Running in Neutral: a K-12 and Higher Ed Scandal

If a student hasn’t graduated from college within six years, the odds of completing a degree are extremely low.

In this month’s issue of Atlantic, Nick Ehrmann writes a perceptive article, “Solving the Mystery of Underachievement: Why work hard enough to earn an A when a D will suffice for college admission?” He tells the story of an intelligent African-American lad who was groomed to attend college — and ended up dropping out after the first semester. The article goes to the heart of one of the most pressing issues in American higher education today: the high rate of college drop-outs.

Literally millions of young Americans, disproportionately minorities, borrow money, attend a few semesters, and then drop out, never acquiring the college credential that will allow them to pay off their debt. A primary goal of Virginia higher education policy today is to reduce the number of these college drop-outs, who are all-too-prevalent in the state, as elsewhere in the country. The “retention” rate is a key metric used to measure the performance of Virginia’s public colleges and universities. (See the chart above.)

In my commentaries on the subject, I have assumed that dropping out of college could be explained by one of two factors: (1) poverty, or (2) lack of academic preparedness. True enough, poor kids can qualify for tens of thousands of dollars in Pell grants, federal loans and institutional financial aid. But that assistance rarely covers all costs, and students from lower-income families typically have to work part-time jobs, or even drop out for a semester or two to find the extra money. Once a student drops out, he or she is at higher risk of never re-enrolling. The other problem is that lower-income kids tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods, which tend to have poorer schools. The inadequate academic preparation makes it difficult to keep up with college-level work. Discouraged and demoralized, students question what they’re doing in college at all.

Ehrmann’s article suggests a third reason why kids drop out of college — the phenomenon of “running in neutral.” The article, I believe, is so important that I will summarize its contents in detail, highlighting what I deem to be key insights. But don’t settle for the Bacon’s Digest version — read the full essay yourself.

Enrollment in higher education is reaching record-high levels, just a hair below 70% of all high school graduates. But being “eligible” for higher education does not mean that students are academically prepared, writes Ehrmann. He knows from first-hand experience teaching kids in Washington, D.C. He mentored one young man, Travis Hill, who showed flashes of brilliance, and kept tabs on him through the years.

In the fifth grade, Travis was admitted into a scholarship program through the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, which guaranteed that any participating student who graduated from high school would receive a college scholarship. The idea was that removing financial obstacles to college enrollment would encourage students to achieve. “Travis, like many of his classmates,” writes Ehrmann, believed there was ‘no doubt’ he would graduate from high school and enroll in college. He did graduate, and he did enroll in Lincoln University, a historically black university in Pennsylvania. But he dropped out after a semester. Why?

In Ehrmann’s view, there are two schools of thought. One is the “culture of poverty” theory in which “low-effort syndrome” or cultural adaptations like a prejudice against “acting white” prevent young people from living up to their potential. The other is the “structural barriers” theory that emphasizes how poverty, institutional racism, segregation and lack of adequate health care stack the deck against poor, minority students.

Writes Ehrmann:

The problem is that neither story is completely right. Over the course of a decade … I witnessed a significant number of students develop a sophisticated logic of underachievement that challenged the popular accounts for how inequality in higher education is created and sustained. For many students, their pursuit of long-term educational success was grounded and strategic. Educated in environments that measured academic success primarily by enrolling in college — not necessarily graduating with a degree — they developed strategies to achieve that goal with minimal effort in school.

Travis made no effort to make As and Bs. To the contrary, he skated by with the minimum passing grades. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I work hard when I want to work hard, and that’s what a lot of people can’t do. Some people might not look at it as a skill, but to me it’s a skill.”

That message was inadvertently reinforced from other directions. During his freshman and sophomore years on overnight campus trips sponsored by his high school’s college-placement office, Travis learned that “a couple hundred” colleges and universities across the United States would offer him admission. “Everyone was telling me I could get into college with my grades,” he confided. “I don’t remember exactly how or when I heard it, but that message was seeping into my brain. If I got straight Cs, admissions would be a breeze.”

Every marking period, Travis let his grades slip, When midterm grades were sent home, his grades were typically Cs, Ds and Fs. His mother and stepfather got on his case, and he promised to get his act together. In the final weeks of the term, he approached his teachers one by one and exhibited greater effort in class. His strategem: “Just go to the teacher and act like you care.”

A fellow student who engaged in similar behavior called it “running in neutral.” DaVonte Little, who attended McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C., told Ehrmann: “I don’t like doing work. Plain and simple. I know my grades have got to come out in the end. So I say, ‘What do I need to do? …. How many [assignments] do I need to get a C? … I missed 15 assignments, and I can do at least 10 in the next four weeks and [his teacher] can promise me a D.”

Ehrmann spoke to one of Travis’ high school teachers, who admitted to a forgiving policy for make-up work, believing her practice to be rooted in empathy:

“In rich counties,” she told me, “like in Fairfax [Virginia] and all that … they’re very strict. But here, no, you give them as many opportunities, especially because you have a lot of, you know, predominantly African American children, that are supposedly having, you know, low economic issues, and so you have to give them opportunities.”

Writes Ehrmann: “The primary reason Travis said he spent minimal effort in the teacher’s class was that graduating from Hyde [High School] and enrolling in college — two objectively measurable goals — could be achieved via the low levels of performance that she and her colleagues were enabling.”

In 2009, Travis was admitted to Lincoln University, a school with 2,000 undergraduates, all of them African American. Travis’s transition was difficult. He decided right away that he was at the wrong place. One of the five classes he found absolutely useless:

The Reading Acceleration Program [was] a remedial course focused on basic skills that should have been mastered in elementary school. During the first few weeks, Travis, over $8,000 in debt, watched his peers recite compound words written on cut-out pieces of cardstock. He was apoplectic. “Those people I was in class with, they didn’t know shit. I mean, how did you walk across a high-school stage without knowing this? I was sitting in the wrong class doing work I already knew out to do.”

The need for remedial education is widespread. Ehrmann cites a National Center for Public Policy and Education report identifying key issues associated with the college-readiness gap. Every year, nearly 60% of first-year college students nationally discover “they are not academically ready for postsecondary studies.” They are required to take remedial classes in English or mathematics, which don’t count for college credit. At community colleges, the percentage requiring remediation approaches 75%.

“I expected to be challenged, to sit up and read, study, stay up all night like what you see in the movies: complicated trigonometry … sleep at your desk,” Travis said. “But once I got here, it was nothing like that. It was like a [housing] project. Dorm here, a couple of buildings in the front. … I don’t know. It’s savage.”

He began skipping classes. By the end of the semester, he had two Cs, two Ds, and an F. Dropping out of school, Travis returned to Washington and took a job at T.J. Maxx.

Bacon’s bottom line: This story is full of ironies. The “I Had a Dream” program might have proven as much a hindrance as a benefit to Travis. Sure, it alleviated him of financial worries, but the knowledge that he was guaranteed a college acceptance sapped him of his drive and initiative. His college trips reinforced the sense of painless destiny. Knowing that colleges and universities were stumbling over themselves to compete for qualified African-American students, he could skate by with minimal effort. He received the same message at school where his teachers, out of a misguided sense of empathy and compassion, let him off the hook for sub-standard work. The sum of his experiences taught him that he needed not exert himself, and he calibrated his efforts to get by with minimal expenditure of effort. Unfortunately, the inertia of those experiences carried into college.

Others may draw different conclusions from Ehrmann’s essay, but here’s what strikes me. There is a massive disjuncture between high school and college. High schools are failing millions of American students by deluding them into thinking that they are prepared upon graduation to attend college. Likewise, colleges are failing them by accepting them regardless of whether they are actually academically prepared. Colleges have no skin in the game — the federal government that extends hundreds of billions of dollars in loans is the entity exposed to bad student debt — and many are so desperate to maintain their enrollment numbers that they are willing to accept almost anyone.

The end result is wasted effort, wasted tuition, and broken dreams for the students — a national tragedy. Both America’s (and Virginia’s) high school systems and higher education systems are complicit. If conservative policies led to such disastrous results, there would be a national outcry and accusations of structural racism. But when the results come from misguided compassion, what do you call it? Perhaps the soft bigotry of low expectations.

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12 responses to “Running in Neutral: a K-12 and Higher Ed Scandal

  1. Good Article, Jim –

    I would add that just like the culture of students studying hard to learn in college and having to legitimately earn good grades to prove what they have learned in college, have collapsed in America.

    Indeed the entire culture and status of the job of professors teaching undergraduate students has collapsed. The majority of college teachers are no longer respected by their peer professors, but demeaned as second raters who simply teach so the highly rated and paid professors can do research, and consult for fees.

    Nor are most college professors and instructors respected by most of their students. Those students hold the careers and continued employment of their college teachers in their hands when they write appraisals of teacher performance. Most professors are terrified of their students. So most every student in heir class gets a good grade, and few learn anything at all.

    Dozens of fine books have been written on this subject by professors.

    • The comments below raise many interesting points and insights on Nick Erhmann’s article and Jim’s summation of it.

      Erhmann’s characterization of Travis and the issues he confronts haunt me in numerous ways. I’ll try to deal with each in turn over several comments.

      FIRST –

      With a few changes, Mr. Erhmann’s description of the Travis’s base problem recalled for me many undergraduate students at UVA during the mid 1960s:

      “Educated in environments that measured academic success primarily by GRADUATING from college —not necessarily learning anything along with the way—they developed strategies to achieve that goal with minimal effort in school.”

      I substituted “graduation” for “enrollment” and “learning” for getting of a degree to distinguish Travis from most undergraduates that I remember from my days at UVA between 1963-1967.

      This raises a host of questions.

      If the human nature of undergraduate boys at UVA remains unchanged, what is the harm being done to kids graduating today versus those graduating 50 years ago?

      Is that harm larger and deeper today at UVA because it is avoiding reality just like Travis’s educational system avoided his obstacles to learning?

      I say this because I believe that it is very difficult to funk out of UVA today. A student really has to work at it. Just like Travis had to work hard at it. Indeed the kid at UVA likely has to work even harder at its. And I suspect this is true most everywhere, particularly so at highly selective institutions.

      Almost nobody funks out anymore save by working hard at it. Imagine the harm this causes.

  2. As Jim points out this Atlantic story is “full of ironies.” And its fascinating, chock full of insights. I hope we have the time to discuss it in depth.

  3. Interesting. He was a smart kid; it was the educational system that let him down. The racial aspects to this are three:
    1. The pressure on colleges to waive or ignore their normal admission standards in order to up their minority enrollment.
    2. The ease with which this kid got “compassionate” financial help to broaden his minority ‘opportunities.’
    3. The all-black college he chose to attend with its demeaning educational goals and expectations.
    The first two, he simply took advantage of, ‘running in place.’ The third, he was betrayed.

  4. Is there an hope for an apocalypse of American liberalism (a prophetic revelation, especially concerning a cataclysm in which the forces of good permanently triumph over the forces of evil.)

    The noble goals of early and mid-Century liberalism have been corrupted and destroyed by the bigotry of lowe expectations and empathy and pervasive oxymoronic standards, policies,, and laws —

    creating a color, race, and ethnicity-blind society with color, race and gender biased practices (black students now demand their own separate dorms in the name of racial equality)–i.e. eliminate racism with racism;

    Providing opportunities to excel economically, academically, socially, etc by enabling, encouraging, and permitting the neutering of standards and accountability;

    Promoting strong and more supportive family life by enabling and financing single-parent families, multiple, “absent-father” pregnancies; and sustained unemployment;

    And the list goes on through every aspect of our “social justice’ government and state policy and legal apparatus. Perhaps we will some day learn that you do not correct injustice with injustice as your primary tool. You do not end racism by reversing racism. You do not get excellence by lowering the standards and watering down the concept of whatever is excellence. You do not get economic upward mobility by transferring the economic achievements of one group to the “immobile” group.

  5. One of the “ironies” is that in many places – like the county Jim lives in -Henrico – it has a Conservative local government, and a school system that has some of the best schools in Va with a high percentage of kids going to college – that very same school system has multiple other schools that have lost accreditation and the low income students are having the same problems as outlined in Jim’s post here.

    I’m not surprised that kids of parents and grandparents who have been systematically discriminated against for decades. do not have a culture of education .. and often fail at college

    I agree.. taking kid who got his “schooling” at one of those “bad” schools in Henrico probably is not ready for college… but blaming it on him and his parents and “liberals” is just downright laughable.

    This is not just a problem in low income minority neighborhoods.. it’s a problem in rural schools that are predominately white where a high school education used to get them a factory or mining job but does no more.

    Blaming “liberals” for these things is ..in itself – ignorant .

    we rank 25th in the world in academics – and the reason is “liberals”?

    yes… indeed… we are one ignorant country in more ways than one!

  6. Jim has a point. Pretty good points actually. The only ones making out are the purses of colleges in his point.

  7. so if Jim’s Henrico Public schools deliver some college-ready kids to college – you can than the same liberals in charge that also “failed” the low income kids in Henrico schools?

    or do the schools have Conservative and Liberal administrators and the successful kids are due to the Conservative administrators and teachers and the failed kids are the responsibility of the Liberal administrators and teachers?

    who knew? GADZOOKS!

  8. geeze:

    ” so if Jim’s Henrico Public schools successfully deliver some college-ready kids to college – you can credit the Conservative administrators and teachers and the “failed” low income kids are the fault of the “liberal: administrators and teachers ( and bad parents).?

    this whole line of “reasoning” gives a bad name to the word “reason”.

    would I support a benchmark test of kids headed to college with respect to college loans?

    Yes. but there’s a lot more kids than just low income kids who would fail this test.. but yes.. maybe that’s what we should do – and when the low income kids look at how many other higher income kids also fail to qualify .. maybe that won’t be such a bad thing.

    the college loan situation is out of control – yes.. but when I look to Congress… for reform.. I find both liberals AND Conservatives wanting to continue the program..!! because that’s the way liberals think and most Conservatives these days lack any semblance of a spine to stand up on this issue… they’re afraid if they do – they’ll get voted out!

    no one – Conservative or Liberal is willing to tell the awful truth and the closet racists are running amok in the middle of it all..

  9. What I see here is a pretty strong inverse correlation between graduation rate % and pell grants %. UVA and W&M, etc. are low Pell, high graduation rate. Virginia State, Norfolk State, UVA-Wise, etc. are high Pell, low graduation rate. Unfortunately, there is also a correlation between household income and SAT scores. The positive differential in average scores in the Critical Reasoning test is 83 points between affluent (<200k) and low-income (<$40k) households. The gap is 88 points for mathematics and 95 points for writing (Educational Policy Institute).

    So Virginia schools are pretty much doing what is expected given the students that matriculate (VMI might be a slight underperformer, but it is a unique institution). We don't seem to have any significant outperformance from any schools. The University of California San Diego, for instance, has over 40% Pell recipients and has a graduation rate in the 80%+ range. It would be great if we had that kind of university in Virginia. Perhaps that is too much to expect given the state of our primary and secondary education, but I would not have thought Virginia's system is overall better than California.

    The system is not a significant vehicle for social mobility any more. Low income leads to poor primary and secondary schools, which leads to poor college prep test scores (although not necessarily high school GPA), which leads to lack of preparation for college, which leads to high dropout rates, and if they get loans in addition to Pell Grants, high default rates and lower lifetime earnings.

    Logically, I don't think we should have remedial education in four year universities (which are really six year universities if you look at these graduation timetables). It is expensive and is associated with high dropout rates. This means reducing spots in universities that are not moving students toward graduation.

    But I'm uncomfortable with that alone as a path for a couple of reasons. First, it means higher and middle income families are getting, in general, access to a service that is not as available to lower income families. (I recognize some will say "I'm paying taxes so I should be entitled" or "If you get the grades and scores you should be able to go regardless of income".) Second, if we don't fix educational alternatives (primary and secondary, trade education, etc.), we have a large segment of the population with limited options. I'd like to see us get back to a system that provides some baseline of opportunity for everyone (aka the American Dream).

    If I could magically revise the whole system, I think I would:

    1) Change the funding model of public higher education. I'd do away with subsidies and financial aid funds going directly to the universities. Instead, they would go to the individuals based on income, etc. This, coupled with increased transparency on expenditures, could reduce the upward pressure on costs. (This would be closer to the model in the UK.)
    2) Reduce spots at traditional four year colleges by instituting standards for getting grants and federal loans. This is done in a number of countries (although they usually direct fund students). I know this would be controversial, but there could a) be a secondary, less expensive path back to four year universities through community colleges for "late bloomers" and 2) this would result in savings that could be directed to 2 and 3 below. As it is, billions of Pell grants are wasted every year and student loan debt is skyrocketing unsustainably.
    2) Invest in a desperately needed alternative path toward a career, perhaps through a combination of community college and a job training partnership (similar to the German system).
    3) Improve secondary education standards.

    We are in an unfortunate situation where we can readily see there are some strengths worth maintaining in our current system, the overall cost trajectory of the system is unsustainable, other countries are doing some things that might work here, but we are stuck in a policy and political rut.

  10. What would happen if our K-12 schools had to reimburse our colleges for the cost of remedial courses for students who graduated from 12th grade?

    A major problem with our educational system, like many other institutions, is that the economic power rests with the producers, rather than with the consumers. The producers get money–sometimes more–when they FU. Money should follow the student. But that would be vouchers that threaten the livelihood of the producers. We get what we deserve.

  11. Pingback: Does Pell Subsidize Failure? – CrankysBlog

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