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When my grandfather dropped my belongings and me on the doorsteps of Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, he gave me $50, patted me on the back and left me with a simple “Good luck.” Being the first in my family to attend a four-year college, I was completely unprepared for what came next, wanting a map to navigate the whitest place I’d been to that point. I needed advice on how to talk with faculty and how to join a fraternity. With the money in my pocket and a laundry basket in my hand, I watched Grandpa drive off as I asked myself, “What am I doing here?”
Unfortunately, my introduction to Allegheny is the way thousands of students begin college life. They — and their families — labor under the widespread assumption that they are prepared for college because they’ve completed high school and attained a certain score on a standardized test. And if students don’t graduate in four to six years, we hear criticisms that their high schools didn’t prepare them for college, or that “Not everyone should go to college.”
Alleging that low college graduation rates reflect (a lack of) high school preparation eliminates the role of colleges in the equation. We should be also questioning if colleges are ready for low-income students and students of color.
The higher education research group Wisconsin Hope Lab defines food insecurity as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods.” According to a new study they published in March, two in three community college students they surveyed are food insecure — an increase of 50 percent from their 2015 report.
And students are not just lacking in food; many don’t even have a kitchen. The same group confirmed the findings of two studies that estimated an average of 13 percent of community college students may be homeless. Half of the community college students surveyed in both studies were housing insecure, which refers to the inability to pay rent or utilities or having to move frequently.
More than 400 colleges and universities have joined the College and University Food Bank Alliance, a professional organization committed to alleviating food insecurity and hunger by providing free food or meal plans for students who need it. That’s a good start, but it’s not enough. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 provides resources in the form of financial assistance and services to make college accessible for homeless youth. Many colleges are using these services to keep dorms open between semesters, provide off-campus housing or offer other services linked to homelessness, but these services don’t seem to be meeting the need.
Food and shelter are not the only obstacles that lead to students leaving college early. Let’s scrutinize the economic and cultural factors that decrease college graduation rates.
The practice of colleges raising tuition to cover mismanagement or bad enrollment predictions has hurt more low-income folks than their supposed lack of preparation ever did. The lobby for colleges and universities, the American Council on Education, found last year that as the out-of-pocket amount a student pays for a four-year degree has increased, college enrollment has decreased among low-income students more than any other economic group. Poverty matters. If campuses don’t attend to what slows down low-income students’ progression by controlling pricing for low-income students and offering more need-based grants, then we can’t wag our fingers at their preparation.
And while the ability to take college-level math matters, black lives matter on campus, too. Many students feel that they are treated as if they don’t belong on campus. Sometimes that feeling comes from explicit appeals to maintain a “white nation” through signs on campus. But mostly, feelings of isolation come from traditions and practices that are vestiges of our segregated past. Fraternity row is still one of the most segregated places on predominately white campuses because administrators have not found ways to erect comparable housing for black Greeks in spaces that were once segregated. Segregation in the past impacts campus life today.
The point is that there are many factors that colleges can control that contribute to students dropping out. But, even though they should know better, many colleges wrongly recruit and host students with the assumption that achievement tests and other academic variables are good enough indicators of readiness.
The producers of the SAT and ACT have cautiously claimed for some time now that the tests are only reasonable predictors for first-year college grades. However, new research shows that for many colleges, the scores don’t even predict that. The National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), a trade organization for the field, found that 51 percent of the schools they surveyed didn’t even conduct predictive validity studies, which measure if the achievement tests are useful in predicting for retention.
Grade-point averages (GPA) are better indicators of college readiness for students who get high grades and low test scores than for those who get top test scores and bad grades. But these are often devalued by college admissions offices. And as a former college administrator, I’ve witnessed the unconscious bias and outright discrimination against schools with low-income students that lead admissions officers to devalue GPAs, and, ultimately, students.
There is much more to graduation than what happens in high school. Colleges should develop support systems to reflect that.
I graduated in four years (with significant speed bumps along the way) not because of a pat on the back from my grandfather. In addition to the $50 he gave me, I got many times that in scholarship money from Allegheny. College-sponsored clubs and organizations on campus focused on black culture and helped transform the college climate. I had a black faculty mentor and a track team that was supportive.
Persistence is as much about how colleges prepare for all students as it is about how students prepare for them.