Taking on the non-cognitive side of the equation
MAY 27, 2015
BY: TODD PENNER
The wake-up call for Dell Scholar Amy Carabes Esquivel came when she failed her first psychology test as a junior at the University of Houston. The youngest of three and the first in her family to graduate high school, Amy worked with her professor to hone her study skills, learning to make flash cards and better schedule her studying to avoid last-minute cramming and combat test anxiety.
But it wasn’t just a matter of study skills. Amy was juggling a 30-hour-a-week job at a call center to help pay her bills so that she wasn’t a financial burden on her family. In the meantime, she saw friends pulling in full-time paychecks and wondered if she should do the same. She had always been a huge support to her family, and she felt a sense of guilt focusing on herself and her studies.
Clearing academic and financial hurdles isn’t enough
Despite those obstacles, Amy successfully earned her psychology degree in 2014. However she is the exception, as only 16 percent of low-income students nationally who enroll in college receive a bachelor’s degree within six years. While improving low-income students’ access to college is crucial, even more important is getting them through college with a diploma in hand. Clearly, that 16 percent figure tells us we have much work ahead.
As Amy’s experience shows, many factors can threaten a student’s chance of securing a degree. College-readiness efforts often focus on boosting students’ academic skills, via a rigorous high school curriculum, and addressing college affordability hurdles. But to make students truly college ready we also need to pay more attention to developing non-cognitive skills—such as resilience or self-regulation—to help them complete tough college coursework and handle the myriad of life challenges that surface over a college career.
These skills are especially critical for low-income students, who, like Amy, often have to juggle substantial competing demands outside school for their time, energy and focus.
Those pressures can have real consequences. Up to 75 percent of all college drop-out decisions among historically underrepresented students are non-academic in nature, according to a 2012 report by the National College Access Network and Institute for Higher Education Policy.
Research by Angela Duckworth, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that when it comes to high achievement, “grit” may be as essential as intelligence. (Duckworth has defined grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”) Duckworth and other researchers are studying the role grit and other factors play in college completion among low-income students, and she even believes that grit can be learned.
Character counts: More skill-building needed
These vital non-cognitive or “soft” skills break down into two basic categories: How to be a more effective student and how to better handle problems as they arise. Some of the foundation’s partners are already doing this work to help students fully prepare for college. Programs like Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID)are teaching tens of thousands of students across the country effective note-taking, time-management and study skills, helping students develop critical thinking skills and teaching them to ask probing questions. High-performing KIPP charter schools include a curriculum to develop seven character strengths that are highly correlated to success (such as zest, grit, optimism, self-control and curiosity) and track students’ progress in mastering character competency.
But we need more such efforts to broadly foster students’ skills in these key areas. And we need to ensure that character education becomes just as integral to preparing students like Amy for college as academic training and financial aid. Every link in the chain, from high schools and colleges to nonprofits concerned about college readiness and completion, needs to address the non-cognitive side of the equation. We owe it to low-income students to not just open the door to college, but to make sure they walk out that door like Amy did, with a diploma in hand.
 The Pell Institute, 2011
 Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Personality processes and individual differences. Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101
By Cecilia Gaposchkin
It’s that time of year again: At many colleges, second-year students must declare their majors. Uncles, grandmothers, and friends will almost certainly ask: “What are you going to do with that?” Some parents will say, “I am not going to shell out this amount of money for my kid to major in ….”
Such responses are based on the premise that choosing a major amounts to choosing a career path, and thus a particular financial future, a degree of security, a lifestyle, an entire identity. The choice seems synonymous with “What do you want to do with your life?” and even “Who do you want to be?” As it is often understood, the decision is loaded in ways that are not useful for the student or for the mission of higher education.
As professors and academic advisers, we must be mindful of how pervasive these misconceptions are. We should take every opportunity to offer guidance to our students as they make these decisions. The premise that choosing a major is choosing a career rests on the faulty notion that “the major” is important for its content, and that the acquisition of that content is what’s valuable — meaning valuable to employers.
But information is fairly easy to acquire. And much of the information acquired in 2015 will be obsolete by 2020. What is valuable is not the content of a major, but rather the ability to think with and through that information. That is the aim of a liberal-arts education, no matter the major.
Ask employers. Company representatives who recruit at my college consistently say they don’t really care about someone’s major. What they want are basic but difficult-to-acquire skills. When they ask students about their majors, it’s usually not because they want to assess the applicants’ mastery of the content, but rather because they want to know if the students can talk about what they learned. They care about a potential employee’s abilities: writing, researching, quantitative, and analytical skills. Some majors teach and hone some of these skills more than others do. Some career paths will use some more than others. But almost all white-collar jobs will require writing, communication, assessment, numeracy, and above all the creative application of knowledge.
To assume a necessary link between particular courses of study and students’ career prospects is to limit their options, and in many cases, their capacity for discovery and intellectual growth. Dartmouth College, for example, has educated two U.S. treasury secretaries, yet neither of them majored in economics or government: Henry Paulson was an English major, and Timothy Geithner majored in Asian and Middle Eastern studies. Plenty of other Dartmouth alumni explode the perceived link between major and careers: Jake Tapper, CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, majored in history; Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who wrote and directed The Lego Movie and directed 21 Jump Street, majored in government and art history, respectively.
An alumnus who is a physician told me this year that majoring in history (my discipline) was the best thing he ever did. He explained that much of his job is listening to people’s stories and trying to figure out patterns and irregularities, and that doing those things well was what his history major had taught him.
On a larger scale, the premise of the “practical major” is corroding college intellectual life. As students flock to the two or three majors they see as good investments, professors who teach in those majors are overburdened, and the majors themselves become more formulaic and less individualized. A vocational approach to liberal-arts education eviscerates precisely the qualities that are most valuable about it: intellectual curiosity and passion.
“The big majors,” a political scientist at Dartmouth told me recently, “collect a lot of students who aren’t really interested in the subject, and, because of the class sizes, those students lose out on highly individualized instruction.”
The irony, he added, “is that the seemingly practical majors aren’t practical. The government department doesn’t teach you how to get and keep power. The econ department doesn’t teach you how to make and maintain wealth. The computer-science department doesn’t teach you how to code the way Google needs its engineers to code. Each of these are taught as a liberal art.”
And it turns out that the so-called practical major may not even be the best investment. A 2012report suggests that, by students’ senior year, those studying in the liberal arts may be better critical thinkers than those who majoring in business. It is thinking within and with a discipline, idea, or problem that pushes the mind toward the creativity and confidence that underlie productive and informed action.
Graduates majoring in “practical” majors may well start at higher salaries than their counterparts in, say, comparative literature or art history. But as Derek Bok said in Our Underachieving Colleges, we should look at how graduates fare 15 years down the road. Often it is the art historians and anthropology majors, for example, who, having marshaled the abilities of perspective, breadth, creativity, and analysis, have moved a company or project or vision forward. The real investment comes in learning how to think. And the student who has chosen a major based on what she loves has increased the value of that investment.
By releasing students from the pressure of the practical major and allowing them to study what they are sincerely interested in, we allow them to become smarter, more creative, and more able. This is what potential employers value, not course content that is likely to be obsolete once they have finished training the recent graduate.
Cecilia Gaposchkin is an associate professor of history and assistant dean of faculty for premajor advising at Dartmouth College
Singing the First-Generation Blues
By Dwight Lang
A couple of years ago, one of my students arrived during office hours with questions about the sociology course I teach each year, “The Experience of Social Class in College and the Community.” But like so many other first-generation students I have taught, this student’s most pressing questions were really about her struggle to fit in at a university where most students, as well as staff and faculty members, could not relate to her experience.
She was upset after hearing a professor in another course criticize the work of those who cleaned campus classrooms, offices, and restrooms. And the workers who cleaned the grounds weren’t much better, he complained. No one challenged him as he pondered the inferior work ethic of those who did menial labor. Would students’ reactions have been different, I wondered, had the professor grumbled about the workers’ race or sex?
The student left class feeling invisible and powerless. If she defended “those people” and disclosed that her family members did such work, would she put herself at risk? Would testing the professor’s authority hurt her grade? Would she be stigmatized in a classroom where most students were more affluent, “continuing-gens” whose parents had graduated from college?
I call stories like that “the first-gen blues.” They remind me of the Longfellow poem “The Rainy Day,” which includes this line made famous by the Ink Spots in the 1940s: “Into each life some rain must fall.”
In my course on social class in college, which I teach at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, we explore how first-generation students negotiate class terrain: how they might respond to disparaging comments about “white trash”; whether class differences are relevant during discussions of race or gender inequalities; and what students might say or feel when they can’t afford to attend a movie with friends. This is tricky business at Michigan because many students believe social class doesn’t exist or see it as a result of poor choices.
First-generation students can find a supportive place in a group called First Generation College Students@Michigan, which I’ve advised since 2008. It holds special significance for me because I was the first and only member of my family to attend or graduate from college.
In an era when it’s unacceptable to complain about supposed behaviors and attitudes of women and minority-group members, few sanctions exist when working- and lower-class people are belittled. “First-gen blues” circulate freely at selective colleges like ours, where in the fall of 2013 just under 11 percent of students reported themselves as first-generation, meaning neither parent had graduated from college. Those blues are shaped by three interrelated elements: finances, family and community concerns, and campus culture.
Money is a constant worry for low-income students, whose parents can’t cover most college expenses. Neither can scholarships, grants, and work-study. Loans and significant debt are inevitable. As high-school seniors, future first-generation students face inordinate difficulties in completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (Fafsa) forms. Summer vacations are spent working for wages instead of in unpaid internships that would add significantly to a student’s “cultural capital.”
Relationships with family members, meanwhile, are often complicated for first-generation students. Their parents can offer little advice about college life, and frequently worry about how their children might change while attending college. A son could start thinking differently when he comes home for the summer after taking a course like “Class, Race, Gender, and Modernity” (a course I taught a few years ago). Will Mom and Dad understand the need to move far from home to pursue a career? Will their daughter think she’s somehow better after graduating from Michigan’s law school and marrying a medical student whose mother is a famous cardiovascular surgeon? This high-achieving daughter may be silently anxious about her own cross-class family structure and marriage: Will her working-class parents be able to comfortably communicate with grandchildren raised in an upper-middle-class home or easily converse with the parents of their son-in-law?
Unlike the continuing-gens for whom college represents part of a seamless connection between middle-class pasts and secure futures, first-gens experience four years on campus as a portal to middle- or upper-middle-class lives. They may learn new middle-class beliefs and ways, but deep inside they’re never entirely middle-class. They’re in-between and often uncomfortable. Many experience performance fatigue and are unable to publicly project the more-familiar, more-comfortable expressions and behaviors of their veiled selves.
Upward mobility, openly celebrated as the foundation of the American Dream, can produce emotional separation between students and their working-class families and communities. This complex sense of loss can generate insecurities, sometimes impeding academic achievements and requiring social and career adjustments during and after college.
The “blues” aren’t easily discussed on campuses like Michigan. After arriving on campus, first-gens easily recognize differences. They hear fellow students tell stories over dinner about trips to Europe or Asia before high-school graduation. Sometimes another student might innocently inquire, What’s Fafsa? When sympathetic continuing-gens ask what it was like to “grow up with nothing,” many first-gens cringe, wondering how anyone could think that the first 18 years of their lives — years spent surrounded by a loving, supportive family — amounted to “nothing.”
Campus life for first-gens might involve a work-study job like peeling onions in back rooms of dorm cafeterias. As they save every dollar for books and other expenses, many first-gens can’t afford to eat out or move into costly off-campus housing because their share of rent would be too high. And how do they respond to theme-based parties (I have actually seen some in student neighborhoods) inviting revelers to come dressed as trailer trash or ghetto inhabitants?
Some first-gens just shake their heads and walk away from offensive social settings. Others might discuss hurtful comments with academic advisers, housing directors, department chairs, or other administrators. And some write thoughtful op-eds for their campus newspapers.
Even when a college’s staff members or administrators act to confront humiliating words and actions, those endless blues persist. Even in the absence of overt classism, subtle class differences linger under the radar. Class is ever present for first gens, whether in the classroom, hanging out with friends, or back at home.
But those “first-gen blues” can also be a source of strength as students take risks, persist, meet others from different social-class backgrounds, and cross boundaries to new places where they can realize dreams and accomplishments.
Their considerable insights prepare them to live with purpose, and to become effective professionals, citizens, and parents who have firsthand experiences with class differences.
What became of my student? She graduated with honors and recently completed two Teach for America years working with preschoolers and their working-class parents in Tulsa, Okla. She’s back in Michigan for graduate school, and regularly receives letters and notes of appreciation.
As that Longfellow poem tells us, “Behind the clouds is the sun still shining.”
Dwight Lang is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. His essay “Those of Us From Rio Linda” appears in Class Lives: Stories From Across Our Economic Divide (Cornell University Press, 2014).
Colleges amp up efforts to retain them, but hurdles remain
By Katherine Mangan
Tae-Hyun Sakong would love to be able to tell his parents why he decided to major in neuroscience, and what it was like to help his biology professor probe a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
The Trinity University undergraduate also wishes he could tell them about the anxiety and depression that overwhelm him when he compares himself with classmates who attended elite prep schools and spend spring breaks in Cancun. But his parents, who never went to college, speak little English, and he speaks his native Korean at a grade-school level.
“I would kill to be able to explain to them what I do,” he says.
Michael Soto, an associate professor of English at Trinity, understands. A first-generation college student himself, he grew up in Brownsville, Tex., on the border with Mexico. His parents couldn’t understand why he decided to pursue a doctorate in English after graduating from Stanford.
“It was probably four years into graduate school that my mom finally stopped asking me when I was going to go to law school,” he says.
The support Mr. Soto received as an undergraduate prompted him to become a champion for first-generation students, who now represent about 15 percent of Trinity’s undergraduate population.
Mr. Sakong, 22, says that if it weren’t for professors like Mr. Soto and James Roberts, his biology professor and adviser, he would have dropped out long ago.
As colleges seek to diversify their student bodies and patch up their leaky pipelines for disadvantaged students, many are expanding efforts to connect students who are the first in their families to attend college with supportive classmates, advisers, and professors. Some colleges have formal, longstanding programs in place, while others offer scholarships or informal support groups. But despite the fact that a growing number of first-generation college students are arriving on their doorsteps, many other colleges are doing little to meet their needs, either because they have trouble identifying such students or because their budgets are strained.
The challenges these students face are daunting. First-generation students tend to work longer hours at their jobs, are less likely to live on campus, and are more likely to have parents who would struggle to complete financial-aid forms. They’re also more likely to arrive academically unprepared for the rigors of college and to require remediation before they can start earning college credit.
Many feel the tug of family responsibilities, rushing home after class to take care of younger siblings or missing classes to care for an ailing grandparent.
The disparity in household income is striking: Median family income at two- and four-year institutions for freshmen whose parents didn’t attend college was $37,565 last year, compared with $99,635 for those whose parents did. The New York Times calculated those figures using data from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Having lived so close to the margins, “first-generation students tend to be risk-averse,” says Thomas G. Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.
“Many of them continue being breadwinners for their families when they go off to college.”
Clearly, these students need extra support to stay enrolled, and colleges have a strong interest in identifying their most vulnerable groups to keep them from dropping out. Butidentifying first-generation students isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Colleges usually have to rely on self-reporting, since the Census Bureau no longer tracks parents’ education attainment. The Common Application, like many colleges’ own applications, asks students about the highest level of education their parents achieved. More than 28 percent of the 800,000 students who used the Common Application last year reported that they were first-generation students. They represent a diverse swath of society. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where about one in five undergraduates is a first-generation student, about 90 percent are white, many from small towns and farms.
Then there’s the whole issue of whom to include. Some colleges use the first-generation designation when neither of the student’s parents attended college. Others define it more narrowly to mean that neither parent graduated from college, or from a four-year college in the United States. That definition, used for eligibility in some federal-aid programs, would consider the daughter of two community-college graduates a first-generation college student.
However you define them, first-generation students represent a significant share of the prospective students that colleges, eager to trumpet their track records in diversifying their enrollments, are trying to recruit.
Of students who entered four-year colleges as freshmen last year, more than 45 percent reported that their fathers had no college degree of any kind, and 42 percent said their mothers lacked degrees, a survey found. About a quarter of their parents had no postsecondary education, according to the survey by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.
The Council of Independent Colleges concluded in a report released earlier this year that small and midsize colleges, with their small classes, involved faculty members, and extracurricular activities, do the best job retaining low-income and first-generation students. The students are more likely to finish their bachelor’s degrees in four years at a smaller private college than they are in six years at a public nondoctoral university, the researchers found.
Despite the higher sticker prices at small private colleges, first-generation students who attend them pay on average only $1,000 more per year than do similar students at public research universities, mostly because of more generous scholarships, the report found.
Smith College is a case in point. Seventeen percent of its undergraduate students have parents who didn’t graduate from college, and it is among the institutions that offer generous perks to qualified first-generation students. Last month, at a campus event for newly accepted students, faculty and staff members who were themselves the first in their families to attend college wore T-shirts proclaiming their first-generation status.
Among them was the college’s president, Kathleen McCartney.
“I want them to know that I was once a first-generation college student and that they should set their aspirations as high as they want to,” she says. While first-generation students tend to feel pressure to emerge from college with a clear career path, “I want them to know that if they want to major in philosophy, they should major in philosophy,” she says. She tells students that employers value strong liberal-arts backgrounds.
When elite institutions like Smith, Amherst College, or Harvard University enroll significant numbers of first-generation students, their stories are often splashed across the news. But regional state universities and community colleges have been identifying and supporting these students for decades, through federal TRIO programs, a collection of outreach and student-services efforts geared toward low-income students.
“We have seen this trend of elite colleges and universities that are well endowed actively and aggressively recruiting low-income, first-generation students,” says James T. Minor, deputy assistant secretary for higher-education programs at the U.S. Department of Education.
“They tend to be high-achieving students, and we think that’s wonderful,” he adds. “But that, unfortunately, is not the majority of students from that demographic.” He believes the overwhelming majority of first-generation students attend community colleges and open-access four-year public colleges, many of which, he says, have benefited from 50 years of TRIO-funded programs.
Some examples include a “talent search” program that allows colleges to offer intensive preparation for students at underserved schools and the McNair Scholars Program, which encourages first-generation and other underrepresented college students like Trinity’s Mr. Sakong to pursue doctoral study.
California State University-Dominguez Hills is a largely minority campus in Los Angeles’s South Bay where more than 60 percent of freshmen are the first in their immediate families to attend college. The university offers a TRIO-funded support program for first-generation and low-income students that includes academic coaching, tutoring, peer mentoring, financial-literacy training, and graduate-school preparation.
“Everyone always asks, Is the student ready for college? But we also ask, Is the university ready for the student?” says William Franklin, interim vice president of enrollment management and student affairs. He was a first-generation student himself who graduated from the University of Southern California after being recruited by USC and a TRIO program called Upward Bound.
“We need to ensure that we work closely with parents,” he said, “and that first-generation students know how to navigate this place when they may not have a parent or sibling to talk to about financial aid, housing, or adding and dropping classes.”
A number of public universities have designated scholarships for first-generation students, but many are deterred by the extra cost of intensive advising and financial support the students typically require.
“The budget pressures that all higher education is under have four-year state institutions, particularly flagships, looking more carefully at the revenue potential of those they enroll,” says Mr. Mortenson of the Pell Institute. According to that metric, foreign and out-of-state students who pay full freight are the most valuable, while, he says, “the lowest priority are the lowest-income students who require an institutional discount.”
Those students, though, make up a sizable chunk of the total prospective student population, and many colleges have concluded that they’re worth investing in.
To help students who are most likely to fall through the cracks, a nonprofit group called the College Advising Corps this year placed about 450 recent college graduates of its 23 partner colleges into more than 500 underserved high schools in 14 states. The new graduates serve as full-time college advisers, supplementing the work of professional college advisers who, on average, are responsible for 450 students (and up to 1,000 or more in states like California), according to Nicole Hurd, founder and chief executive of the advising group.
About 70 percent of the corps’ young advisers are from underrepresented minority groups, and more than half have parents who never graduated from college.
An analysis of the program by Stanford University found that high-school seniors who met with an adviser were 30 percent more likely to apply to college, 24 percent more likely to be accepted by at least one, and 26 percent more likely to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa.
And despite their disadvantaged economic status, three quarters of the students who enrolled in college persisted through the second year — about the same as the national average.
A spokesman for the advising group said it doesn’t yet have comparative graduation rates, but it hopes to start tracking them soon.
One of those advisers, Erica R. Elder, returned to her high school in Bassett, Va., to provide the kind of boost that helped get her into the University of Virginia.
The challenges she has faced as an adviser remind her of her own struggles while applying to college.
She has encountered students who didn’t see college as a realistic option, and who were ready to give up with any minor setback in the admissions process. Parents who were ashamed about their meager earnings and ignorance about college wouldn’t look her in the eye during financial-aid nights.
But when acceptances started rolling in for students she has advised, she would arrive at school at 8 a.m. to find two or three students ready to greet her. “When they come bursting into my office,” she says, “it’s the best feeling in the world.”