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 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.
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.” Continue reading