The Disease is Poverty, says SVC President Gross on Educating “First-Gens”

Southern Vermont College President Karen Gross, a NEBHE delegate, wrote the following comment to National Journal’s recent Next America forum on educating first-generation college students:

Paying attention to improving the graduation rates among first-generation college students has gained fervor. We now appreciate the need to get vulnerable students to and through college if America is ever to regain its competitive edge and rank as the most educated workforce in the world. The goal is laudable.

With varying success, institutions of higher education have focused on raising graduation rates among first-gens by: adding academic and psychosocial support systems; improving alignment between high school courses and college readiness; developing quality peer and professional mentoring; establishing living and learning communities; changing and improving pedagogy, and augmenting technology, among other strategies.

These efforts, however, are treating the symptoms, not the disease. The “disease” is poverty, and it adversely affects educational attainment. The government’s proposed IHE rating system will measure (how effectively is another question) the effectiveness of the treatment options. As is true in medicine, we need treatments, but we would be vastly better off focusing on disease prevention and a cure. Making matters worse, the current ratings proposals create one perverse incentive, encouraging institutions of higher education (IHEs) not to serve vulnerable students and an empirical quagmire (as needed data are flawed, incomplete or unavailable).

The “disease” is exemplified by the following three data points (among many): 1) At age 18 months, high socioeconomic status (SES) infants know 30,000 more words than their low SES peers, affecting reading capacity; 2) the number of children receiving free and reduced lunch is growing rapidly, and postsecondary enrollment correlates negatively with poverty; and 3) aspiration rates for postsecondary education correlate to parental educational levels, with low goals for children whose parents had only a high school degree.

Instead of focusing on rating colleges, our government needs to identify those IHEs that are, sadly, defrauding our students and address the accreditors that enable this situation to persist. Then, we need to spend large portions of our precious time and limited resources on education for: 1) prospective low SES parents that presents doable pathways for helping their infants progress academically; 2) low SES children ages 2-4 and their parents that fosters ways to narrow early learning gaps; and 3) low SES children of all ages that works to close the aspiration gap. And we should measure our success on these key indicators.

Yes, until we find a cure or prevention for what ails America’s children, we should continue our treatment plans. But, these are stopgap measures. Addressing poverty and its educational consequences are what should occupy much of both public and private wealth, work and wisdom.

Gross has written for NEJHE on:

Helicopters, Lawn Mowers or Down-to-Earth Parents? What Works Best for Higher Education

Saving Pell Grants in an Era of Cost-Cutting

College Tries “Mini-mesters” and More to Improve Readiness





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