Saturday, May 17, 2014

"White kids from rural West Texas" among those who don't "get to graduate"

Paul Tough reported in the New York Times magazine this week-end on a program at the University of Texas to help socioeconomically disadvantaged and first-generation college students succeed.  The story is headlined, "Who Gets to Graduate?" and, in it, Tough details the struggles of certain groups of students who typically underperform at college and often drop out or transfer to a community college as  a consequence.  In short, these students have very high attrition rates, and those rates are higher at UT, where just 52% graduate, than at flagship campuses in other states, e.g., North Carolina, Michigan, Virginia, where about 70% do.  The story is also about studies of what interventions work to help these students, including changing how they see themselves and how they respond to inevitable set-backs.

Tough describes the high risk students thusly:
The students who were failing were mostly from low-income families. Many of them fit into certain ethnic, racial and geographic profiles: They were white kids from rural West Texas, say, or Latinos from the Rio Grande Valley or African-Americans from Dallas or Houston. 
Tough explains the reason why these students, whose SAT scores are good but typically below those of their more affluent colleagues, are at flagship University of Texas at Austin: "the Top 10 percent law, which stipulated that students who ranked in the top tenth of their graduating classes in any high school in Texas would be automatically admitted to the campus of their choice in the U.T. system." The criterion for automatic admission has since tightened and is now down to the top 7% of each school.

I appreciate Tough's attention to the vulnerability of the rural students because implicit in it is an acknowledgement that these students' high school preparation is not as strong as those of students graduating from better resourced schools, as in "the wealthier suburbs of Dallas" where students are "mostly well off, mostly white" and tend to "rack up high SAT scores." Of course, Tough also attends to race. But most reports about the Texas 10% plan focus just on the racial diversity that the plan fosters at UT, with little attention to the fact that when the legislature passed the the 10% plan, they were also concerned to foster the inclusion of more rural students, who had similarly suffered under the prior admissions scheme.

Tough says that UT does value these at-risk students, regardless of their lower test scores. As he expresses it: 
Even if their high schools weren’t as well funded or as academically demanding as schools in other parts of the state, they managed to figure out how to learn, how to study and how to overcome adversity.
Indeed.  It's a pity we don't see more leaders in higher education who value strivers like these students, and we see even fewer institutions who are "putting their money where their mouth is" and actively experimenting with how best to support them.

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