This is the time of year that colleges and universities release their acceptance rates, and those of Ivy League universities get lower each year, prompting much discussion and angst. Wonkblog at The Washington Post, however, argues that there are long odds for lots of things that people want, and that elite college admissions aren't quite so unique in American society. For example, while only 8.9 percent of all applicants were admitted to Ivy League institutions, only 2.6 percent of those who applied to work at Walmart's new Washington store were hired. And Google hires one half of one percent of its applicants.
The blog's analysis: "Parents and students - particularly those from a certain socio-economic background -- tend to obsess a lot over the college admissions process. The danger, of course, is that this single-minded focus on preparing kids for college -- the extra-curriculars, test prep, admissions coaching, and the like -- is coming at the expense of prepping them for the job market hurdles that come after."
A new study by College Board researchers and published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis finds that Maine saw an increase in college-going rates after requiring all high school students to take the SAT. Statewide, the requirement was linked in the study to a 2-3 percentage point increase in the college-going rate of those graduating from Maine high schools. Of those who based on various patters otherwise were found unlikely to have taken the SAT, about 10 percent who would not have gone to four-year institutions did so.
ACT has reported similar findings in Colorado and Illinois, following statewide use of the ACT.
Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a critic of the College Board, said via email that even if the results of the Maine experiment are positive, that doesn't mean that the test is a good thing. "An unanswered question is how much of the apparent increase in college going (a good thing) is attributable to taking the test and how much results from the process of thinking about higher education, signing up for the exam (especially filling out the Student Descriptive Questionnaire which provides tons of academic and demographics data admissions offices use for recruitment), getting mail from schools, etc.," he said.
A dean's list student at Hannibal-LaGrange University who withdrew due to illness in October says he was blocked from returning because he is gay, the Associated Press reported. During the time he was away from the university, he came out on Facebook, and he said that university officials explained their refusal to re-enroll him by pointing him to a morals clause at the Baptist institution that describes homosexuality as a "misuse of God's gift." The student noted that others who violate rules related to sex are permitted to stay enrolled. He said he was told that, to return, he would have to renounce homosexuality. The university declined to comment.
During January’s White House opportunity summit, policy makers and higher education leaders announced over 100 new initiatives designed to bolster first-generation and low-income students’ college success. While students who overcome the odds to gain access to college bring with them significant grit and resilience, the road through college is often a rocky one.
First Lady Michelle Obama described the obstacles that first-generation and low-income students commonly confront. No stranger to these challenges, she said:
You’re in a whole new world. You might have trouble making friends because you don’t see any peers who come from a background like yours. You might be worried about paying for classes, and food, and room and board because you have never had to set your own budget before. You might be feeling guilty when you call home because Mom and Dad are wondering why you didn’t get a job so you could help support their family. Those are the kinds of obstacles these kids are facing right from day one.
Even among the select group that make it to college, first-generation and low-income students, on average, find it harder to fit in, receive lower grades, and drop out at higher rates than do students from higher income backgrounds with college-educated parents (i.e., continuing-generation students). Study after study demonstrates that the financial, academic, and psychological barriers that these students encounter can significantly undermine their performance.
The summit shined the national policy spotlight on this persistent social class achievement gap. Our own and others’ research shows that these feelings of exclusion and difference that the First Lady described are key factors that fuel the gap. While all students tend to question whether they belong and have what it takes to succeed, these concerns are magnified for first-generation and low-income students because of the mismatch they experience as they enter this “whole new world” of higher education.
Our research provides compelling evidence that talking about social class equips first-generation and low-income students to succeed. In our recent study, published in Psychological Science, we invited first-generation and continuing-generation students at the beginning of the school year to attend a one-hour program designed to help them transition to college. Unbeknownst to them, half of the students attended a “difference-education” program while the other half attended a “standard” program. In both programs, newly minted first-years at an elite university listened to a diverse panel of junior and senior students talk about their transition to college, challenges they faced, and how they found success. In the difference-education program, however, panelists’ stories also included a discussion of how their social class backgrounds mattered in college. In the standard program, panelists did not reveal their social class.
We found that the difference-education program closed the achievement gap between first- and continuing-generation students. First-generation students had higher year-end grade-point averages and better learned to take advantage of college resources that could help them succeed — like seeking mentorship and extra help from professors — than their peers that participated in the standard program. An added bonus was that all students who participated in the difference-education program — both first- and continuing-generation — gained a deeper understanding of how students’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives mattered in college than their peers in the standard program. They also experienced a smoother college transition — they were less stressed, felt like they fit in socially, and were more connected to their home and school.
When we talk with educators and administrators about the success of this research, many are inspired to start a program like ours and reap the rewards; yet, they also voice trepidation. What happens if talking about social class leads students to feel threatened? What if students are not receptive to the message? What if we get accused of stereotyping or stigmatizing students because of their backgrounds?
These are understandable concerns. Talking about difference is threatening to many people, especially since Americans don’t like to talk about social class. Drawing on key insights from social psychology and multicultural education, engaging students in a conversation about how their different backgrounds matter can be instructive and empowering for all involved. But, you need to do it in the right way. Below we outline key guidelines that educators should follow:
Show how all students can experience college differently – the success of this type of program hinges on framing it as relevant to all students, rather than as a “diversity initiative” directed only at disadvantaged students who need extra help. A unique benefit of our approach was that all students learned about how their backgrounds can shape what they experience in college. We recommend that both the senior students who share their stories and the incoming students who participate in the program are first- and continuing-generation. First, it will ensure that first-generation students do not feel “singled out” or stigmatized as students in need of extra help. Second, it will help students learn about each other’s different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. Representing difference as a normal part of the college experience — and life, more generally — is a crucial lesson in today’s increasingly diverse world.
Start with a solid foundation — the college transition is rife with uncertainty. Our own work and that of others consistently shows that these types of transitional programs benefit students the most when they are conducted during or immediately after students’ first weeks on campus. Students’ initial social and academic experiences are the foundation upon which the rest of their experiences will be built. Give them a strong foundation right away.
Let senior students share their own stories — incoming students need to be able to see themselves and hear their own voices reflected in the stories the older students tell. To do this, select a diverse group of students who take pride in their backgrounds and are comfortable discussing their social class (in addition to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so on). This sends a strong signal that difference is a source of pride and strength rather than shame.
Don’t be afraid of the negative (but offset it with the positive) — incoming students need to hear the real stuff, not an idealized version of what other students have gone through. First-generation students confront a lot of adversity during the college transition. For example, many struggle to choose a major, identify a future career path, or reconcile their life back home with their new life in college. They need to learn about the obstacles they are likely to face, but also need to understand that each obstacle is surmountable when they use the right strategies and rely on their resilience.
Deliver a powerful (but subtle) message — we know that Americans don’t like to talk about class. We recommend giving students a subtle nudge to show them how it matters — through hearing other students’ stories — rather than telling them directly that class is something that they need to watch out for. Encourage them to think about and apply what they learn to their own lives and let them come to their own conclusions. Give students the chance to process the information and make it their own – for example, by writing an essay or making a video about what they learned to share with next year’s incoming students.
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to prepare students for success in our increasingly diverse and multicultural world. When done the right way, transitional programs have the potential to help to make this “whole new world” of higher education a less alienating, and more welcoming place, for all students — especially for those who need it the most.
Nicole M. Stephens, MarYam G. Hamedani and Mesmin Destin
Nicole M. Stephens is associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
MarYam G. Hamedani is associate director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University.
Mesmin Destin is an assistant professor in the department of psychology and the School of Education & Social Policy at Northwestern University.
Poll finds Americans with college education report higher standard of living than do others, but don't always link standard of living to education. Findings suggest lack of knowledge on private college prices.
Stanford University has revoked the M.B.A. of Mathew Martoma, who was recently convicted of insider trading, but that's not why he lost the degree, The Wall Street Journal reported. During his trial, it was revealed that Martoma was kicked out of law school at Harvard University for falsifying transcript grades, and Martoma didn't report this to Stanford when he was applying there. Stanford applicants sign a statement saying that offers of admission can be revoked for certain actions, such as "a serious lack of judgment or integrity” prior to enrolling. As a result, Stanford has now revoked his offer of admission, which has the impact of making his degree invalid.
College Board unveils redesigned writing test (in which evidence will be relevant) and makes it optional. Other reforms will end penalty for incorrect answers and the focus on "SAT words" people never use. Khan Academy will provide free test prep. Will changes shift debate on admissions testing? UPDATE: Early reactions.
Austin College partners with graduate schools to show liberal arts grads have clear paths to success. Undergraduates will get perks including internships, early decision admission and dual degree credit.