Thursday, December 13, 2018

New developments in low-income (and rural) students' access to higher education

Access to higher education is one of my pet causes--in part because I am aware of the huge difference that it has made in my own life.  I'm really grateful that several students have blogged about the issue this semester, and I want to highlight in this post some excerpts from recent coverage of the issue.

First, Susan Dynarski (University of Michigan economist and one of my Twitter heroes) and colleagues have just released the results of their study of an inexpensive intervention aimed at getting low-income students to apply to the prestigious, flagship University of Michigan:  In short, they invite the low-income, high achievers to apply and let them know that, if admitted, tuition, room and board, and living expenses will be covered.  Here's part of the abstract of their paper:
We contact students (as well as their parents and principals) with an encouragement to apply and a promise of four years of free tuition and fees upon admission. Materials emphasize that this offer is not contingent on completing aid applications (e.g., the FAFSA or PROFILE). Treated students were more than twice as likely to apply to (67 percent vs. 26 percent) and enroll at (27 percent vs. 12 percent) the University of Michigan. There was no diversion from schools as (or more) selective as UM. The enrollment effect of 15 percentage points (pp) comprises students who would otherwise attend a less selective, four-year college (7 pp), a community college (4 pp), or no college (4 pp). Effects persist through two years of follow-up. The intervention closed by half the income gaps in college choice among Michigan's high-achieving students.
This came to my attention because David Leonhardt of the New York Times, long attuned to college access issues for low-income students, made it the subject of his daily newsletter yesterday.  His description of the findings is slightly more accessible to the layperson.  First, he provides this background:
Unfortunately, most working-class and poor teenagers, including many who excel in high school, still don’t graduate from college. They often enroll in colleges that have a high dropout rate and never finish.
Then he describes the study's findings in context:
In truth, the packet wasn’t promising anything new to most students. Those receiving it typically had good enough grades and test scores to be admitted to Michigan, as well as a family income low enough to qualify them for a full scholarship. 
And yet the experiment nonetheless had a huge effect. 
Some 67 percent of students who received the packets applied to Michigan, compared with 26 percent of a control group of similar students who did not. And 28 percent of recipients ended up enrolling in a top university (most of them at Michigan), compared with only 13 percent of the control group. Many members of the control group didn’t attend any college, despite being excellent high-school students.
A somewhat similar study from a few years ago is noted here.  It suggests that who gets recruited to attend an elite college has a lot to do with where one lives and goes to high schools.  Some high schools attract recruiters from elite colleges; most don't.  (Spoiler alert:  I don't know of any really rural high schools that do).

With this big news out of the University of Michigan yesterday, it may not be a coincidence that NPR today ran this story on the first-gen college experience at Michigan.  The headline plays up "rural," however:  "'Going to Office Hours is Terrifying, and Other Tales of Rural Students in College." Here's an excerpt from Elissa Nadworny's long feature that reflects another theme of the story--the similarities of first-gen students, even across racial boundaries:
Two students share a laptop in the atrium of the chemistry building at the University of Michigan. One, Cameron Russell, is white, a freshman from a rice-growing parish in Louisiana; the other, Elijah Taylor, is black, a senior and a native of Detroit. 
They are different, yes, but there is much that unites them. 
Both are the first in their families to go to a four-year college, a tough road Taylor has already traveled. Now he's serving as a mentor to Russell, whose rural background brings with it struggles that only a tiny handful of universities, including this one, are beginning to acknowledge and address.
* * *
Taylor says neither student can "call home and say, 'Mom, how do I navigate the college experience?' "
Then there is the part of the story that focuses on rural, and acknowledges the difference that the 2016 election has made to the amount of attention paid to the rural sector:
Many colleges and universities were caught by surprise when frustration among rural Americans spilled over into national politics during the 2016 election. That, in addition to steady declines in enrollment, has pushed some schools to pay more attention to rural students — and to recognize that these students need at least as much help navigating the college experience as low-income, first-generation racial and ethnic minorities from inner cities.
Again, this focuses on what low-income students have in common, not that which divides them.  I sure wish we saw more of this sort of hopeful, cross-racial bridge building.  There's lots more in this story about rural students and their particular struggle.  It features students from Au Gres, Michigan, population 889Charlotte, Michigan, population 9,074Lake Linden, Michigan, population 1,007 on the Upper Peninsula; and an specified town near Holland, Michigan, in the western part of the state.  All of these students from places that are rural to one degree or another are fascinating to me, perhaps especially Kendra Beaudoin, the eldest of five children raised by a single mom in Michigan's UP:
"I'm still intimidated by professors. Going to office hours is terrifying," she says. "There were definitely moments when I was like, 'I'm only going here to fill a diversity quota and I don't really belong here and everybody else is so much smarter than me.' "

Other obstacles are more mundane. Take crosswalks. "Those don't exist where I lived," Beaudoin says. She stops and waits for the light to change while other pedestrians brush past her. When her phone broke, leaving her without one for several months, she used a paper map to find her way around campus. She still has trouble figuring out the bus system. Yet, as someone from a rural place where self-sufficiency is valued, "The idea of going to someone and asking how this works ... it was almost like I felt bad for not knowing."
The story also includes information about the University of Georgia, Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Appalachian State University in North Carolina.  And it pays a lot of attention to class, including this quote from a first-gen, rural student:
"Everybody else has got the coin that I don't have. Those Canada Goose jackets? You're kidding," Schwiderson says, referring to the brand of parkas other Michigan students wear, which can cost up to $1,550. "I'm walking down the road and I see people with Gucci or Versace."
The NPR feature continues:
Students say they're acutely aware of the socioeconomic divide at the University of Michigan, where the median family income of students is $156,000, or three times the state average, according to the Harvard-based think tank Opportunity Insights. Ten percent come from families in the top 1 percent of earners, and only 16 percent from the bottom 60 percent.
Sadly this NPR piece also suggests the rural brain drain--that is, it features students who don't want to go back to their rural home towns--at least not any time soon, and sometimes not even for the holidays.  One reason for that is political differences the students have with those in their home communities.  The story also tends to confirm negative stereotypes about rural places as racist and intolerant, and it certainly confirms that many assume rural folks to be racist and intolerant.

Another higher education story that implicates class ran last week, also part of NPR's series, The Changing Face of College.  It's about how top colleges, including Princeton University, are taking transfer students for the first time in decades, including transfers from community colleges.  Elissa Nadworny also reports this story:
In reinstating the school's transfer program, they wanted to encourage applicants from low-income families, the military and from community colleges. 
It's a part of the wave of attempts by elite schools to diversify their campuses. Just 3 percent of enrollment at these top colleges are students from low-income students. And a proven ground for recruiting smart, low-income students is through transfers, especially from community colleges. 
Nadworny quotes Keith Shaw, the director of Princeton's transfer, veteran and non-traditional student programs, regarding these populations. 
They're bringing perspectives out of their experience that would otherwise be lacking here.
Of the thirteen offered admission last fall, nine accepted.  They included military veterans, older students, and students with young families.  More from Shaw:
It's not like you admit nine students, and it's suddenly wildly changed the campus culture. [But, having those students on campus] goes a long way towards changing the campus culture and making it a little bit more reflective of the broader American public that it's drawing on.
This story also discusses efforts at Amherst, long a leader in efforts to achieve greater socioeconomic diversity.

Finally, this in the New York Times by Jennifer Medina and Jill Cowen talks about the first-gen experience at University of California, Irvine.  And this is a story from last month that talks about "when the wheels start to come off" at Thanksgiving, meaning students often start to think about giving up on college near the end of their first semester or quarter.  

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