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     Access at the Crossroads Blog

    These blog entires identify best practices to increase success for historically-underrepresented college students including excerpts from my book, Access at the CrossroadsClick here to subscribe to this blog.


    Why the White House Summit on Low-Income Students Matters

    Why the White House Summit on Low-Income Students Matters

    Richard Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

    Yesterday, socioeconomic diversity on college campuses—an issue long overshadowed by the question of diversity by race—took center stage at the White House,  President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and the staffers Gene Sperling and James Kvaal convened an extraordinary meeting of more than 100 college presidents and 40 businesses and philanthropies to promote greater access and success for low-income students of all races.  The price of admission for participants was agreeing to make a tangible commitment to improve opportunities for disadvantaged students—a pledge to increase the proportion of students eligible for Pell Grants, for example, or to create a new mentoring program or a new high-school-outreach program.

    It would be tempting to dismiss this meeting as a one-day effort among a relatively small number of institutions. After all, most colleges across the country did not make commitments to greater equity and were not represented at the conference. Moreover, the effort was limited to the extent that the White House announced no new federal programs to support colleges in promoting educational opportunity for low-income students.  But putting the prestige of the White House behind an effort to extract pledges to increase socioeconomic diversity at a significant number of colleges represents a remarkable paradigm shift in American higher education. For almost 50 years, socioeconomic diversity has been higher education’s disfavored stepchild in comparison with racial diversity. Racial and socioeconomic diversity are related, of course, but they also represent distinct concerns, and in the past colleges have been much more willing to take on the former challenge than the latter.

    Socioeconomic gaps are much larger than racial gaps. Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, for example, found in a 2010 Century Foundation report that while white students are overrepresented at the nation’s most selective colleges by 15 percentage points, the most socioeconomically advantaged quarter of the population is overrepresented by 45 percentage points.  Likewise, in college admissions, while universities claim that they provide a boost to both underrepresented minorities and low-income students, careful research suggests that that is not true. A 2005 study by William Bowen found that while being black or Latino increased one’s chance of admission to selective colleges by 28 percentage points, being low-income did not increase one’s chances whatsoever.

    Why has higher education shown more progress in promoting racial diversity than socioeconomic diversity? For one thing, racial diversity (or a lack thereof) is more visible to the naked eye than is economic diversity. It is also more expensive to provide financial aid for low-income students than to recruit upper-middle-class students of all races. And while civil-rights groups are admirably organized to place pressure on colleges to address a lack of racial diversity, there are no strong constituency groups to lobby on behalf of low-income students per se.  That’s why the White House program to elicit from colleges concrete action plans for advancing economically disadvantaged students of all races is so significant. Effectively, the president and first lady threw their power and prestige behind a group that is largely voiceless in higher education.

    At the summit, colleges made a wide variety of pledges to help a mostly powerless constituency:

    • Franklin & Marshall College committed to raise its financial aid budget by 10 percent.
    • Miami Dade College agreed to provide mandatory advising for all first-time college students who have skills gaps.
    • Northeastern College committed to provide 150 full-tuition, need-based scholarships to graduates of Boston Public Schools.
    • Pomona College committed to increase the proportion of students receiving Pell Grants from 17 percent to at least 20 percent.
    • SUNY at Stony Brook committed to increase its four-year graduation rate to 60 percent by 2018, through expanded tutoring and a freeze on tuition for low-income students, among other steps.
    • The University of Arkansas committed to establish a six-week summer bridge program for low-income freshmen.
    • The University of Minnesota pledged to close the first-year retention rate between Pell-eligible students and those not receiving Pell Grants.
    • Vassar College will expand pre-orientation and support programs for low-income students and military veterans.
    • Yale University plans to increase by 50 percent the number of low-income students admitted as part of the QuestBridge program.

    What’s notable about those commitments is not their scale but that they were made despite incentives not to aid low-income students. The U.S. News & World Report rankings—chief arbiter of who is up and who is down—give no credit for enrolling low-income students; indeed, putting resources into financial aid could take money away from activities that do improve a college’s rankings.

    Significantly, President Obama’s own speech at the White House summit reinforced the day’s message about the salience of class over race. He pointed to his wife’s remarkable rise as a first-generation college student and implicitly contrasted that with the Obamas’ daughters, Sasha and Malia, who, at Sidwell Friends School, are showered with intensive advising and support not available to low-income students.  Of course, Sasha and Malia are not typical of African-American students nationally, who are disproportionately poor and will disproportionately benefit from the programs that Obama champions. Which is precisely why, in the long run, the White House summit may prove good not only for socioeconomic diversity but for racial diversity as well.

    The White House is surely aware that the legal winds are blowing against the explicit use of racial preferences in college admissions. In that sense, the president’s emphasis on low-income students of all races is welcome on two levels. He encourages colleges and universities to take new steps on behalf of economically disadvantaged students, for whom higher education has fallen short. And he is stimulating colleges to create—through a variety of programs—what may well become the affirmative-action plans of the future.


    Senators Consider Changes in TRIO and Gear Up College-Prep Programs

    While President Obama was urging college presidents on Thursday morning to follow through on their new commitments to improve access for low-income students, lawmakers on Capitol Hill dusted off some older promises for examination.  The U.S. Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee met for a special "round table" to discuss changes in two federal programs that aim to improve access by helping needy and minority students prepare for college—TRIO and Gear Up. The hearing was part of the coming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. 

    Consistent with past reauthorization hearings' focus on simplifying federal higher-education policy, some senators on Thursday questioned whether the two programs were still relevant.  Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the committee's senior Republican, asked a group of five panelists if the budgets for TRIO and Gear Up, which each encompass several separate programs, would be better spent on more Pell Grants.  Members of the panel giving testimony largely defended the programs' benefits, saying they offer one-on-one counseling and support that many students cannot get anywhere else, among other things.  Tallie Sertich, director of the Climb Upward Bound program at Hibbing Community College, in Minnesota, said many students who received Pell Grants "still need the academic preparation that the TRIO program provides on the front end."

    But senators and panel members agreed that simplifying federal student aid was in order. Senator Alexander alluded to past testimony that recommended shortening the main federal-student-aid application and informing students during their junior year of high school how much aid they will receive, among other changes.  Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who testified on Thursday, said such simplification "has been a great idea for years," and the committee should ask the Department of Education why it has not happened.  Other panel members stressed that simplification was only part of the solution. "We need a bunch of big strategies to make a big dent" in the access problem, said Douglas N. Harris, an associate professor of economics at Tulane University.

    Senators and panel members also focused on how to improve elementary and secondary education in order to increase college access. "Kids from low-income families come to the K-12 system already seriously behind," Mr. Haskins said, adding that "the K-12 system makes them further behind."  Sen. Elizabeth A. Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, widened the discussion, asking panel members to suggest ways to drastically increase the number of degree holders over the next several years. Members of the panel suggested more spending on TRIO and Gear Up, along with a greater focus on community colleges and precollege education.  Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and chairman of the committee, concluded the hearing by suggesting that the way forward for TRIO and Gear Up may be "incentivizing states to come up and support" the programs.


    Half of High School Sophomores Graduates from College

    A federal study tracking a cohort of high school sophomores over 10 years shows that about half had a postsecondary credential, that those who went straight to college after high school were far likelier to earn a degree, and that the bachelor's degree holders among them were less likely to be unemployed or to have lost a job since 2006.  The report, published by the National Center for Education Statistics and drawn from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, examines a range of employment and other outcomes a decade later for students who were high school sophomores that year. Among the findings: A third (33 percent) of the 2002 high school sophomores had earned a bachelor's degree or higher, another 9 percent had associate degrees, 10 percent had undergraduate-level certificates, and 32 percent had attended college but lacked a credential. Forty-two percent of fhose who went to college within three months of completing high school had earned a bachelor's degree, and 11 percent had earned a master's.  Of those who went to college, 40 percent had no student loan debt, 36 percent had borrowed less than $25,000, and 11 percent had more than $50,000 in student loans.  Those with some kind of postsecondary credential were less likely to be unemployed (11.8 percent, vs. 25.9 percent of those who did not complete high school and 15 percent who had only a high school diploma), and to have received public assistance (26.2 percent, vs. 47.2 and 32.4 percent, respectively).

    Read more:   Inside Higher Ed 


    Study finds key criteria that determine college success for low-income youth

    <Click on this link to download this report.>

    A five-year study by UC researchers that included a survey of California youth and interviews with more than 300 young adults about their interactions with educational institutions has identified the five key issues that matter most for understanding and improving college success for low-income students.  The $7.5 million study, “Pathways to Postsecondary Success: Maximizing Opportunities for Youth in Poverty,” spotlights the importance of student voices, an understanding of student diversity, asset-based approaches to education, strong connections between K–12 and higher education, and institutional support for students.  The study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was issued by the University of California’s All Campus Consortium on Research For Diversity (UC/ACCORD) at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSE&IS).

    “Our study began in 2008, at the onset of a critical economic downturn—the Great Recession—which impacted education and the labor market in considerably complex ways,” said UC/ACCORD director Daniel Solórzano, co-principal investigator on the study and a professor of social sciences and comparative education at GSE&IS. “It was clear the recession had an effect on both colleges and students. Budget cuts slashed enrollments at campuses and decreased the resources for those already enrolled. Many low-income students faced even greater financial instability from the scarcity of work or sudden unemployment of family members.  Therefore, at a time when students’ required additional support to stay on the path through college, the supports and conditions that are vital to their success were disappearing or overburdened on campuses.”

    While “Pathways” reports on national data, the study focused on California, which has the largest number of community colleges (112). The vast majority of low-income students in California who pursue post-secondary education begin at community colleges.

    Principal findings from the study include:

    • Student voices matter: Education is a powerful force in the lives of low-income youth, and hearing what students say about their experiences is essential to understanding their educational pathways and outcomes. Financial difficulties, lack of available classes, transportation problems and a lack of availability of child care are obstacles to many low-income students’ success. Yet students reported that when they experienced caring educators and high-quality instruction in high school or college, this made a difference in their engagement and success in college.
    • Diversity matters: Low-income youth are a diverse group, and understanding the similarities and differences in this student population enables administrators to better plan college success initiatives. In California, students of color make up the majority of community college enrollment, and many are the first in their family to attend college. Almost half (46 percent) of community college students are older, 54 percent work full-time and 16 percent are parents. “Common understandings of traditional college students may be less relevant as we plan for the growing number of community college students who are working full-time, raising families and have many responsibilities outside of school,” said Amanda L. Datnow, co-principal investigator on the study and a professor of education at UC San Diego. “These students are quickly becoming the majority, and we need to orient around their needs.”
    • Assets matter: Report findings indicate that an asset-based approach helps education administrators tap into and foster students’ strengths in order to support college success. Low-income students enroll and often persist in college, although not always in traditionally defined ways. They arrive with high aspirations to do well and either finish their certificate program or transfer to a four-year college. Successful programs at the colleges affirm and tap into these assets.
    • Connections between K–12 and higher education matter: High-quality K–12 schooling, combined with college preparatory resources, helps ensure college-going success for students. Nationally, 78 percent of low-income youth do not complete a college-preparatory curriculum in high school. In California, 85 percent of community college students require remediation in math and English to complete coursework they should have been taught in high school. Therefore, to ensure college readiness, better articulation between high schools and colleges needs to occur, and students need accurate information about enrollment practices and assessment procedures.
    • Institutional supports and conditions matter: While funding cuts have resulted in reductions in mentoring programs and supports for students, financial difficulties, transportation problems and a lack of child care also frustrate many low-income students’ attempts to fulfill their goals. Low-income students are particularly dependent on financial aid to attend college, and information about resources—including academic and other services—must be integrated and streamlined to make the existing process less complicated and easier to access.

    The multi-method study included the development of a monitoring tool to track educational opportunities for low-income youth. It also identified a set of indicators at the organizational level of community college campuses that support student success.


    Effects of Inequality and Poverty

    Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth by David C. Berliner <>

    Background/Context: This paper arises out of frustration with the results of school reforms carried out over the past few decades. These efforts have failed. They need to be abandoned. In their place must come recognition that income inequality causes many social problems, including problems associated with education. Sadly, compared to all other wealthy nations, the USA has the largest income gap between its wealthy and its poor citizens. Correlates associated with the size of the income gap in various nations are well described in Wilkinson & Pickett (2010), whose work is cited throughout this article. They make it clear that the bigger the income gap in a nation or a state, the greater the social problems a nation or a state will encounter. Thus it is argued that the design of better economic and social policies can do more to improve our schools than continued work on educational policy independent of such concerns.

    Purpose/Objective/Research Question: The research question asked is why so many school reform efforts have produced so little improvement in American schools. The answer offered is that the sources of school failure have been thought to reside inside the schools, resulting in attempts to improve America’s teachers, curriculum, testing programs and administration. It is argued in this paper, however, that the sources of America’s educational problems are outside school, primarily a result of income inequality. Thus it is suggested that targeted economic and social policies have more potential to improve the nations schools than almost anything currently being proposed by either political party at federal, state or local levels.

    Research Design: This is an analytic essay on the reasons for the failure of almost all contemporary school reform efforts. It is primarily a report about how inequality affects all of our society, and a review of some research and social policies that might improve our nations’ schools.

    Conclusions/Recommendations: It is concluded that the best way to improve America’s schools is through jobs that provide families living wages. Other programs are noted that offer some help for students from poor families. But in the end, it is inequality in income and the poverty that accompanies such inequality, that matters most for education.


    Digital Story of the Nativity (YouTube 2010)


    New WWC Quick Review on Daily Online Testing in Large Classes: Boosting College Performance While Reducing Achievement Gaps

    This study investigated the effect of daily quizzes on the performance of college students. Students in an introductory psychology course used their own wireless-enabled devices to take short, Internet-based quizzes at the beginning of every class. The quiz items were drawn approximately equally from material covered in the readings and the lectures. The study authors examined impacts of the daily quizzes on student performance in the psychology course, in addition to other classes taken during the same semester and during the semester following the introductory psychology class.

    The intervention took place during the fall 2011 semester, and the performance of intervention students was compared to students from the fall 2008 semester. About 50% of the students in the sample were racial/ethnic minorities, and about 60% were female. About 20% of students were first generation college students, and most students were in their first or second year of college.  The study authors reported that there was a nearly statistically significant effect (p = 0.06) of the daily quizzes on student performance in introductory psychology. Specifically, the daily quizzes incorporated 17 items that were also used on tests given during the comparison semester. Students in the daily quiz condition scored higher on these 17 items (77%) than the comparison students (71%). In addition, students in the intervention condition earned higher grades in their other courses during both the fall (3.07 vs. 2.96) and the subsequent spring (3.10 vs. 2.98) semesters. However, it is unknown whether these differences are statistically significant. Finally, the authors reported a statistically significant interaction suggesting that these effects were strongest among lower-middle SES students.  This study is a cohort-based quasi-experiment, and as such could meet WWC evidence standards with reservations. However, more information is needed from the study authors regarding the comparability of the intervention and comparison students at baseline before a rating can be given. A more thorough review (forthcoming) will determine the final study rating and report more fully on the study’s results.

    Citation: Pennebaker, J., Gosling, S. D., & Ferrell, J. D. (2013). Daily online testing in large classes: Boosting college performance while reducing achievement gaps. PLoS One 8(11): e79774