At the end of August, President Obama outlined new proposals to make college more affordable and to develop a new rating system before the fall of 2015 that will appear in the existing College Scorecard. With the start of the semester, you might have missed the details, but the plan is essential reading—note that congress does not have to approve: this will happen. I applaud the effort. Students and parents need better ways to think about the cost/benefit of college, but if these new metrics become a singular way to judge the value of college, the conversation will be far too narrow. We will, however, only have ourselves to blame.
Despite our collective and constant pleas for prospective students to think more about fit than rankings, the US News rankings continue their stranglehold on how the public, and even many of us, think about higher education. We are not going to dissuade politicians or parents to give up looking for ways measure and rank something that is so important and expensive. The real question, and the place we should put our energy, is in creating better measures for what we do.
We have a choice. We can either develop our own measures of the learning that happens on our campuses, or prepare for the White House and others to measure less meaningful things. We need to do this quickly. Note that financial aid may eventually be tied to how we do in the new ratings: “In the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the president will seek legislation allocating financial aid based on these college ratings by 2018, once the ratings system is well established. Students can continue to choose whichever college they want, but taxpayer dollars will be steered toward high-performing colleges that provide the best value.” Ouch!
Let’s be fair. The objectives and the general thrust on outcomes are good. Parents and students easily confuse prestige with quality and college costs too much. It is hard to argue with the political pressure for a “a new ratings system to help students compare the value offered by colleges and encourage colleges to improve.” The US News rankings rely too heavily on input measures, and if we are going to be judged, it should not be on the students we attract, but on what we do for the students we have. The U.S. Department of Education says “These ratings will compare colleges with similar missions and identify colleges that do the most to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as colleges that are improving their performance.” Faculty often say to me, “just bring us better students,” but surely the real measure of success is how different colleges improve the lives of similar students. But whatever we think, there will be a new ranking system soon.
Most of what are currently being considered as outcome indicators, are quantitative, but secondary measures like graduation rates or graduate earnings. Walter M. Kimbrough has correctly pointed out that these need to be modified with a “degree of difficulty” measure (as in judging diving). The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment and others have developed other measures, but we need to do better. We must start measuring the change we hope to produce.
Prestige, better pay, better job opportunities and fun in fraternities are often seen as benefits of college. Indeed, networking and alumni connections are a valuable part of the college experience, but if we sell jobs or salaries as the only or even primary outcome measure, then we all become network facilitators.
We need instead to talk about how thinking and more complex mental models are the real engines of future success, a robust democracy and a better life. We will then, need to focus our attention on getting serious about measuring this. Are we actually changing our students and improving their ability to think? Would they develop as quickly if we het left them alone or they got a job? The answers may make us nervous, but we can’t improve without data.
If anyone from the White House is listening—we CAN measure learning! Please give us a chance to suggest, create and develop some better measures.
Today we launched a new teaching award that will provide more support and aid for faculty groups or individuals to redesign a course or course sequence. Technology may have increased the availability of knowledge, but it has only made critical thinking, analysis and the development of our students more important. Technology makes course design more important than ever before, but it also creates new opportunities for rethinking the sequence of learning events.
Most of us have become very good at course delivery, but few of us have had training in course design. We could get by when course design meant selecting some content and a textbook, but it is more complicated now. According to the most recent student poll in the Almanac of Higher Education, students want instructors to make more us of course management systems, integrated use of laptops during class, online collaboration tools (like Google docs) and free online course content (like the Khan Academy). If that sounds like a lot of work, it is, but improved course design is key to making our institutions better. This proposal is designed to help faculty find the time both to gain expertise and to develop better courses.
Since innovation and risk need to be encouraged, student course evaluations from the first two semesters of the new course will not be included in merit or tenure decisions. You will note that some other “robust measure of success” will be required (also know as assessment), so hopefully this will encourage innovation in courses design and better assessment practices. I am also offering up to $10,000 in financial support (including teaching relief) per proposal, but I can think of other incentives (fewer preparations, staff or TA support, perhaps) that might work where other funding is not available. I offer the entire set of guidelines below to any dean, provost or CTL director who wants to borrow the idea.
WHO? Any FT or regular faculty member may submit a proposal. Some priority will be given to groups where more than one person delivers the same course or departments who envision larger projects (like the redesign of an entire sequence.)
WHAT? A typical proposal might include teaching relief or summer stipend plus support (new technology, a visiting consultant, internal support, conference travel, or books). I will be available directly to support these projects as needed. I highly recommend including this online course on course design as part of the process (and budget) http://www.deefinkandassociates.com/index.php/onlinecourse/.
To encourage innovation and risk, student course evaluations from the first two semesters of the new course will NOT be included in merit or tenure decisions. They will be available only to the involved faculty. Part of the project, however, should be to create a more robust measure of success. How will we know if the new design is working? Faculty will have wide latitude here, but examples might include higher retention in the program, better performance in a subsequent class, better performance in year-end juries, higher scores on a rubric, or something entirely different, but there must be some form of assessment.
WHEN? Proposals are due January 30, 2014, for redesigns over the summer or fall with redesigned courses being offered in fall 2014 or spring 2015.
HOW? Read Dee Fink’s (2004) short (and free) self-directed guide for designing courses for significant learning.
Proposals should be brief and identify
(1) the course or sequence, the number of students and the need (What is the problem? How could students be better served?)
(2) which faculty will be involved
(3) the course learning objectives
(4) what a redesign might look like (very generally, what is the idea?)
(5) a budget and what support will be needed
(6) a schedule for when this will happen
(7) what assessment measure might be used to gage success (this is not binding!) and
(8) chair approval (this can come as a separate evaluation of all departmental projects)
A. You may propose a redesign of any regularly offered courses, but there will be some priority given to entry-level, high enrollment, or frequently offered courses. These grants are not intended only to support technology or technology-driven courses, although new uses of technology are also encouraged.
B. Involved faculty must agree to continue offering the course at least three more times. New pedagogies will take practice. You can tinker with the delivery, but unless it is a disaster, we will encourage sticking with it until we know if it is the design or the delivery.
C. The department must view this as a course of continuing importance in the curriculum and agree that all faculty who teach this course over the next three years will maintain a consistent use of these learning outcomes and this course design. (Again, if something is not working, the redesign can continue to be improved, but there needs to be a consistency of intent.)
Our understanding of intelligence, learning, the brain has exploded in the last 30 years. We’ve discovered multiple types of intelligence, neural plasticity and realized that you can teach an old dog new tricks. One of the most important discoveries is that Dewey was right: metacognition or “thinking about your thinking” can improve learning and students with math anxiety who write about it before the exam, perform better than those who just take the exam (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011). Two different studies, one led by Marsha C. Lovett, (2013) and the other by Mary-Ann Winkelmes (2013), demonstrate how metacognition and reflection can be used to improve study habits, exam performance, and ultimately, new, easy and fast techniques to creating more critical thinkers.
From Socrates “self-examination” to William James’ “introspective observation” and Jean Piaget’s “directed thought” self-regulation is the foundation of critical thinking (Silver, 2013). In How We Think (1910), John Dewey describes it as “Active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it, and the further considerations to which it tends.” (p. 6) For Dewey, our job is to find problems and “forked-road situations.” The critical thinker will be able “to maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry.” (p. 13). This “tolerance for ambiguity” is highly desired by employers and the ability to hold two opposing ideas at once without making up your mind would make an excellent graduation requirement.
Self-regulation, however, begins with self-awareness, noticing and active-monitoring. Mary-Ann Winkelmes (2013) and The Illinois Initiative on Transparency in Learning and Teaching have demonstrated that
(1) discussing the rational of assignments,
(2) connecting “how people learn” data with activities and
(3) debriefing grades, tests and assignments in class,
significantly improve student learning, increase retention and are especially beneficial to under-represented groups, transfer students and non-traditional students. YES! Read that again!! Simply being more transparent in class (F2F!) about why we assign what we do and connecting it to stated learning goals is especially beneficial to students with less family experience of college. (Their website, http://www.teachingandlearning.illinois.edu/transparency.html provides much more detail about exactly which techniques were most important in which disciplines and inwhich types of classes.)
At the same time, Marsha C. Lovett, (2013), and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon have demonstrated that exam wrappers, provide a quick and easy way to improve student learning, connect learning and thinking habits across disciplines. Exam wrappers are a very short survey (online or a single sheet of paper) given to students with assignment or exam feedback. You can find their excellent examples of their math and science wrappers at www.learningwrappers.org
I like to call these “cognitive wrappers” since the research point I like to remember is that we help students become critical thinkers most, by helping them learn to self-regulate. Ultimately, only the students themselves can decide to adopt a more complex mental model, but we have to provide the situations that generate “optimal conflict” (again Piaget, but also James Mark Baldwin, Heinz Werner and Lawrence Kohlberg) in what Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (2009) summarize as:
I find it significant that the neurologists, developmental psychologists, the organizational business gurus, residential life professionals, therapists and educational theorists have all come to the same conclusion. Kegan and Lahey are writing about organizational change, but their formulation seems remarkably like Dee Fink’s version of how we craft significant learning experiences or William Perry writing about Harvard students in 1970. It is not enough just to care, or just to have high standards, or even just to provide provocative situations for students. Pedagogy and learning design are essential if we want to move students to more advanced models of thought.
Note that metacognition is a complex set of skills including self-awareness (knowing your strengths and weaknesses), understanding learning goals, planning an approach to learning, monitoring, evaluating performance, reflecting and adjusting. Metacognition (like critical thinking) is often discipline specific and is best learned with subject content: generic study skills courses have not proven effective. Repeated exposure to transparently announced and labeled critical thinking in different contexts, however, greatly helps students to create more transferrable thinking skills.
So cognitive wrappers provide an easy way to get your students thinking about how they learn and how they might self-regulate more. I think we might extend this idea in two ways. First, I work in an art school, and preparation for lessons, rehearsals, performances and classes, is just as important and requires just as much self-regulation as preparation for exams. Why not use wrappers for some of these very different activities? Second, while not an explicit part of the Carnegie Mellow exam wrappers, some of their examples provide a rationale for the assignment, and are given to students at the beginning. Here is a model for a four-part wrapper:
Rationale: This is only to help you improve.
Reflection: How did you prepare for this exam?
Comparison: What kinds of mistakes did you make?
Adjustment: How will you prepare differently next time?
Wrappers work best when they are discipline specific, but used simultaneously in different contexts in different classes. How is studying for an art history exam different than practicing for a lesson or doing calculus homework? Students need both to understand that (a) self-regulation is a part of improving each of these activities and (b) the adjustments will be different for each type of learning.
Writing, for example, is activity that really consists of multiple types of work and preparation. So the wrapper for a paper might ask: What % of your preparation time was spent on each of these activities?
While the wrapper for a problem set or science might ask: What % of your preparation time was spent on each of these activities?
The wrapper for a performance class might include: What % of your preparation time was spent on each of these activities?
Wrappers should be brief, easy, flexible and specific to both the discipline and the specific task at hand. The idea is to help students understand that they need to understand their strengths and weakness, assess their own performance, identify strategies that work for them and make adjustment. This self-regulation is important for its own sake, as a performance enhancer, but also as a key element of critical thinking. Yoga for the mind.
There is a single general template with lots of types of questions for you to personalize at http://teachingnaked.com/handouts/
OK, you still want to see students F2F–faculty interactions after all are consistently cited as the most important learning opportunity in college. (Keep in mind, students rarely see class time as high quality faculty interaction!) But, the world has changed and there are now many more opportunities for student interaction outside of the classroom.
First, remember, your office is a SCARY place. You are old. You have degrees many students have never even heard of and you have stacks of these funny old book things. Many students would never consider going to your office hours: it would mean they are failing or trying to suck up. I advise the Hispanic fraternity on my campus and when we were constructing an academic plan that included study hours and the like, I suggested including ONE visit to office hours. SHOCK!! Oh no, we couldn’t. Wouldn’t that be a hardship on our professors? Good students don’t do that, etc. It is actually traumatic for many students. Read Rebecca Cox, College Fear Factor (Harvard Univ Press) if you really want to know what college feels like to many students today.
Second, the barrier to communication is much lower on chat, email or Facebook. And it may actually be more important for your students to get smaller and more timely interaction than telling you their life story over coffee. In any case, the prerequisite for F2F interaction is now often social media. (If you really want to know how things have changed, ask students about dating or how they find romantic partners. Yes, there is now an app for that: Tinder. fathers of daughters, I’d skip the next part: in other words, if they would rather have casual sex with someone they have only met online rather than a person they meet in a bar, how are you going to get them to come to your office hours as a first step?)
So consider creating an E-communication Policy for your syllabus.
1. Establish how you will communicate How to contact you is vastly more important to most students than your office hours!
2. Create a schedule for yourself
3. Be clear and consistent about what information is in which channel
4. Limit the forms of communication.
1. Communication with Me:
Email: prof@XU.edu (I will answer email within 24 hours, usually sooner.)
Facebook: I will respond to questions on the Fb Group page within 24 hours. Everyone can see the questions and the answers. If someone else has the answer, don’t wait for me.
Physical Office Hours: Mon-Wed 2-3 (just after class in the atrium lounge.)
Chat: I will be in the Google hangout on Tuesday from 7-8. If you see me on Fb or Skype, you can chat with me there too.
Phone: 111 My Office
Appointment: If you want to see me live outside of office hours, email me.
I am very responsive, but not always at my computer.
Email: prof@XU.edu (I will answer email within 4 hours between 1pm and 5pm, MWF.)
Facebook: This class has a private Fb Group where I will post articles, video and questions. You should check it 3x a week. I will be there and respond as needed (within a few hours) most MWF afternoons.
Chat: You can also ask me private individual questions when I am on Fb. I will announce virtual office hours when I will do chat and Skype as needed.
Physical Office Hours: If you want to see me live outside of class, email me.
Phone: 111 My Cell: use for texts between 7-9pm most evenings and I will respond.
The first day of class is a terrific opportunity to motivate students, demonstrate why your subject matters, create a greater sense of wonder, and surprise students with how your class might change how they look at the world. All of us want class time for what really matters, so here is a way to reclaim your first day.
Do NOT hand out a syllabus. Instead post the syllabus on your course website, in your LMS or in an email you will send later in the day. If you simply must distribute hard copies, then leave by the door at the END of class. Students are shopping the first week, so if you hand them a syllabus, they will immediately look for how much work you are demanding. You don’t have to encourage this behavior. Don’t distract them on the first day.
We are constantly telling students that this is not high school, and that in college they will be required to manage more for themselves, and then we spend the first day of class making sure we read the syllabus to them.
Instead, try an online SYLLABUS QUIZ that is due before the next class. You can do this online in your LMS. You could even use a polling system like Socrative. The important part is that you point them to what really matters in your syllabus: What are the learning outcomes? What will studying for this class be like? What will some of the benefits be? They will figure out for themselves when the papers are due and how many tests there are. (Ok, you might direct them to the late policy in your quiz.)
The benefits of this strategy are many:
1. You free up the first class period for MUCH more important work. Play a game. Do something dramatic. Inspire them with a great example. Just have fun.
2. You will get them in the habit of checking their campus email. You don’t care if they have 6 other emails. But if you tell them this email will be used all semester long for important information –like links to the syllabus and tests—they will make sure they read it. If you don’t abuse this with 12 emails a day—AND you do not make announcements in class– they will read what you send.
3. You also model that class time is valuable and that class is worth attending. That person who skipped the first day, and asked his roommate to pick up an extra syllabus, will find out that class was inspiring, interesting and insightful, and that there were no notes, but the experience was important. Make your class into a gourmet meal instead of fast food: you don’t want the description to be equal or even better than the experience.
4. Students will get feedback right away. All of our research tells us that students need more low stakes assessment and more feedback. They need both nurturing/engaged professors and high standards. It has to be both. One alone does not work nearly as well. Show them immediately both that you care and that they will learn. Have fun and be passionate on the first day and then make sure the first test is hard enough that they have to think. Before the next class it is gone and you and the class more on.
So start class with only one announcement: “You will get a link to the syllabus and a syllabus quiz immediately after class. The quiz is due before the next class. I will stay after class if you have questions.” Then do what you always wish you had time to do.
You will never get this chance again.
Just in time for your fall prep, Garin Horner and Michelle Hiscock have produced an amazing and searchable list of FREE online technology for the classroom. All of the basics plus loads for the expert: everyone will find something new and useful here.
Here are a few highlights:
bubbl.us A free mind map and brainstorming tool
http://www.capzles.com All your media, your life, your stories together like never before: combine documents, photos, video, blogs and music to create rich multimedia experiences.
http://fetchvideo.com Download any video to your hard drive with a simple copy and paste.
http://www.forvo.com/ the world’s largest pronunciation dictionary, all the words in all languages pronounced by native speakers.
http://www.overstream.net Add subtitles to any video.
http://rubistar.4teachers.org A free rubric tool.
http://www.slideshare.net One of the world’s most poplar site is really a depository of slide presentations, pots, pdfs, documents and videos. Free for you to use and alter, no wonder.
You get the idea. It is a great one-stop shop for your educational technology.
Not on their list, but here is a great new content site: CrashCourse. http://www.youtube.com/user/crashcourse
These are short (10-15 min) summaries of popular topics in history, chemistry and literature. They are clever, hilarious and beautifully produced at a fast pace that is guaranteed to entertain college students. Many have over 1,000,000 hits, so already very popular. Just news to me.
Free Rice: Start by playing a few rounds of Free Rice, a free quiz site that donates 10 grains of rice to the World Food Program for each correct answer. Your students will love both aspects. Browse famous paintings, human anatomy, languages and more.
For Historians, if you have still not spent any time with Reacting to the Past, prepare to have your life altered: Look also at Reading Like a Historian, a website with 87 topics (so far) using documents from the Library of Congress.
Your Website: If you don’t have a website, you need one. Yes, the website is rapidly replacing the resume as the first impression (and it should include your CV.)
Social Media: Facebook is another way to do this too. But think of Facebook as three tools in one and figure out which you want to you.
1. You can create a Facebook Profile (this is a personal space where you collect friends; many professors will not accept friend requests from students).
2. But you probably need a Facebook Page (which is a professional site that people can only “like” not friend.)
3. And then there are Facebook Groups, which students can “join”, but there is no friending or liking involved. So a Facebook group for your course can be quite separate from you other Fb activities if you want.
I strongly recommend that you try ONE new way to communicate with your students this fall. Do not establish multiple new channels of communication. If you are new, I suggest you try either Twitter or a Facebook Group. Twitter is more hip, and will probably give you more new things you can do, but it is a more radical change to your thinking. It will take you longer to start to understand how this can help your students.
A Facebook Group is more like a discussion page in an LMS. The key is that you really dedicate a little consistent time to this- you do not need to be on all day long, but you need to be on EVERY DAY for just a little time.
Prezi: If you do not yet have a stash of ppt presentations, OR, you are committed–really committed–to making your ppt presentations into better learning tools (which means a LOT less content) then Prezi might be for you. It makes me a little seasick, but done well, you can have all of your content available to students ( no more emailing ppt!) and present material in a more connected way.
It’s summer and time to try something new.
If you still think that your lectures are the only way students can discover new subjects or ideas, then try Google: type the titles of some of your lectures into Google and see what happens. (Try a search for video by using “videos” under the “more” tab.) Still looking? Try searching for content within YouTube, Kahn Academy, OpenYale, Merlot, utubersity, or in Spanish at Utubersidad. Open iTunes and look in the store for iTunesU. If you want to create your own courses, start here.
Maybe you can skip Facebook (if you are new here) and go directly to Twitter. Start by following me and then search for folks talking about education. If you want to know what other folks are saying about you, try Mention for daily updates on your cyberlife.
Video Conferencing and Streaming Video
Skype still works for free 1-1 video conferencing, but there is more. Try Spreecast for multiple users or Join.me which allows up to 10 people to talk together for free and has even better screen sharing features (like zoom). Goober.com offers you up to 6 chats at once in HD and oovoo let’s you video chat with 12 friends (or students) at once. You’d be way cool. For live streaming video, try Ustream
Then there is the entire Google ecosystem. Google wants you to use their email and their Facebook equivalent (Google+). You can also share documents here–try a collaborative document in Google Docs. Google Hangouts also allows video conferencing and streaming.
Cool Media Stuff
If you really want to show off, try SketchUp 3D and learn to draw in 3D. This an intuitive 3D modeling program for stage design, sculpture, video and video game level design.
If you want to capture video from the web (to keep a treasured cat video or a famous speech from going away on YouTube & Facebook, maybe) start with KeepVid. To capture files from DVDs or create clips for presentations, use Handbreak.
If you want a free alternative to photoshop, try Pixlr, a truly amazing online photo editor
As a dean, I have to make hard decisions every day. Since I often articulate the reason for the decision (see rule no 4) I figured I could actually write them down. I have no idea if any of these make sense in the corporate world: I’ve never worked there. But this is what I think works in a university setting.
All of these are proceeded by “when in doubt” or “normally” or “in most circumstances.” I am not foolish enough to believe there is no gray—in fact, the hardest decisions are the really gray ones. But I still find that these bring clarity to my academic decision making process.
1. Be Humane
Yes, this is always first. One, you will sleep better at night and two, I believe that loyalty is repaid most of the time. (And if not you still sleep better.) When the organization is fundamentally just and fair, people will want to work there.
2. Be Strategic
Aligning even small decisions with strategic priorities helps me stay mission driven. Which choice will move the dial for the organization? Lots of things can make people happy in the short term, but they don’t add up to much, other than a temporary happiness blip. There can be a penalty for breaking rules, but the procedures are there to support the mission, not the other way around.
3. Extend Trust
When this fails, it can be spectacular, but lack of trust is an enormous drag on an institution in terms of time, morale and most importantly risk. Micro management is an equally huge drain on everyone’s time and loyalty. People take fewer risks when they do not feel trusted, and we can’t afford to make our institutions any more risk averse than they already are.
4. Be Transparent
There are obviously times when this won’t work, but notice that those are the times when people get suspicious. (Ironically, this is usually when you have the most clear evidence you can’t reveal!) The more you can share data, concerns, mission, proposals, and ideas, the less inclined faculty will be to imagine you have a hidden agenda. This is another version of extending trust and it is especially important in a university.
5. Be Accountable
Accountability is the flip side of trust. Watching what you promise is very hard: nobody likes a dean who always says no. Learning how to encourage without breaking the bank is a difficult balance to manage. But admitting your mistakes goes beyond trust. Values matter and the more obvious and consistent they are, the more likely they are to be imitated and become part of the culture of the institution.
There are certainly more things I could add: encourage risk, look for efficiencies, seek integration, focus on the students, and find more money are all useful things to do. Sadly, most of the decisions I make and many of my days are not filled with big ideas. A colleague once told me that a dean gets hired to make good decisions about the small things. These decisions, however, will only be good, if they are connected to the strategic priorities, big ideas, a motivated work force and a positive culture.
Three new studies raise important questions about merit scholarships. Are they really based on merit? Are they advancing the mission of our institutions? Are they doing any good and to whom?
First this week came the hardly surprising news from Stanford Professor Sean Reardon that as the rich get richer, the educational advantage of having rich parents has grown to 40% more than it was 30 years ago. (Reardon, 2013, and in press) Comparing children from the 10th percentile (family income of $15,000) and the 90th percentile (family income of $165,000), Reardon found a 125-point gap on EACH 800-point SAT type test. (That is up from 90 points in 1980.) The black-white gap is only 70 points, so family income is now a much better predictor of children’s success in school than race. (Reardon, 2013)
Schools are getting an enormously disproportionate share of the blame: most of the gap is already apparent in kindergarten. This is plenty of evidence that the diminished health care, nutrition, family stability and fewer educational opportunities of poverty produce substantial cognitive and behavioral by the start of school (Duncan and Brooks-Gunn 1997, Taylor, Dearing, and McCartney 2004). It is equally well documented (and even less surprising) that these early gaps have long-term social, medical, financial, and, of course, education consequences. (Dearing E, Berry D, Zaslow M. 2006, Rouse, Brooks-Gunn, and McLanahan 2005 , Smeeding, T., Erikson, R., Jantti, M., eds. 2011, Waldfogel, J., Washbrook, E., 2011). It even appears that the educational achievement gap NARROWS during the school year, but then widens in the summer months (Murnane, R. & Duncan, G. in press). Yes, Virginia, sending your children to Harvard summer camp does increase their readiness for college.
We see the results of this in college enrollment. Bailey and Dynarski (2011) discovered “growing gaps between children from high- and low-income families in college entry, persistence, and graduation. Rates of college completion increased by only four percentage points for low-income cohorts born around 1980 relative to cohorts born in the early 1960s, but by 18 percentage points for corresponding cohorts who grew up in high-income families.” (They also discovered that while there was virtually no achievement gap between boys and girls 30 years ago, there is now a substantial gap in every demographic group, but “the female advantage in educational attainment is largest in the top quartile of the income distribution.”
All together now: it’s about poverty, stupid.
As college faculty, we often complain about how our students are not prepared for college work, but are scholarships part of the solution or the problem? Have we, perhaps in our scholarly quest to make our institutions better, contributed to this problem? (Admissions is a related problem and I’ve tried to outline a different model in my proposal for a University of Potential.
1. We have recently learned from Stanford Professor Caroline Hoxby and Harvard Professor Christopher Avery that even very high achieving students from low-income families, largely do not apply to our most selective institutions. (Hoxby, and Avery, 2013) 78% of high achieving students from the top quartile of income attend selective colleges, but only 38% of the equally high achievers from the lowest quartile of family income apply. When these students apply, they are admitted, they pay less and graduate at high rates, but sadly, they often instead attend resource-poor two-year schools or non-selective four-year schools with catastrophic outcomes for everyone. We are wasting talent.
Faculty too have long complained that our selective colleges were disproportionately full of the privileged, but Hoxby and Turner (2013) found we could greatly increase applications from low-income students by sending them 75 pages of material in October about selective colleges, college cost and a no-paperwork application fee waiver for about $6 per student. This simple targeted mailing of information increased the admission (not just the application) to college of high achieving but low-income to college from 30% to 54%.
2. And yesterday another new report found that the shift of resources toward “merit” aid is making it harder for needy students to attend college. Some of this is discounting; as we all search for more tuition revenue, we are looking for students who can pay. We are looking for the right price point where someone will pay. If a merit scholarship convinces your parents to pay the rest of the tuition bill, it is really no different from a $2 off pizza coupon. This is what any for-profit retailer does.
As a faculty member, it is easy to see the appeal of academically stronger students (which in most cases, really means students who were better at high school—see above!) Through recruitment season, I constantly get requests for “just a little more money for this really good student.” It sounds laudable. Aren’t we just supporting our academic meritocracy? But is giving money to wealthy students with better preparation really improving your institution?
So before you plead for that next merit scholarship, read the May 8, 2013 report from the New American Foundation: Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind.
“Nearly two-thirds of the private institutions analyzed charge students from the lowest-income families, those making $30,000 or less annually, a net price of over $15,000 a year.” Find your school here:
“Besides the very richest colleges and some exceptional schools, nearly all private nonprofit colleges provide generous amounts of merit aid, often to the detriment of the low-income students they enroll… other fairly wealthy schools use their aid as a competitive weapon to try to rise up the ranks and break into the top echelon of schools, as defined by publications such as U.S. News.”
Giving merit scholarships to wealthy students hurts your poorest students. This was certainly not our aim, but are we (as faculty) at all complicit?
According to the US News rankings, better students make our institution better. Most of us graduated from more prestigious institutions than the ones that employ us (Fink, 1984), but those comparisons often blind us to the implications of our “Carnegie climbing” or our “Harvard envy.” We all applaud when our institutions want to “get better” (i.e. become like the “better” institutions we remember so fondly) but few colleges can afford the strategies that Harvard employs. As the report states, very few of our most elite (i.e. largest endowment) private schools have truly become low cost for low-income students. (According to the New American Foundation report, Harvard, Cal Tech and Wash U have the lowest net cost, with a huge shout out to Amherst who keeps their net cost at $448 but has a whopping 22% of Pell grant students.) We can be forgiven for wanting our institutions to be financially stable by discounting the price for wealthy students, but is the desire for prestige really the same as making your university better? And if this desire for prestige and better students is hurting our neediest students, is there a conflict of mission?
3. It gets worse. Most of the schools in this report are actually trying to do BOTH things at once. We are searching both for students with higher SAT scores and for students who can pay. Thanks to Prof. Reardon, we now know that these will increasingly be the same students: as we discount our tuition for those with the highest test scores (who least need the discount) we also increase our need for those wealthy students with lower test scores who can pay. The implications of these two studies together is that our selective colleges will become even more selective, but for wealth.
We knew this all along, but it was harder to see. Now when you compare an “average” SAT of 1000 (verbal+math) of a poor student to that of a more privileged student with 1250 remember that difference is, on average, merely the result of family income. At most schools, a gap that wide can easily be the difference between admissible and “no way José.” That 1000 student will probably do less well in your freshmen course, and might also need some additional help, but what, after all is your real mission?
As Hoxby and Turner (2013) have demonstrated, the pool of high-achieving/low income students is not smaller: it is just invisible to our best institutions. We need collectively, to reach out to them. But if the New American data is correct (Burd, 2013) that won’t be enough: with a current net cost of $15,000 for a poor student (even after all of the Pell Grant and need-based aid) those students will go somewhere cheaper.
It is not enough for faculty to say, we want to look at more than SAT scores. As long as we continue to be seduced by students who will bring us prestige (rather than focusing on how we can improve the students we receive) we are perpetuating a system that is, in fact, not a meritocracy. Increasing your ranking or your Carnegie classification, might be a tactic, but it is not a mission. (I’ve also argued for the need for more distinct missions.)
Talent, intelligence and potential are spread evenly through all classes and races. If your institution does not reflect that spread of diversity in your region, then you are not recruiting the students with the most talent, intelligence and potential. We must find better ways to recognize potential and create pathways and funding models so that the highest achieving students from all income levels can attend our best institutions. We can and must do better.
PS. So while most colleges are taxing the poor to create greater subsidies for the rich, Cooper Union is trying to be the Robin Hood of higher education. It may not be what “college ends free tuition” sounds like, but it is really a way to end a subsidy for the wealthy. By setting tuition higher than it needed to and distributing it unequally (only to those who can afford to pay), Cooper joins a very elite club of private schools (listed above) that are allowing the rich to subsidize the poor.
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Burd, S. (2013). Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind. New American Foundation: http://education.newamerica.net/publications/policy/undermining_pell
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