Colleges and universities across the nation come to cities and towns like St. Helena in search of our best and brightest students, whose distinctive backgrounds and life experiences can enhance the diversity of their campuses.
The American college campus is one of the few places on earth where people from so many different backgrounds come together to form a community with a common purpose. College is an opportunity for students to interact with an assorted array of peers, as they prepare to live and work in an increasingly diverse nation and world.
In addition to ethnically diverse students, campuses seek those who are the first in their families to attend college, or who come from backgrounds of low socioeconomic status (SES). Students like these who are high academic achievers are prized and romanced by prestigious institutions across the nation, from University of Southern California in the West, to Emory University in the South, to Wellesley College in the East.
However, access and graduation continue to be critical issues for American higher education. Evidence demonstrates the growing gap between high- and low-income kids — from the quality of their high school curricula, to performance on standardized tests, to college completion rates. Few low-SES students enroll in college, and fewer graduate.
Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon observes that, no matter how bright, low-income students are increasingly unlikely to make it through college. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream,” says Reardon, echoing President Barack Obama’s 2010 speech at University of Texas, Austin. “Education is an economic issue, when we know countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”
Continuing ACT studies find that colleges are more likely to blame students for dropping out. Typical excuses are, “They’re not serious, they can’t measure up to the demands of academic work, they lack the attitudes and skills needed to succeed.” Rarely, however, do faculty and administrators ask, “What about us, or what about me, contributes to students’ decisions to stay or leave?”
What happens after students enroll frequently matters more than their educational or personal backgrounds. A recent book, “Persistence,” concludes, “Students can learn anything the institution teaches, provided the right conditions are established, including challenge and support.” Clearly, students must assume responsibility for their own success; however, faculty and administrators also share a collective responsibility — when students succeed and when they drop out.
A major reason students leave college is incongruence. What they are led to expect from campuses during recruitment is vastly different from their experiences once enrolled. Bay Area career coach Dr. Marty Nemko notes, “There is a Grand Canyon of difference between reality and what higher education institutions promise in their viewbooks and on their websites.”
A December 2012 New York Times article shared the stories of four Hispanic students; all were high achievers, from the first generation in their families to attend college, and from low-income backgrounds. Sadly, none have achieved their dreams of completing college.
The case of “Angelica” was especially tragic.
Angelica enrolled at Emory University and discovered she was receiving less financial support than students from similar backgrounds. Apparently, Emory officials didn’t believe Angelica’s family could live on their reported income, so they simply counted money the family didn’t have — without telling her. This increased the amount she had to pay, so Angelica took a job that conflicted with her studies, moved off campus, borrowed more money, ended up on academic probation, and eventually dropped out, disillusioned.
A senior administrator was quoted as saying, “She really didn’t advocate for herself, or have her mother ask for a review.” A dean added, “We reached out to her, but she didn’t respond.” Nonetheless, the dean continued, “I always fault myself when students don’t do as well as we’d like them to.”
When institutions recruit and enroll students like Angelica, they have a moral and ethical responsibility to provide them with the support they need to achieve their full potential. Unlike their higher-income peers, students like Angelica often don’t have the “cultural capital” they need to succeed.
Educators should understand that these students and their parents often lack the information, experience, cultural understanding, and advocacy skills needed to meet the challenges of the college environment. Colleges should require faculty and staff to take a personal interest in all students, to reach out to them with caring and open attitudes to improve their skills and motivate them to persist toward their goals.
The success of students is essential to the future of our nation, and institutions must be held accountable when they waste the dreams of Americans like Angelica.
(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to email@example.com.)