What If You Had a 5 Percent Chance of Graduating College?

Would you enroll in college (or send your son or daughter), if you (or they) had only a 5 percent chance of graduating?

What about 10 percent? 15 percent?

… No?

More than 450,000 students do it every year, enrolling in four-year colleges and universities with atrociously low graduation rates — so low, in fact, that students are more than five times as likely to drop out or transfer than earn the degree they were seeking. (Not sure which those colleges are? Check out our interactive map.)

CRO map

Click to see our interactive map.

The college advisers and counselors we’ve been talking to at the National College Access Network 2014 conference this week were just as surprised. We’re here, sharing Ed Trust’s Tough Love work and our user-friendly website, College Results Online, both of which direct our focus to the colleges and universities that fall in the bottom 5 percent of six-year graduation rates nationally. (These colleges have graduation rates of 16 percent or lower.) If these institutions can’t help even the smallest fraction of students get a degree, we argue that they must either improve or no longer receive a chunk of the $180 billion in federal financial aid and tax benefits distributed to colleges every year.

And so far, most everyone here agrees. In fact, they’re surprised that we have set such a conservative threshold. “My personal benchmark for students is 50 percent,” a high school counselor told us earlier this week, after we had pointed out the 100 some colleges and universities that have graduation rates below 16 percent. He said he didn’t recommend colleges with graduation rates below 50 percent. “Think about it. If I have greater than a 1-in-2 chance of getting hit by car, I’m not going to cross the street,” he quipped.

Sounds reasonable to us. Would you want to cross that street?

Common Core Helps — Not Hurts — Students of Color

Two researchers at Mount St. Mary recently penned an opinion piece that ran in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog. It highlighted a lack of diversity — in both authors and subject matter — among the list of recommended texts that are aligned to the Common Core: Of 171 books recommended for elementary children, only 18 are by authors of color, and few of them, in general, reflect the lives of children of color and the poor.

Those are abysmal numbers, and the recommended list should, indeed, reflect more diversity. But the title of the piece — “How Common Core’s Recommended Books Fail Children of Color” — sensationalizes the message and risks complicating an already-controversial cloud of conversation around new college- and career-ready standards.

How can anyone say the Common Core’s list of recommended texts is failing students of color? As a black parent, I think that’s ridiculous. Inconsistent reading standards are failing kids of color. Poorly resourced schools are failing kids of color. Inadequate access to high-performing teachers is failing kids of color. But the Common Core standards, by their very nature, are designed to help better serve the needs of students of color. Such standards help ensure our children are being taught what they need to know, and that they won’t graduate with a diploma that hasn’t prepared them for success in postsecondary life.

This line of attack is reminiscent of the assault on E.D. Hirsch in the 1970s, whose bestseller, Cultural Literacy, included a list of names, dates, places, and sayings that — in his opinion — every American ought to know. Hirsch’s ideas were controversial and criticized for not addressing differences in learning styles and for ignoring the contributions of African Americans and other communities of color to American culture. He and his Core Knowledge Foundation have since broadened that list, reflecting the reality that children do need to learn about their own unique heritage, but they also need to master the language and concepts in our common culture. So, while the original list could have been improved upon, that didn’t mean it harmed children of color.

And, now this argument has come up again in the context of the Common Core. Perhaps most troubling in this opinion piece is the notion that the recommended reading list is anything more than a set of suggested texts. The list is not a mandate. Literature selections are part of a curriculum, which is designed by educators to adhere to standards. So let’s not conflate curriculum with standards. Just as no one at the national level dictated these standards, no one at the national level is dictating the precise texts that each student should read.

With arguments like this, we risk losing sight of the much bigger issue here: Are the children literate?  Can they read challenging texts by a wide range of authors? Let’s focus on that first. Then perhaps we can engage in a scholarly debate on the merits of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy vs. The Coldest Winter Ever by Sistah Souljah.

Need-Blind Is Just Like Colorblind: Why Low-income Kids Should Receive Preferential Consideration in College Admissions

Need-blind college admissions processes evaluate applicants solely based on a broadly defined definition of merit (wink wink), detaching information on students’ financial need from the application review and final admission decision. Since need-blind colleges, particularly those that meet students’ full financial need, never reject a prospective student because of an inability to pay, this process is often considered the gold standard in college admissions.

In reality, it is more like fool’s gold. Continue reading

Introducing New Features to College Results Online

We often hear a lot about what makes a good college, but not as much about what makes a bad college. College Results Online, our interactive tool with information for nearly every four-year college and university in the country, tries to demystify that issue by adding two new features to alert students and policymakers of colleges that may not have the best results for students.

CRO now tags colleges that have extremely low graduation rates (what we call “college dropout factories”) and colleges with little socioeconomic diversity (our “engines of inequality”). Colleges that fall in the bottom 5 percent of four-year colleges nationwide for graduation rates or low-income student enrollment will now be marked with the following symbols:

CRO_stopCollege Dropout Factories: These colleges graduate less than 16 percent of their students and may not be the best option for students, especially if they are first-generation or low-income and may require additional support. These colleges should draw the attention of states and policymakers, as well as the public, which are increasingly questioning the return on investment for a college degree.

CRO_warningEngines of Inequality: These colleges enroll less than 16 percent of students from working-class and low-income families and are not very socioeconomically diverse. This is a flag for students from these backgrounds — and for any student seeking a culturally diverse experience in college. To prepare students for the workforce, these colleges should commit to student body diversity in all forms of the word. Continue reading

Who Will You Meet at #EdTrust2014?

We’ve got powerful speakers lined up and an enriching, diverse list of breakout sessions to offer you at our national conference in Baltimore on Nov. 13-14. What’s left? The connections you’ll make with like-minded advocates and practitioners who are dedicated to the hard work of closing the achievement gap – just like you. Here’s what attendees had to say last year:

So I Get That You Probably Won’t Think This Is As Much Fun As I Do

Sometimes when I have a free minute, I look back at old “Where We Stand” columns written by Albert Shanker. Shanker was president of the New York United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and, later, the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union.

For 27 years, a weekly advertorial, paid for by UFT and appearing in The New York Times’ Sunday Week in Review section, was written primarily by Shanker.

Those old columns hold a treasure trove of thinking about school issues that people across the political spectrum found provocative and informative. In my perusing, I recently ran across a column he wrote in 1979 about a British study I had never come across, Fifteen Thousand Hours. Continue reading

Rankings Aren’t Enough

Kudos to The New York Times for drawing more attention to the collegiate success of low-income students by ranking colleges based on their enrollment of Pell Grant recipients and net price for low- and middle-income students.

We only wish their rankings were more comprehensive, so they could shine a brighter light on problems faced by our nation’s students with the greatest financial need.

Because The New York Times decided to only look at colleges with four-year graduation rates greater than 75 percent, less than 100 institutions (out of more than 2,000 across the country) are included in its analysis. This means that the rankings overlook the large majority of students enrolled in four-year colleges. (The graduation rate for the majority of institutions falls well below 75 percent, as illustrated below.) Continue reading

Don’t Understate What Low-Income Students Pay for College

Recent news reports have implied that elite colleges are a bargain for low-income students — that the financial aid awarded to them reduces the total price to a manageable amount, even for our nation’s poorest students.

But these reports have missed one crucial point: Elite colleges enroll a small portion of undergraduate students and an even smaller portion of the nation’s low-income students. Roughly 4 in 10 full-time freshmen at four-year colleges receive Pell Grants, but there are more than 100 colleges that enroll less than 17 percent of Pell students in their freshman class. (And we already know there are more than enough qualified low-income students for elite colleges to choose from). While some have no-loan programs for low-income students, it’s hard to benefit from such generous financial aid if access to these colleges is limited. Continue reading