Today’s Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Ed are reporting on a study that explored the impact of “nudges” to encourage low-income, high ability students to apply to competitive colleges. This comes on the heels of last year’s report on chronic undermatching of these students with more prestigious opportunities. The results were, in my view, predictable. The nudges did not help.
So, to the predictable part… nudges with little cultural or financial framework are simply ads that we need to delete. While the College Board waived application fees so that low-income students didn’t have to bear the cost of applying to schools, this is just a small part of the ways that those more competitive (elite) schools might not seem inviting. Let’s face it, we’re all talking about college costs and how to contain them. Students looking at colleges, low-income or middle-class, are really worried about debt. Tuition prices are more or less knowable, but the availability of financial aid awards is largely hidden and difficult to pin down. So, why go through all of that work to understand the complex formulas under the costs of education, and potentially be disappointed, especially when an apparently reasonably priced alternative exists?
Culturally, there is more. Students need to have a vision of themselves at a school to want to be there. If everyone looks affluent, well, it just doesn’t look welcoming to a low-income student. I’m not even getting into all of the issues of diversity that face these competitive/elite schools. If we just focus on the dollars, there is plenty to scare a student away. The solidly middle-class tend not to notice the extra-curriculars they can afford, the internships they can afford to not be paid for, the volunteer time they can afford to give, and the many little add-ons (trips to museums, spring break events, concerts) that keep the less affluent from full participation in this version of higher education.
Then, of course, there’s the rest of it. Students may leverage local universities so they can avoid housing costs. They may wish to not go too far from home so that they know they have a support system within driving distance. Some may choose a school that seems to have students that have had experiences of the world like theirs so that the unfamiliar world of higher education is made more familiar by virtue of peer groups.
All of this is the “duh” component of these findings. It was a well-intentioned effort, but really reduced the complexity of college choice and access in un-nuanced ways. But I am much more troubled by they very notion of undermatching. You see, I’m not sure what’s wrong with my less competitive school. Our admissions standards are lower than the competitive schools in the College Board study, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that my school is not a great option for students from all backgrounds.
Here’s the thing: it is true that a public school like mine does not have as much money to invest in special programs for first-generation and low-income students as an elite school. That means we have to be much more thoughtful about our investments. Working with faculty and other support staff, I find that we talk through the needs of our students with a broader view than the special population. We ask questions about how to improve tutoring overall, how to demystify college expectations for all students, how to best deploy peer mentors for all students. We don’t focus on niche, because we can’t, but the result is a sustained effort to help all students succeed.
It is true that my retention and graduation rates are and will continue to be lower than a more competitive school, but the experience of education will not be lesser. We have all the same accreditations for business, nursing, education, chemistry, social work, and all of our arts programs, as the elite schools have. This means our curriculum meets a standard of excellence that one should expect from higher education. Our graduates win Fulbright scholarships (our 6th this year) and Goldwater scholarships (our first since I’ve been here) and our winners are frequently the first in their families to attend college. They get jobs, start businesses, go to medical and veterinary schools, become teachers and nurses, and performing artists. In other words, their education positions them for success.
While they are enrolled at WCSU, our students encounter many people who look like them and many who do not (we are a wonderfully diverse campus). They work on projects with students who are first in the family to go to college, or second or third generation WCSU. They co-author research with faculty, volunteer when possible, and intern when available, usually while juggling at least one job. The pervasiveness of that juggling allows them to feel it is normal to have to make decisions not to volunteer or take on an extra opportunity if their circumstances don’t allow. Lots of our students are trying hard to make ends meet without taking out a lot of student loans, and they know how to prioritize.
In other words, low income students are set up to thrive here. We are a public university, with strong academic programs that meet the needs of our community. Our outcomes are not as strong as we’d like, but in terms of economic equity we are awesome. We know that not all of our students are ready to go through in four years in a row. We help them exit and re-enter as they work through their own educational and life decisions. That is our commitment to them.
We are not often the first choice for families that aspire to more status-conscious schools, but we are often where they finish their journeys when they realize the quality of all that we do. The support of Connecticut citizens helps us to be relatively affordable, and we hope that the support continues so we can be a university that nurtures learning for all, not just the lucky few. That is the value of what we do, and we do so with pride and aspiration for all of our students.
So, really, I reject the very notion of undermatching. It’s a classist argument and the study that ensued was based on all of those classist assumptions. Instead, I’m going to keep supporting the students we have, working toward support for the many, and improving our success rates one student at a time.