Understanding College Students

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The national conversation around college and career readiness has an urgency for our economy and for learners who, through higher education, are seeking ways to make a living and to make a life. Mike Rose’s perspective about the current state of higher education is one I wanted to pursue…

The national conversation around college and career readiness has an urgency for our economy and for learners who, through higher education, are seeking ways to make a living and to make a life. Mike Rose’s perspective about the current state of higher education is one I wanted to pursue to add to this greater conversation. He is an acclaimed writer and professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Professor Rose offers us ways to understand students beyond quantitative and qualitative data findings, thereby generating a more authentic picture of who they are.

I spoke with Professor Rose on the occasion of the publication of the paperback edition of his latest book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.

Q. Who goes to college today and why? How should we update our mental image of the typical college student to reflect contemporary reality?

Rose: Media focus on what’s wrong in higher education tends to examine research universities and elite colleges—and to focus on the traditional 18-year-old graduating from high school and heading toward dorm life and a bachelor’s degree. But this segment of higher ed, important though it is, reflects the experience of only a small minority of college students. Most education beyond high school in the United States goes on not in the top 50 colleges and universities but in state universities and local four-year and two-year colleges. Increasingly, postsecondary students in the U.S. are not coming to college directly from high school, are not attending full-time, and are absolutely not eighteen or nineteen.

Students who are labeled “non-traditional” are in fact, rapidly becoming the norm. It’s not uncommon to find a single parent in her late 20s juggling full- or part-time work with family responsibilities and her studies. These returning students, who may have had a difficult prior experience with school, come to higher education for a second chance.

Q. If a significant number of postsecondary students are adult learners who are returning to education with life/work experience, but perhaps have some gaps in their academic skills, or a lack of confidence based on prior school experience, is our higher ed system in the U.S. configured to meet students’ needs? In other words, are postsecondary programs aligned to students’ actual aspirations?

Rose: Yes and no. There are some institutional barriers to student success. Many colleges are hard to navigate. Guidelines and requirements for matriculation, financial aid, or transfer lack coherence and consistency. Advising resources are often scarce and fragmented. Course sequences and requirements can be confusing. These obstacles place the heaviest burden, as you might imagine, on returning students who struggled in their previous school experience, on English language learners, and on students whose work and family obligations limit the time they can spend on campus seeking information and resources. On the other hand, when advisors, faculty, and administrators coordinate their efforts to guide students and to create curricula that directly address student needs—and there are many institutions doing this—students and communities benefit.

Another concern is that aggregated rates of completion of degrees and rates of transfer don’t reflect the multiple reasons people go to a community college—and why they leave. Students may declare the intention, upon entering, to pursue a particular degree program. But completion of a few courses may be enough to secure a promotion at work. Or a student may quit in pursuit of a more desirable career or educational opportunity. Counted as dropouts, these students may be portrayed as failures. But a closer look reveals that many students achieve their goals without completing a degree program, at least not the one they originally declared.

Hugely important stories about postsecondary education are playing out in community colleges, adult education programs, and occupational training centers. I wrote Back to School to tell some of these stories—and to point to the importance of these stories not only for the students themselves, but also for our collective societal and economic well-being.

Q. In your book, you explore the academic-vocational divide. This is really a false dichotomy, isn’t it?

Rose: Yes. Education and job creation are not an either/or proposition. Just as students learn basic citizenship alongside reading and arithmetic in K-12 (how to share, how to respect themselves and others), students in higher education are acquiring learning of many kinds—how to live and how to make a living. In traditional liberal arts courses like history and political science, students gain perspectives on society and their own place in it. Some students join clubs or get jobs on campus—these opportunities give students access to new bodies of knowledge and a means to develop social networks.

One study suggests that nearly 20 percent of community college students decide to pursue further education after enrolling in their two-year institution. Community colleges and other second chance programs for adult learners can develop skills and build knowledge that lead to employment, but also provide a number of other personal, social, and civic benefits. There is an economic rationale for championing these programs, but school is about more than a paycheck.

Q. I want to ask about your methodology. You interweave narrative and data to create a more authentic picture, and your stories about real students communicate what statistics alone cannot illuminate. It strikes me that your approach points to an ethical responsibility for us to go beyond treating as important what is easily measured (drop out rates, for instance) and instead pursue ways to measure and document what is genuinely important.

Rose: I am concerned that broadcasting dire statistics about failures in our education system can, over time, breed a sense of hopelessness among the public and among policy makers—and that the withdrawal of funding may follow. The challenge as I see it is to be clear-eyed and vigilant about the performance of our second-chance institutions but to use methods of investigation that capture a fuller story of the institutions and the people in them. What we lack in much of the reporting I see is the blending of the statistical table with portraits of actual lives. We need to find, study, and broadcast the many examples of successful work being done daily and build our analysis and our solutions on illustrations of the possible. The educators and students I’ve observed and come to know affirm the transformational potential of the college classroom, the occupational workshop, the tutoring center, the mentoring relationship.

Q. There are many powerful stories in your book. Perhaps you would tell us just one of those stories?

Rose: Sure. I’ve spent quite a lot of time observing classes. Not long ago, I visited an Adult Basic Education class in a local adult school. One teacher and two instructional aides worked with twenty students. Most of the students were in their twenties and thirties, but several students were older, and one woman was in her sixties. Five of the students were native English speakers, including a man who could read at only a first- or second-grade level. The students were predominantly Latino or African American, two were Filipino, and one young woman was from Poland. All were working to improve their English, and some wished to continue all the way to earning a GED certificate. As the counselor told me, all of the students have a goal in mind—they are trying to change their lives.

I spent a few minutes observing as an instructional aide worked on basic reading with an African American man in his mid forties. He barely attended school as a boy growing up in the rural Midwest, I learned, and supported himself as a laborer. He was recently released from prison and has attended this class regularly, determined to learn to read. The man reads deliberately, with a firm voice, and the aide tells me that she has noticed the man’s posture become straighter in recent months.

I see a striking diversity of skills and backgrounds in the room—from people who earned postsecondary degrees in their countries of origin to the reading student who barely attended school, and from young people just beginning their adult lives to a grandmother who attends so that she can keep her mind alert. The teacher shares with me that one of his favorite things is seeing an eighteen-year-old African American kid joining in friendship around a common goal with a middle-aged mother from Central America or Southeast Asia. These bonds form naturally in classrooms like the one I visited—but there aren’t enough places in our society where that can happen.

Q. When my children were young, the most profound transformation I witnessed was their passage from non-reader to reader. I watched my kids literally became more fully themselves, more vibrantly human as they became readers. That creative transformation that comes through learning is a powerful engine for individuals and for our country. Your vision is finally a hopeful one, yes?

Rose: Yes it is. What perhaps only education can do, is transform us so that we live fuller lives. Throughout our history, we have affirmed that schooling at any age has multiple benefits for the self and for society. In Back to School, I’ve given frank descriptions of misguided or poorly conceived policies and their consequences. But there are so many educators and institutions who are committed to nurturing intellect and are using their heart to help students realize their aspirations—and succeeding. Those stories provide blueprints we can follow to offer more inclusive access to the transformative power of learning.

Many educators have unique stories to share about how they have embraced the challenges of helping prepare students to succeed in college and for their future careers. These stories and the supporting data have been compiled in a new, just-released white paper, College & Career Readiness: Implementation Strategies for High Impact.

About Mike Rose

Mike Rose, a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is the author of many books, including Why School?, Lives on the Boundary, The Mind at Work, and Possible Lives. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Grawemeyer Award in Education, and the Commonwealth Club of California Award for Literary Excellence in Nonfiction. He lives in Santa Monica.

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