More than a test score

Another great piece from Paul Tough. This time a New York Times magazine article entitled “Who gets to graduate?” Its about what matters most to graduating from college. The answer isn’t your ACT or SAT score.

Tough is the author of  two terrific books on education success, particularly by poor kids. Whatever It Takes (about the Harlem Children’s Zone) and How Children Succeed. Both worth reading, particularly How Children Succeed. (You can find two previous post I did on How Children Succeed here and here.)

In the new article, Tough explores poor kids performance in higher education. Specifically at the highly selective University of Texas, Austin. He starts with the depressing statistics. He writes:

When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college — who show up on campus and enroll in classes — but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.

The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.

When you read about those gaps, you might assume that they mostly have to do with ability. Rich kids do better on the SAT, so of course they do better in college. But ability turns out to be a relatively minor factor behind this divide. If you compare college students with the same standardized-test scores who come from different family backgrounds, you find that their educational outcomes reflect their parents’ income, not their test scores. Take students like Vanessa (the main subject of the article), who do moderately well on standardized tests — scoring between 1,000 and 1,200 out of 1,600 on the SAT. If those students come from families in the top-income quartile, they have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating with a four-year degree. If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation. (Emphasis added.)

So if SAT (or ACT) don’t predict well who graduates from college, what does? That is the question Tough explores in the article. And what he finds will surprise most. Tough writes:

To the extent that the Stanford researchers shared a unifying vision, it was the belief that students were often blocked from living up to their potential by the presence of certain fears and anxieties and doubts about their ability.  … The negative thoughts took different forms in each individual, of course, but they mostly gathered around two ideas. One set of thoughts was about belonging. Students in transition often experienced profound doubts about whether they really belonged — or could ever belong — in their new institution. The other was connected to ability. Many students believed in what Carol Dweck (leading edge Stanford researcher) had named an entity theory of intelligence — that intelligence was a fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study. And so when they experienced cues that might suggest that they weren’t smart or academically able — a bad grade on a test, for instance — they would often interpret those as a sign that they could never succeed. Doubts about belonging and doubts about ability often fed on each other, and together they created a sense of helplessness. That helplessness dissuaded students from taking any steps to change things. Why study if I can’t get smarter? Why go out and meet new friends if no one will want to talk to me anyway? Before long, the nagging doubts became self-fulfilling prophecies. (Emphasis added.)

Tough then explores what UT Austin is doing to instill a sense of confidence in students with a high risk of not completing college that they can overcome doubts about belonging and ability. The encouraging news is that they are finding ways to make a big difference in the outcomes of minority and low income students. To get them on a path to graduation and the vastly improved life outcomes that come with earning a four year degree. From a variety of programs to simply messaging UT Austin is finding success by changing how students react to the inevitable failure they experience. Tough writes: “Those students (poor and/or minority) often misinterpret temporary setbacks as a permanent indication that they can’t succeed or don’t belong at U.T. For those students, the intervention can work as a kind of inoculation. And when, six months or two years later, the germs of self-doubt try to infect them, the lingering effect of the intervention allows them to shrug off those doubts exactly the way the advantaged students do.”

Tough concludes with why getting this right matters to all of us. Matters to realizing the core American value of equal opportunity for all. And matters for the future success of the American economy which is increasingly  knowledge-based and talent driven.  He writes:

It matters, in all sorts of ways, whether students like Vanessa and her fellow U.L.N. members are able to graduate from a four-year college. The data show that today, more than ever, the most powerful instrument of economic mobility for low-income Americans is a four-year college degree. If a child is born into a family in the lowest economic quintile (meaning a family that earns $28,000 or less), and she doesn’t get a college degree, she has only a 14 percent chance of winding up in one of the top two quintiles, and she has a 45 percent chance of never making it out of that bottom bracket. But if she does earn a four-year degree, her prospects change completely. Suddenly, there is a 40 percent chance that she’ll make it into one of the top two quintiles — and just a 16 percent chance that she’ll remain stuck at the bottom.

Beyond the economic opportunities for the students themselves, there is the broader cost of letting so many promising students drop out, of losing so much valuable human capital. For almost all of the 20th century, the United States did a better job of producing college graduates than any other country. But over the past 20 years, we have fallen from the top of those international lists; the United States now ranks 12th in the world in the percentage of young people who have earned a college degree. During the same period, a second trend emerged: American higher education became more stratified; most well-off students now do very well in college, and most middle- and low-income students struggle to complete a degree. These two trends are clearly intertwined. And it is hard to imagine that the nation can regain its global competitiveness, or improve its level of economic mobility, without reversing them. (Emphasis added.)

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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