Recent read: “Colleges Are No Match for American Poverty”

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A fascinating read on Amarillo College in Texas by Marcella Bombardier on Atlantic.com. Some highlights:

 

The school of 10,000 students has an emergency fund that can cut a check within hours to cover the car-repair or water bill that could push a student to drop a class—or quit school for good. The school employs social workers who counsel students through these types of financial crises, runs a legal-aid clinic, and offers free mental-health counseling (the latter is standard at private colleges but spotty in the community-college world). Last fall it debuted a low-cost day-care center that keeps its doors open 14 hours a day to serve student parents with jobs in the early morning or evening; students who qualify for a state subsidy only pay $5 a week. Tutoring is available evenings and weekends.

Administrators are working on an alert system that flags incoming students who are at high risk of struggling academically, and then assigns professors to reach out to them before trouble hits. In the fall, staff called and emailed over 800 students who had at least one dependent and a family income under $19,600 a year—less than half of what would be a living wage for a single parent or a one-income household with a child—to make sure they know about the school’s support services. In its quest to improve student performance, the college is questioning academic traditions as fundamental as the length of a semester, which has been cut in half for many classes.

A number of signs suggest Amarillo College is doing better by its students than it did just a few years ago. The graduation rate is rising, more students are studying full-time, and students of color are doing as well as white students, according to Collin Witherspoon, the college’s executive director of analytics and institutional research. But some of Lowery-Hart’s biggest bets have yet to prove effective, and there are at least a few professors who question whether the fixation on poverty is in students’ best interests.

After all, as the college experiments, it is the students in poverty who are taking the biggest gamble. They might be forgoing wages they could earn if they weren’t in class, eating into their six years of lifetime Pell Grant eligibility on a semester they may not finish, or even taking out loans—although the latter is quite rare among Amarillo College students—that they will struggle to repay if they end up dropping out. Ending up worse off than when they started is a real possibility.

Pruett took advantage of the food pantry, and the college emergency fund covered half a month’s rent and some utility bills. Herrera put Pruett in touch with a local church that also chipped in. More importantly, she helped Pruett get on the waitlist for a Section 8 housing program that provides affordable rentals to college students with families. Months later, just before Easter, the housing program offered Pruett’s family a four-bedroom house for $1,000 a month. But when they gave notice to their current landlord, she put them out on the street with three days’ notice, even though they wouldn’t get the new place for a couple of weeks. Herrera tried to find shelter beds for the family, but no one could offer space for a family of seven. So the college paid for them to stay about 10 days in a Travelodge.

The largest source of the college’s nearly $66 million budget this academic year was tuition and fees, which brought in $23 million, including financial aid awards to students from state and federal governments. The next biggest chunk was support from local taxes, about $21.3 million, with state support third at $13.5 million. However, other than salaries for social workers, the poverty work is largely funded by other means. A private foundation created in 1961 to handle donations to the college, the Amarillo College Foundation, bankrolls the emergency-aid fund, with a contribution of $60,000 this year. Other gifts and grants have helped with bits and pieces of the work. For example, a federal Perkins grant supports transportation and childcare for adult students in career and technical programs.

There is something shocking about a cash-strapped community college shelling out $1,200 to help a student get her car out of repo—on top of the motel bill, on top of the water bill, on top of the help with rent. Certainly, the unusual level of support the emergency fund gets from the Amarillo College Foundation is what makes this possible. But this kind of money still pales in comparison to what wealthier colleges spend as a matter of course on all their students. Community colleges spend less than $1,400 per student each year on all non-academic student services, a category that covers everything from mental-health and career counseling to support for student groups and intramural sports. That’s compared to almost $4,500 per student at private four-year colleges. Of students who got emergency aid from Amarillo College in the fall of 2016, according to the college, 57 percent were still in school a year later, compared to 48 percent of the overall campus population—impressive given that the emergency-aid recipients are more likely to have major distractions in their lives.

Perhaps the college’s most dramatic change precipitated by data is the transition from traditional 16-week classes to 8-week mini terms. Amarillo students across the board are getting better grades in the shorter, more intense terms. One theory is that the shorter the term, the fewer days and weeks there are when a student could get thrown off, as Pruett did, because their water gets turned off, or their car breaks down, or a relative gets sick.

Some professors, however, think the eight-week terms are a big mistake. They say that students can’t grapple effectively with difficult concepts in such a short period. The data only look good, the critics say, because instructors are taking pity on drowning students and offering them extra-credit opportunities, letting them rewrite papers, or simply inflating grades.

“These kids don’t know how to read a textbook, they don’t know how to study, they don’t know how to write … and then we’re rushing them through,” said Deborah Harding, who teaches psychology and sociology at the school. “I think it’s a terrible way to learn.”

 

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1 comments on “Recent read: “Colleges Are No Match for American Poverty””

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