A recent New York Times article chronicled the collegiate struggles of three low-income young women from the same high school in Galveston. The long story tried to make the valid point that low-income students face considerably higher barriers than other students in their quest to earn a college degree. However, by dramatizing the fact that the three students have not finished college according to the conventional yardstick of the "four-year degree" (a real misnomer in modern collegiate life), the writer unfairly stereotyped low-income students (and Latina women in particular) while ignoring the increasingly large body of evidence about pathways to success for at-risk undergraduates.
Elitist thinking dominates the current discussion about collegiate success, and this is a real shame for the millions of students whom the elite paradigm largely ignores -- students who might appear "traditional" by age but who are "non-traditional" by almost every other characteristic. These students attend college in patterns that are startlingly different from the outmoded images of the traditional "four year" college -- they attend multiple institutions over a period of years, moving back and forth between full-time and part-time status, usually working almost full-time hours at low wage jobs, often raising their own children while still in their late teens. Mom and Dad do not pay the bills for these students -- one or both parents are often absent entirely. These students are not "college kids" even though they might be 18-19-20. These are young adults, emancipated in fact if not legally, and they are trying to change their lives for the better by seeking a college education.
For many of these students, getting a "B" on a math test is real college success. Earning praise for a well-written essay in a sociology class is success. Demonstrating the ability to make logical arguments, solve algebra problems, interpret a poem or describe cells under a microscope makes them feel academically powerful, which provides incentive to stick with the program. The idea that nothing is worthwhile if they have not completed a degree in four to six years is one of the more disparaging and discouraging parts of the discussion. While all of us who work with low-income at-risk students want them to earn degrees, we also know that what they learn as they are attending class is of great value and should not be diminished by extolling the credential over the learning. If we celebrate learning and make it a valuable part of their lives, they will eventually earn that degree, but quite likely on a non-traditional timetable (meaning longer than four to six years).
The U.S. Department of Education has begun to gather the "promising practices" from universities across the country to create a clearinghouse of information and demonstration projects that support success for at-risk college students. My university, Trinity in Washington, is participating in this effort along with many others.
At Trinity, about half of the students are from those parts of the District of Columbia where poverty and violence are high and academic achievement is, too often, quite low. Another third of our students are from Prince Georges County where the statistics are not much better. Our median family income for last year's freshman class was about $32,000. Sixty percent of our D.C. residents score zero on the federal "Expected Family Income" contribution to pay for college, meaning that their families are not able to contribute anything to educational expenses. About 60 percent of our students who receive D.C. Tuition Assistance Grants are still enrolled or have graduated since the program's inception, one of the highest retention rates for D.C. students anywhere.
Trinity is quite familiar with the multiple barriers that low-income students must confront along the pathway to collegiate success: money is a constant worry for most; the need to care for their own children or siblings or sick elders in the family can be overwhelming; the imperative of working almost full-time while going to school reduces time for study; the resistance of families and friends to choosing education over social life sometimes becomes threatening; the chronic health problems that go along with the conditions of life in the impoverished sections of the city can interrupt attendance. Evaluations of the health of our first year students indicate that about 40 percent have health problems that can impede their academic progress; quite often, the college health center is the first time these students have received consistent care.
But my students refuse to be the abject victims of circumstance; in their admissions essays, one student after another writes about how she does not want to "become just another statistic" of failure, marginalization, dreams dashed. Trinity students have very high ambition and they work extremely hard to reach their goals, even if that achievement takes longer than the elite timetable.
Over the last decade, Trinity has implemented a number of successful strategies to support students who come to college lacking the strong framework that others have to ensure success. Among Trinity's most successful strategies, we have found that these make a tremendous difference for students who might otherwise fall by the wayside:
• Personal attention for each student is Trinity's hallmark, and that attention comes from members of the full-time faculty, academic advisors, financial aid specialists, counselors, tutors, staff specialists in math, writing and critical reading.
• "Intrusive advising" is a methodology that causes us to seek out a student who does not appear for appointments, skips class or fails to respond to multiple emails.
• Class attendance is a clear marker for success or failure in the first year, so our faculty take attendance and multiple absences soon have an advisor in hot pursuit of the student.
• Financial aid practices that help students to understand the complicated forest of grants, scholarships and loans, and that help students to maximize their financial aid through timely filing of FAFSA and other aid forms. Trinity also strives to keep tuition affordable and provides institutional grants worth about 40 percent of full-time tuition on top of other sources of financial aid.
• All students participate in an entrance evaluation so that their course schedules can be built according to the foundations they need to acquire for later success.
• Learning communities in the first year, led by senior members of the faculty, give students ready access to faculty who can help to demystify so much of the arcane language of the academy while also helping students develop strong ties with each other -- engagement in the learning community is also a strong marker for collegiate success.
• Strong foundation programs in Mathematics, Writing and Critical Reading have proven highly successful in helping students learn how to be successful at the collegiate level, making academic progression into upper-division courses and majors more likely for students who have successfully completed the foundation courses.
• Symbols and ceremonies of success are a big part of Trinity's culture -- first year medals, sophomore pins, junior rings, seniors earning their caps and gowns in September -- a culture that promotes and celebrates student success provides a great deal of incentive for students who bring their large extended families to the party.
• Partnership with other organizations devoted to student success is also a key part of Trinity's strategy. We work closely with the College Success Foundation that supports more than 70 Trinity students with scholarships, with the D.C. College Access Program, and many other college access organizations. We have begun new partnerships with KIPP-DC and the Cristo Rey Network to strengthen the pathway from high school to college for students from those high schools.
Even with all of this support, we have students who find it hard to stay in school for very good reasons: having children, caring for sick elders, work demands, money. For that reason, we also have long recognized the value of lifelong learning. As a university with a century-long mission emphasizing women's education, we know that women of all circumstances have particular risks to timely college completion -- having children, stopping out to care for relatives or deferring academic goals to support a spouse. For low-income women who are often quite alone on their journey to intellectual fulfillment, these universal challenges for women in college are compounded by financial hardship, sometimes even homelessness.
Trinity was among the first universities in the Washington region to recognize the importance of lifelong learning when we founded our Weekend College in 1985, now known as the School of Professional Studies which is coeducational. We have hundreds of students in their 30s and 40s who are completing long-deferred dreams by finishing their degrees in the part-time evening/weekend program. Younger students whose life challenges interrupt their full-time education can also enroll through the School of Professional Studies in order to complete their degrees. Nationwide, such students are a very large part of the collegiate scene, yet, traditional modes of measuring success through the "graduation rate" (which only measures full-time first-time freshmen who stay at the same school) completely miss nearly half the population of undergraduates.
College success for a 20-year-old young mother who is also working full-time might look different for her compared to a more traditional student, but even if her success occurs along a longer timetable and perhaps through several institutions, she is successful nonetheless. It's not really "news" that some students do not complete their degrees on a traditional timetable; what's big news is that many do ultimately earn their degrees and go on to become great examples of academic achievement to inspire their children and families.
The young women profiled in the New York Times story -- Angelica Gonzales, Melissa O'Neal, Bianca Gonzalez --- can and should complete their college degrees. Just because they're not done in four years does not mean they can't still become successful college graduates.