Tuesday, May 24, 2005

On increase in college dropouts.

The Kept-Up Librarian, an excellent resource for, well, keeping up with all you want to read but don't always have the time, has pointed to an article in the New York Times about college dropouts increasing. Be warned the link to the NYT requires registration. If you don't wish to register, you can likely locate a copy of the article through your library. I got to read it through Lexis-Nexis Academic, which we have in my library. The article opens with the tale of Andy Blevins, a young man in Virginia who quit college to keep his job at a warehouse. He enjoyed working hard and getting a paycheck, and he found that college was not really a place for him. He represents, according to the article, one of the fastest growing groups in the United States. The statistic that should make people think is that "almost one in three Americans in their mid-20's now fall into this group, up from one in five in the late 1960s. . . ."The article also notes that most of these young people come from poor and working class families. Mr. Blevins's experience provides the frame of the article. It seems colleges are reinforcing the class divide. Campuses that enroll poorer students tend to have the low graduation rates while the colleges with the highest graduation rates tend to enroll students from the higher income brackets. The article goes on to discuss other findings. For example, last year, the Department of Education found that 41% of low income students entering four years schools graduated within five years. There are various barriers for students in this situation as well: a lack of a good college preparation in high school, the outrageous costs of tuition that either make an education totally out of the question or leave students saddled with debt for years, and the lack of good role models; many of these people do not know anyone who has completed a college degree.

I work at an open admissions university. It means we pretty much admit anyone, and we do so throughout the year. It also means many of the students I work with fall in the category the article describes. From personal experience, I know these students face great odds to make it: family, work, commutes, lack of a good educational preparation, income, so on. These are students who need a lot of encouragement, but on the other hand, once they make it here, they tend to be very motivated. I know I will lose many of the students I see, but I also know a good number of them will defy the odds and make it. Part of the reason I came here is because I have the opportunity to work very closely with students that need to have someone with dedication and willingness to help out. Being an Instruction Librarian, I see many students through my BI sessions, but I also see many of them outside of class, and my desk has become a sort of stopping station for students working on papers and such. I don't mind. I give them my e-mail, tell them where I am at, and they actually come. I don't think I could find this as much in an "elite" institution. These students have very specific needs, but when given motivation, encouragement, and they see someone interested in their progress, they will blossom. For me, at least, it is a very exciting place to be in, even if at times not everything is as perfect as those other places. Having one student once in a while come and tell me, "I went from a D to a B in my English class, thanks for the help" definitely makes it worth it.

On an interesting note, the article notes further that some of the higher income kids are now concerned "that the system has moved so far from its old-boy history that they are now at a disadvantage when they apply, because colleges are trying to diversify their student rolls. To get into a good college, the sons and daughters of the upper middle class often talk of needing a higher SAT score than, say, an applicant who grew up on a farm, in a ghetto or in a factory town." Actually, this perception does defy the conventional wisdom, but the perception is there nonetheless. The "elite" colleges also face certain obstacles: risk of lowering their SAT average scores if they admit lower income students, less spots for alumni's children, higher tuition for those who can afford the price. It looks like a very delicate balancing act will be needed to assure that this nation lives up to its ideals of equality and opportunity. Just something to think about.

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