The Problem With Percentages and Education: Which Students Merit Our Attention?

Graduating students listen to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak deliver a commencement speech at the University of California at
Graduating students listen to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak deliver a commencement speech at the University of California at Berkeley on Saturday, May 18, 2013 in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

This piece is co-authored by Catherine McKeen, Director, Center for Teaching & Learning, Southern Vermont College.

Remember Mitt Romney and his 47 percent comments? He rightly got nailed by the media for saying that 47 percent of the population (whom he acknowledged would never vote for him) does not accept personal responsibility and expects the government to take care of them. His job, he said, was not to worry about this group.

Actually, Mr. Romney had it completely backwards. The individuals who merit our collective attention are those who are less privileged, those who work hard but cannot survive without adequate health care among other public services, those who are hungry and struggling. Many of them are older and disabled; many have worked and contributed to the tax base. Many have encountered life's exigencies. Many have served in our Armed Forces. Many have not received a four-year college degree.

We had a similarly strong and negative reaction to Paul Tough's recent article, "Who Gets to Graduate," that appeared in the New York Times Magazine on May 15, 2014.

Tough rightly notes the significant obstacles faced by first-generation, low-income college students. These students enter into and graduate from college at far lower percentages than their non-first-generation, higher income peers.

That said, we take issue with the focus of Mr. Tough's analysis, and we offer one strong caution. In short, he focuses his attention on the wrong students -- the wrong percentage of those who can pursue higher education.

Many of America's future college-going population will be first generation and low income. But, and this is key, they will lack Vanessa Brewer's remarkable class rank in high school (top 10 percent) and relatively high ACT score (top 38 percent in the nation). Many students who can and should progress through higher education will not be accepted into UT or other of our nation's elite and selective institutions, even assuming these places would be a good fit.

Next, Mr. Tough denigrates the good work being done at the many less selective, non-elite colleges and universities, referring to these institutions as "mediocre" because they "produce more dropouts than graduates." In short, this large percentage of institutions has a relatively low percentage of students who actually graduate. Under this definition, UT would be characterized as "mediocre" if we parsed their data and looked only at the percentage of first generation, low-income students who graduated with a four-year degree. And, all of these UT students are at the top of their high school graduating class!

At our institution where we have 65 percent first generation and almost 50 percent Pell-eligible students infrequently in the top 10 percent of their high school class and with SAT scores below 1000 and ACT scores below 20), we have graduation rates that resemble UT's. Our graduation rates (calculated as a percentage), as evidenced by the HERI expected graduation rate calculator, exceed national norms. We are not alone; other small and medium sized colleges regularly outperform national norms for the populations they serve. Are we really all mediocre?

Mr. Tough also falls prey to the popular rhetoric around "undermatching," suggesting that if more first generation students attend elite colleges, graduation rates will rise. The corollary is that community colleges and non-selective colleges are often seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Yes, the elites have higher graduation rate percentages for all their students. But, many non-elite four-year and two-year colleges do excellent work; they have developed sound, often empirically supported initiatives that promote student success, including efforts that foster "belonging" and positive "ability," keys to the commendable UT efforts. Indeed, positive norming, belief in self, small classes and lack of remediation are cornerstones of the work we do at Southern Vermont College. Importantly, these faculty and staff have decades of experience helping large numbers of at-risk students.

The national focus on elite and other selective post-secondary institutions obscures the enormity of the positive work other institutions provide and undermines the valuable information they can share about successful strategies for first-generation college students. The bottom 90 percent of students needs us to help them enter into post-secondary education and for a sizable percentage, entry into and graduation from college, with quality programs that prepare them for graduate education and the workplace of today and tomorrow.

Finally, a caution: the valuable pre-orientation intervention with UT students conducted by Yeager does not obviate the need for added support systems during the four years of undergraduate education. As Tough observes, we need to see if the benefits demonstrated at Year One persist into Years Two thru Four. We desperately want and need a single inoculation that promises college success but data tell us that one-time efforts may have short-lived benefits if not coupled with other systemic and ongoing efforts.

About this there is no question: improving college graduation percentages lead to improved workforce readiness, increased economic and social parity and enhanced civic engagement. Expanding the funnel of who is part of and listened to in this conversation will benefit all of our nation's current and prospective college students and the institutions that serve them. Stated differently, we need to develop solutions for the 90 percent of the students who are not in the top 10 percent of the class.