Thursday, September 11, 2014

Academic beginnings and outcomes

For some time, the Washington Monthly has been publishing college rankings that seek to help students and parents to focus on factors more important than prestige, football prowess, and glitz in choosing where to go for higher education. "Selectivity" is not the central factor in these ratings.

Here's part of their explanation of their list of "most affordable" colleges:

... we here at the Washington Monthly have never given any weight to how selective schools are, for a number of reasons. First, admission rates don’t tell you much about how much learning actually goes on in classrooms. Selectivity is a measure of input (how smart and academically prepared the incoming class is), not outcome. Second, the vast majority of college students never set foot in these elite institutions. Instead, they attend less selective schools where the spending per student is typically lower (even if the quality of the education is often comparable because there are terrific professors spread all over the country). Third, the excessive prestige these elite schools command in our culture, and the press’s fixation on them, warps the incentive structure in higher education—by, among other things, enticing less selective colleges to tighten up their admissions standards in order to climb the status ladder. This gives those colleges a classier image and their administrators an excuse to raise their own salaries. But it means that these schools abandon the less affluent, less academically prepared students they used to teach. These are students who, in a tough globalized economy, desperately need a quality college education.

... Many researchers have shown that academically gifted students from lower-income families tend to “undermatch” when choosing colleges. That is, they go to significantly less selective schools than they could have gotten into, often out of fear (sometimes valid, sometimes not) that they can’t afford the more elite institutions. In part as a result, they graduate from college at lower rates and make lower lifetime incomes than they otherwise would have. ...

Their list of "affordable" colleges is heavy on public institutions, led by the much maligned California university system.

Now the New York Time's wonk department, the Upshot, has offered a competing list of colleges that achieve some economic diversity by enrolling a significant number of poor and middle class students. They explain the problem and their methodology:

The Upshot has analyzed data for every college with a four-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent. We combined data on enrollment and tuition costs to measure how hard each college is trying to attract and graduate poor and middle-class students. The result is our College Access Index. ... The biggest theme to emerge from our analysis is that otherwise similar colleges often have very different levels of commitment to economic diversity. In this area, endowment is not destiny, and prestige is not destiny.

...In 2004, more freshmen at the most selective private universities had fathers who were doctors than had fathers who were hourly workers, teachers, clergy members, farmers and members of the military – combined. And it wasn’t simply because poor children struggled in school. Among low-income high-school seniors in 2008 who cracked the top 4 percent of students nationwide, based on grades and scores, only one of out every three attended a selective colleges, one large study found.

The Upshot's list consists mostly of private colleges like Vassar, Amherst, Pomona and Grinnell in Iowa. These institutions have demonstrated that by actively recruiting, encouraging, and committing resources to diverse populations, they can enroll and graduate significant numbers of low income students.

Apparently the contrast between the two lists -- big, public in the Monthly; small, private in the Times -- derives from the Times' criteria that 75 percent of students graduate in a mere four years; these days most students everywhere take longer than what used to be the norm; only 100 schools nationwide meet that measure, pretty much all private.

If, like me, you think higher education should be available to any young person who can absorb this peculiar experience, both lists are interesting.
All of this is just introduction to a fascinating book that would be worth recommending to any young person from a poor and/or non-white background who might be trying to decide whether college would be bearable and worth the economic struggle. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's autobiography My Beloved World is not a fluff piece.

During the last few days on the bookapalooza, we have driven through college towns -- Burlington, Hanover, Manchester, Amherst, Northampton -- where crowds of young people are returning to dorms and classes. I kept thinking of Sotomayor's encounters with the Ivies from her Nuyorican upbringing.

Harvard and Cambridge decidedly didn't take; her admission interview was devastating and hilarious in retrospect:

Inside the waiting room, when the inner door finally opened, I found myself face-to-face with a creature such as I had never encountered : a woman with a hairdo— no, “coiffure” would be the word—of sculpted silver, in a perfectly tailored black dress, a pearl necklace and earrings, beautiful little pumps. This is different! I thought.

I followed this apparition into her office and was stunned again by what met my eyes. I had never before seen an Oriental rug, its intricate pattern the most gorgeous of puzzles meandering across the floor. And I had never before seen a white couch . To be honest, I had probably never seen a couch that wasn’t covered in plastic. I was ushered into an elegant, high-backed, winged throne of a chair, in which I felt as small as Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann, surprised to feel my feet touch the floor. I had never seen such a room with my own eyes, but I knew: This was good taste. And this was money.

That’s when the yapping dogs shattered my trance. They must have been barking since I’d walked in, but now they were jumping up at me, all bare teeth and bony claws. They were just lapdogs, really, one black and one white, but they scared me. She called to them, and they scrambled onto the white couch and sat beside her, and there the three of them completed a surreal tableau, three pairs of eyes gazing at me, a vision in black and white.

That may have been the shortest interview of my life, perhaps all of fifteen minutes. The flow of words that always came to me naturally, and still does whenever I meet a stranger, mostly dried up. When I found myself back in the waiting room, too early for the students who were to meet me, the numbness dissolved into a suffocating panic: I don’t belong here!

Fortunately for us all, Princeton didn't have that effect on the young Sotomayor. But that didn't mean that she didn't encounter enormous cultural barriers.

Waiting outside Dillon Gym, where we were to meet our advisers, I struck up a conversation with another freshman sitting beside me. She was from Alabama, she said. I had never before heard an accent like that in real life. I listened spellbound as she explained how her father, her grandfather, and her elder brother were all Princeton alums. She couldn’t have been more delighted to be there representing her generation. “And it really is just the friendliest, most welcoming place you’ll find,” she gushed. “I mean, look at all the unusual people that come here!”

She was indicating an approaching pair, their heads together, laughing loudly. I recognized my roommate, Dolores, and our friend Teresa. Dolores was vaguely Mexican looking, with light brown skin and Indian-black hair. Teresa was barely a shade darker than I am, hardly dark at all, but her features were distinctively Latina. They both looked pretty normal to me. Without premeditation, I greeted them exuberantly in rapid-fire Spanish ...

... As social as I am, I was quiet in those early days , trying to make sense of the conversations flowing around me. One evening, I found myself with a group of girls sitting in our resident adviser’s dorm room. One of them mentioned being invited to a wedding and that she’d decided just to choose a gift from the bridal registry. What the hell is a bridal registry? I wondered. Our adviser, a senior, allowed that her father sometimes received wedding invitations from people whose names he didn’t even recognize, probably strangers hoping he would blame his memory and send a gift anyway, she figured. Who invites strangers to their wedding? For that matter, who sends them gifts? Where I came from, you handed the couple an envelope with money at the reception. Were people here so rich they could afford a wedding without gifts of cash? ...

There's much more. I suspect these sorts of economic and cultural disjunctions are no less frequent today. (Interestingly, Princeton now is explicitly called out by the Times for not using its economic resources to encourage low-income students.) First generation college students will have much to overcome as the excitement of beginning turns into the long struggle toward graduation - and even some learning.

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