awful. You can discover your favorite indy band or hip-hop artist and become a disciple of the underground music scene. You can get politically active or learn to love the arts. You can make your best friends that will be your buddies for life. You can discover, or alternatively, walk away from, a faith. You can figure out your life’s calling and work for the perfect job or figure out that your life’s calling is just to enjoy life and the job is just to pay the bills. And both of those are totally valid.
But you can’t do ANY of that if college is a place where you are constantly struggling to keep your head above water and every class seems impossible and overwhelming. If college is just one big stressor and the very thought of it gives you anxiety, you’re not going to go on any kind of voyage of self-discovery that you will one day look back on as the best years of your life. And for all too many kids, our most vulnerable kids, we’re sending them to college just like that. So of course they struggle. And the patterns continue – the people who have always had it easy continue to have it easy and the people who have always had it rough continue to have it rough. It’s just that the new challenges of college exacerbate it.
So what can we do? I’ll tell you this much, the answer isn’t in any community building or retention program the university can come up, regardless of what admin is going to force their faculty to partake in. That might be a band-aid, but the wound is still going to fester.
This system has got to be torn down and re-built from the ground up. And I honestly don’t know how that can be done. That’s the problem with systemic issues – they require systemic change. And systems are entrenched.
But if we want to save our college students, we’ve got to save our high schoolers. And to save our high schoolers, we’ve got to save our middle schoolers. And to save our middle-schoolers we’ve got to save those kids in K-5.
I try to meet my students where they are. And the trend in pedagogy right now is to be as flexible and as accommodating as possible. We are encouraged by others to really be as flexible as we can with due dates, with grades, with assignments, with readings – the whole lot. If you are involved with pedagogy Twitter you know that anybody who holds people to a due date or has an attendance policy is a right monster.
But I also know people who are on the job market outside of academia. And they are giving me some insight into the proverbial “real world.” And they say if you miss a meeting or a deadline out there, there are no second chances. If you mess up your job interview because you weren’t prepared, that’s it – you don’t get a chance to revise your draft. If you half-ass your presentation or just don’t show up for a week at a time, your boss is under no obligation to be accommodating. And we’re not doing our students any favors by preparing them for the world as if any of that was the case.
So what are we supposed to do for those students who are the most vulnerable? The ones who come unprepared because of a lifetime of challenges? Accommodate them in the hopes we can undo a lifetime of damage, or try and get them ready for the life that is coming once they leave us?
Newsflash: they are both impossible.
So if you are serious about helping retention rates and first gen students – make sure Head Start is well funded in your area. Make a donation to the local middle school tutoring program or do some tutoring yourself. Support your local schools and vote in those bond elections.
College will never be the great equalizer. That has to start much earlier. And that means doing something to help our K-12 schools. As soon as possible.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.
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