Learning for Learning’s Sake…

It was yet another conference paper on first-generation college students, and yet another lament about how “they  don’t value learning for learning’s sake”.  “They want to know how everything relate to careers”, the presenter said.   “They complain about having to take courses like the history of pop music”, she sighed. I’d long ago stopped making snarky tabulations on my notepad every time she emphatically said “they” when talking about these students.

During the Q and A, I sat on my hands for awhile and then asked what the middle-class students said about learning for learning’s sake.

But the study wasn’t about them.  So no one had asked. The assumption seemed simply to be that if students from working class backgrounds expressed frustration with courses, curriculum, or the relevance of what they were required to do, it was evidence of a flawed values system.

But someone else on the panel then spoke up. “It’s money that they value”, she said.  She cited studies of the value that middle-class kids place on their college education. For them, she said, the intellectual took a backseat to the  earning potential that a degree would confer.

The middle class didn’t value learning for learning’s sake, either.

I haven’t seen those studies, but am still somewhat amazed when Ph.D.s who often are in it for the love of learning are surprised that anyone else isn’t.

And when I see studies like this recently released report on the alarming rates of cheating among high school students, I wonder how anyone can still think that students anywhere are driven primarily by a hunger of the mind.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  Middle class kids know how to intellectualize their complaints, how to feign interest, how to just stay quiet when it’s in their strategic interest to do so.  Working class kids may well wonder often and loudly why the hell they’re borrowing hundreds of dollars for a course on the history of pop music.

But learning what we’re teaching purely for the love of learning?

In my dreams.

Because if we really value learning, we have to value the learners, even when what we’re teaching isn’t self-evidently interesting to them, even if they’ve grown up within cynical times, even when they’re from backgrounds very different from our own.

…even if we have to be willing to look past the surface level differences to see the complicated lives withn which all of our students now contextualize their education.

Needs Blind/Blind to Student Needs

There’s an interesting article in Today’s Inside Higher Education newsletter on “needs blind” admissions policies. While promising applicants that their financial need will not be considered in admissions decisions, most public and private colleges then offer financial aid packages with considerable “gaps” between need and actual costs.

Further, different groups of students (athletes, legacies, under-represented ethnic groups) are more likely to receive different sorts of financial aid packages (more grants and scholarships, fewer loans) than other students — and first-generation students are infrequently targeted for either full financial aid for for more favorable “packages”.

And finally, in these times of soaring college costs, the shift from needs-based to merit-based financial aid continues:

In 1994, when NACAC conducted a similar survey, colleges reported that 27 percent of their institutional aid funds were purely merit-based and 66 percent based on need. In the current survey, 43 percent of institutional aid funds were based on factors other than need, compared to 49 percent need-based.

At my institution, there is speculation that tuition will soar in the coming years under withering state budget cuts.

I’m not at all clear how, given headlines like that in the paper and the complex and contradictory system of financial aid, first-generation students can even imagine themselves getting in and getting through.

Promises Lost

From today’s Inside Higher Education is news of a new report Promise Lost: Why So Many College-Qualified Students Don’t Enroll in College from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

With these students — who are disproportionately low-income or students of color — schools are doing their part:  These students have taken a college prep curriculum and gotten decent grades.

But, because of the high costs of college, inadequate information about financial aid and loans, and guidance counselors responsible for hundreds of students, these students are not applying for or enrolling in college.

There are so many ways that low-income kids are left behind.

With achievement gaps in schools, it’s all too easy to scapegoat teachers.

But when kids are achieving and still have no way up and out, there are no obvious scapegoats, and thus, it seems harder to get anyone incensed.

Beyond Access

Sara Goldrick-Rab, one of a pair of Education Optimists on one of my favorite new blog feeds, has co-authored a new paper, A Federal Agenda for Promoting Student Success and Degree Completion,  published by the Center for American Progress.

While the paper starts off pessimistically enough:

Only 40 percent of beginning college students from low-income families complete a two- or four-year degree within six years. Rates of degree completion are much higher among high-income students (62 percent). Focusing on the most lucrative undergraduate degree, the baccalaureate, there is a 40 percentage point gap in completion rates between individuals from the bottom and top income quartiles. Since future economic and social success is largely predicated on holding a college degree, this low chance of college success among the poorest students perpetuates growth in income inequality.

the authors move on to solid  proposals for federal policy that could mean reallocation of resources, more substantive curriculum at the high school and college levels, and more financial support for low-income college students.

(And while you’re on their blog, check out their recent Musical Elective of the Week, Great Big Sea, for whom I have tickets in October …)