Blaming Parents of First Generation Students for What Colleges Don’t Simply Do

There are so many problems with this essay in today’s Inside Higher Ed about the parents of First-Generation college students.

I first cringed when reading this quote from a college administrator early on:

They give him a $100 and send them off to school. ‘Here’s 100 bucks. That should last you four years. Now, go save the family.’”

As if there is no difference between being able to provide particular emotional support for the distinctive stresses of being a college student and abandoning one’s child altogether — while putting considerable pressure on them — and as if low-income parents have no idea about budgeting and the costs of living.

And the disturbing language continues:

If so-called helicopter parents typically hover above students from more elite and educated families, many first-generation college students have the opposite problem: parents who may as well be watching their children from a space station. [italics mine]

Again, the language here implies that parents have receded to isolated  “watching”, not still celebrating birthdays or holidays, nagging about late hours on home visits, taking joy in just having the child home sometimes, being proud, or maybe even making favorite meals when one comes home.

But no. Blame is the story here:

Those less-supported students also reported having higher levels of stress and anxiety than the few first-generation students who did feel supported by their parents.

There is no possible way without rigorous controlled experiments to attribute stress and anxiety among first-generation students to parent support rather than to anything else within the constellation of other differences — having no money for social events that other students take for-granted, hearing stereotypes about people like them in class, having  to work more hours than any student should, facing professors who have no idea how to provide basic academic support yet convey their impatience with you for needed it, having everyone take for granted that the upper-middle class students are the  norm and you are an outsider.

And then we got to the heart of the matter:

Marilyn Moller, director of teacher education at Rosemont College, said it’s important to remember that those phone calls [from interfering “helicopter” parents of more privileged students]– as annoying as they can be — are rarely coming from the parents of low-income and first-generation students.  “I really don’t see that as much anymore, and especially with these kinds of students,” Moller said. “I hope for phone calls. Often times, with these students, a parent may be his or her only advocate.”

And:

“The problem is that many these parents know nothing about college,” he said. “Students with parents that didn’t go to college don’t have that person they can call when they have a question. They have no map. That child is lost.”

And as I read these last statements I feel begin to feel the familiar tension in my jaw, the familiar frustration and anger and impatience.

I read that it is just taken for granted that there is nowhere at college where a student can ask basic question.

I read that no one has provided students with the basic map of what is expected of her.

I read that no one notices and steps in when a student is “lost”.

I read that no one takes responsibility for being an advocate for a student who needs an advocate to get through all of this.

But it’s the parents’ fault.

I have no idea how much of the tone of this article by Jake New is New’s own naiveté (he’s a relatively recent addition to the Inside Higher Ed line-up and seems mostly to report on things requiring less social context).   I have no idea how well this reflects attitudes of colleges more generally.

I’m just grateful that at my college, I  was told where to go with questions, told where to go when I was lost, had any number of faculty and staff I’d count as advocates, and knew that my parents were in my corner, even if they had no advice about the professor who simply refused to give me an A (and refused to explain what I needed to do differently) and could rarely afford to do more than buy me a bag of groceries once in awhile.

And I’m very grateful that at the college where I now work, we’re in constant conversation about how we can better serve our many First-Generation students.

Because we are so clear that it’s our job to support all the students who come to us with so much promise and such immense dreams.

 

Sorting Through the Arguments on Education and Class: Clear Voices

Every pundit and politician has talking points now on education, opportunity, access and the needs of low-income students.   It can feel impossible to know how to sort through all the competing claims.

Someone I’ve grown to trust immensely is Sara Goldrick-Rab who writes clearly and incisively about higher education and access.

This piece taking apart a New York Times column on college costs is a case in point.

Follow her website; follow her on Twitter.  You’ll learn about what’s going on now and what’s coming down the policy pipeline.

Starbucks, College Access, and an Unquestioning Media

I live near the original Starbucks and often have to walk through the crowds of people taking selfies, standing in long lines for the same coffee drinks they can get anywhere, and taking endless photos of one another.   I’m often asked for directions to this Starbucks as I’m walking nearby.   The accents and languages suggest that people make this pilgrimage from all over the world.

They spend precious time of their vacation to come there, even while there are several others Starbucks — and, more importantly, several other excellent local coffee shops — within a few blocks.

There’s just a mystique about Starbucks.

And that may explain why so much of the media simply reported the carefully orchestrated press release about Starbucks’ subsidizing college tuition for its employees rather than actually reporting.  The story was everywhere on Monday — in print, on TV and radio, and even on The Daily Show, in which  even Jon Stewart claims that though it’s out of character, he can’t “hate” Howard Schultz’s announcement that Starbucks will be “the first U.S. company to provide free college tuition for all employees”.  Schultz talks at length about Starbucks as a company and explains that “we can’t want for Washington” to solve the problem of college indebtedness.   Schultz goes on to argue that private businesses have to step in when government does not.

Yet it turns out that the Plan depends more on Washington than on Starbucks’ bottom line, as was clear by midweek.   Just a sample of the pushback that began showing up on social media:

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the deal was actually highly subsidized by the for-profit on-line sector of Arizona State, that students would likely be getting federal Pell grants and subsidized loans,  and Starbucks would actually be shelling out  relatively little.

Tressie McMillan Cottom placed this deal in the broader context of for-profits targeting education for lower-income workers whose education will be subsidized from public coffers. She writes:

My read of that is Starbucks gets to minimize its contribution to tuition assistance by funneling aspirational student-workers into the student aid system and ASU gets to extract profit from student aid on a sliding scale where lower income students are the most profitable human widgets.

The New York Times simply reported that critics were pointing to drawbacks of the “scholarship” program.

Matt Reed at Inside Higher Ed noted that college might well be less expensive if Starbucks employees just went to their local community college for their first two years and then transferred to a four year school.

The Pell Grant program that would in fact pay much of the costs of attending the profit-generating ASU program is already on precarious footing.

Starbucks, meanwhile, joins other huge corporations in seeking tax breaks.

But no one was reporting any of this at first on Monday.

Everyone in the media instead seemed to be lining up and smiling within Starbucks’ orbit, just like all those tourists down the street.

 

Sometimes, We Get Angry

Working with a group of colleagues last summer who had been first generation college students, we were a ways into our first conversation when someone asked “is it ok to talk about the anger?”

It felt as if everyone relaxed a bit after that point.  There are many “feel good” first generation stories, and those certainly need to be told.  Yet there is also the anger  — at the hidden rules, the patronizing, the casual privilege all around, the invisibility, the hunger, the arrogance, the nonsense that sometimes passes for wisdom.

So I’m grateful that Jocelyne Cardona speaks of the whole experience in this piece from the Macalester College newsletter.   It’s worth reading the whole thing.    A taste:

“How are they going to fit in the flow, in the stream of things and not get totally consumed or washed away in that process,” McClure asks. “What capital do [first-generation students] bring to the table that is going to contribute to a broader story?”

For Cardona, on a practical level, this openness has been hard to come by – especially in the classroom.

In her assignments for class, Cardona slips in sentences of Spanish, refusing to italicize this language that she feels belongs in her writing. She sometimes works poetry into her academic papers. She writes essays addressed to her professors about the production of knowledge and value of different kinds of input.

But the confidence to assert her own experience and knowledge in the classroom setting did not come immediately. For years, Cardona was alienated, forced to question her own capacity to succeed.

“I felt like I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. I felt dumb. I felt like I was not smart,” she said. “I felt like what these people were saying was way over my head. And certain professors made me feel that way.”

When More Parental Support is Less

I just finished reading Laura Hamilton’s article More is More or More is Less: Parental Financial Investments During College (published behind academic firewalls in American Sociological Review, Vol, 78, 2012).

Introducing her study, she writes:

Because parental aid increases access to college, students with parental assistance will likely display a wider range of ability and motivation. In contrast, students who make it to college with little to no parental help may not only be exceptionally talented but also uniquely motivated — for which there is no good empirical proxy.

She found, indeed, that students receiving more money from their parents while in college are more likely finish their degree but also more likely to have lower GPAs than other students.

I think that this is such a smart study because:

  1. It questions the long-standing assumption that generous parenting is inherently good for students.
  2. It concedes that upper-middle class ways of being are not the model for all other students.  Working, for example, may actually contribute to students’ investment in higher ed.
  3. It puts all  the fuss about things like SAT exams into context.  The SAT is a low predictor of eventual success in college for many populations, yet many colleges continue to require entrance exams.  If the amount of financial support that students get will get from parents does predict eventual GPA, might admissions preferences not then be given to those students who will *not* be supported as generously by parents, if the goal of admissions is to admit those most likely to succeed?

Researchers invest a great deal of time studying those on the margins of formal schooling.    It is good to also see studies looking more closely at those considered to be the norm.

 

 

Low-income Students, Elite Colleges

Though it’s impossible for me (or for aspiring high school students, for that matter) to find basic information on-line about exactly who qualifies for Pell Grants, eligibility is a proxy for relatively low family income.

That said, it appears that students educated at  top US News rated schools enroll relatively few lower-income students, meaning that the students who do spend four years there learning about politics, citizenship, world crises, economics, business practices, how to teach other people’s children, law, health, history, the ethics of scientific research or literature do so without the opportunity for routine encounters with others who might challenge their interpretation of the world from a place of relative economic security.
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The article on Pell Grant recipients at these schools is here.