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The Power and Peril of Myth for Today’s College Students

May 05, 2017

We are now entering what is perhaps my favorite time of the year: graduation season. As a veteran faculty member and administrator, I have fond memories of commencement ceremonies, seeing the joy and pride in the faces of graduates and their families and knowing many of the stories behind those smiles.

While graduation season is filled with inspiring stories of persistence, sacrifice, and accomplishment, it also gives rise to some lingering myths about our students and what it takes for them to get to graduation. These myths hurt students because they help preserve a status quo in which not enough of them succeed. We can and must bust these myths.

MYTH 1: College is not for everyone, and too many people are going to college. When many people hear the word “college,” they think only of four-year universities and rightly argue that not everyone needs a four-year degree.

But in today’s world, it is important to define college as a meaningful credential after high school – everything from short-term certificates in areas such as information technology to doctorates that can take up to a decade to complete. By that standard, we don’t have enough people going to college. Leading labor market projections show that our economy could face a shortfall of up to 11 million credentialed workers by 2025. And the data are clear that today’s labor market clearly favors those with post-high school education, with nearly all of the post-recession jobs going to those with more than a high school diploma. Additionally, it is becoming more difficult to earn a family-supporting wage with a high school diploma or less.

It is time to stop arguing over whether everyone needs college and instead focus on the kind of college that different people need. Otherwise we have no hope of reaching a national attainment goal of 60 percent of adults with a credential of value – or coming anywhere close to it.

MYTH 2: Students don’t make it through college because they are not college material. I’ve had the opportunity to observe and be part of conversations with policymakers and opinion leaders, and the discussion of why students drop out nearly always ends up in some version of the film Animal House…students weren’t motivated to study and/or partied too much. It’s a convenient and time-honored narrative.

Unfortunately, the facts indicate otherwise. Four in 10 of today’s college students are 25 or older, more than one-quarter of them have children, nearly two-thirds of them are working while enrolled, and one-third of them come from households earning $20,000 or less per year. These students are plenty motivated. But they are also juggling work, family, and studies with little margin for error, and are trying to navigate institutions that are not prepared to teach when they are ready to learn and not equipped to help them plot a course. And the story of students being able to work their way through college is heartwarming but hopelessly outdated.

Institutions like Sinclair Community College saw that, and began to develop tools that helped students understand and take ownership of their path to a degree, no matter where it started. And they got results. Students participating in their technology assisted advising program graduate at twice the rate of students who do not.

MYTH 3: Income might be a barrier to a college degree, but race isn’t. I wish more than anything that this statement was true. But it simply is not. Our colleges and universities have made great strides in expanding access in the last generation – the share of non-white students has doubled. At the same time, attainment gaps between white and black students and white and Hispanic students have stubbornly persisted and even worsened over the same period.

The good news is that an increasing number of institutions are taking action to close those gaps, and some, like Georgia State University, already have. And they will tell you that they didn’t get there through big pronouncements or massive infusions of funding (in fact, many did in situations of declining funding), but by doing the small things right, like helping students correct course registration mistakes that, left unchanged, would have eventually led to dropout.

Myths aren’t in and of themselves bad things – some of the richest stories of all time trace their roots back to ancient Greece and Rome. But when it comes to our students and what they can bring to our communities and our economy, mythology needs to give way to reality.
 
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