College Access, Equity, and the Tower of Babel

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist

NOTE: I wrote this before learning of the brutal elementary school shooting in Texas this week. Much of what I write here, about left and right, also applies to our inability to do anything about gun safety and control in the US. The tragedies will continue, unfortunately.

I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s piece in The Atlantic, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” Haidt suggests that the Tower of Babel can be used as a metaphor for society today: a splintering of groups into silos of thought and oppression. In brief, the biblical myth states that after the great flood, a city was created with a great tower that reached the heavens. Its citizens were as one and spoke a singular language. Looking upon what they had created, God found this blasphemous and confounded their speech so that they could no longer understand each other, forcing separation.

Haidt writes that social media has had a similar effect to splintering speech and thought, while giving voice to those with extremist beliefs. While social media has the power to allow for a free distribution of thought in almost every corner of the world, it also has realized the unintended consequence of allowing the extremists to take control of much of this “free” space. The ”retweet” and “like” buttons are the combatants here. They have allowed for the massive sharing and “viral” loading of thoughts from the progressive left and the conservative “Qu-Anon” right. Often people send things forth before reading the full text of an article or treatise. And once out in the internet ether, it remains.

James Madison clearly understand that society contained those who had a “mutual animosity” that could work against the common good. Haidt discusses a study of “Hidden Tribes” in 2017 and 2018, which identified seven unique groups along the US political continuum. The main two extremist groups, the “progressive activists” and the “devoted conservatives,” were the “whitest and richest” among the seven and were more likely to throw “darts” at others who did not agree with their positions. These two groups accounted for only 15 percent of the 8,000 people who were part of this study, but they clearly exhibited the potential to wag the dog, so to speak.

From the perspective of higher education, I see a similar pattern where there is certain thought—less extremist—but with no less ability to control the flow of information. Yes, there is left and right and those things are very different. I see this, in particular, with the college access and equity discussion. While public policy has largely focused on opening the doors to a higher education over the past 50-plus years, we have learned that opening these doors does not provide a salve to the issues of educational opportunity. Yes, it allows more students from underrepresented backgrounds into higher education, but it does not always close the gap in either opportunity and success. The gaps between the haves and havenots remain large.

The positive impact in our legislation and educational practice has resulted in people to and graduating from college who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to do so. There are literally millions of students who, since the Civil Rights Act, have completed a college degree due in large part to the legislative process.

But the other side of the discussion often gets swept under the rug. This is about the students who, even though they were not academically prepared for postsecondary studies, were supported to apply and enroll, mostly at open-admissions institutions. As with the millions of students who were able to change their lives through a higher education, the road to and through college is littered with those who never really had a chance. For them, they ended up as college dropouts, loaded with student debt but without the requisite degree that alters personal futures.

People before us fought hard to push the equity agenda and allow those who were not given the same opportunities to go to college. The premise was pristine. However, while we are a nation of opportunity, we are also a nation that allows—perhaps tolerates—failure. This failure is the cost of the success of those who are above the brass ring. Today, 59 million Americans are on some form of government subsidy (e.g., welfare) at a cost of $22 trillion over the past 50 years.[1] So we understand failure. And although we have built public, taxpayer-supported systems to help these people, we have done little to help them rise out of their particular situations. As I have argued long and hard, money means everything. Money allows people to live in better conditions, purchase housing, attend better schools, and eat and live in a more healthful manner. Those who live on the margins of economic gain also live on the margins of everything else.

Similarly, in the college access game, we have supported college going, but we have done little to increase their chances of success. It is interesting to me that many if not most of the college access and success programs and strategies occur after high school, or at least after the 10th or 11th grades. Far too little and too late. Our failure has been not focusing more diligently on the pathways that come before high school. Instead, we have focused on “fixing” students after the fact rather than fixing the system before it happens. As someone who has evaluated countless college preparation programs, summer bridge programs, and first-year programs, it comes down to this: you can’t fix 13 years of below-grade education in a three-week institute between high school graduation and college matriculation. To date, I have yet to see a summer bridge program improve a student’s chances of success in college. Those add-on programs in middle and high school tend to cream and focus on students who are more than likely to go to college than other students that are actually the target of these programs. For target students, these programs provide assistance but cannot make up for the deficient teaching and learning that goes on in schools that are largely deficient in their own right.

For college support programs at the postsecondary level, they are largely unable to right the significant academic deficiencies that students come with from high school. The academic support, including mentoring and tutoring, is too little too late for most students. Yes, those programs also help students, but it helps those who are on the bubble rather than those outside of it. Other Swail Letters provides NAEP data that illustrates the academic damage done to students by the eighth grade. For almost all students, there is no academic catchup from that point forward. Damage done.

The Babel exercise, for me, is that some of us have taken on the darts from the college access crew by suggesting that current legislation and practices are not the solution to unequal education opportunity. We are “bandaiding” at best. I look at the philanthropic organizations, the US Department of Education, and other purveyors of educational policy and practice, and they are committed to much of the same that we have done over the past half century. Their work and support focuses largely on the same people who are doing the same things and magically coming out with the same results. They come from the same epistemology of thought. Yes, there are examples that color outside of these lines, but if one is to argue that perhaps we should be spending billions of federal and philanthropic dollars to do the same thing we have been doing in a different manner, it is akin to touching the third rail.

As with Haidt’s piece, even in higher education, the at-large group does not like and does not support anyone who suggests there could be different pathways to success. We know that opening up the doors is perhaps only 10 percent of the answer to the expansion of higher education opportunity. The other 90 percent occurs years before high school graduation. Still, our policies mostly fall outside of that timeline. Research is amazingly clear on what matters most to youth in terms of their academic potential: reading. Early reading is, by far, the number one factor in how a child will learn in elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education. But the gaps in reading by children vary dramatically by race and income. It varies by where people live and what their community is able to support. But legislatively, we don’t do much about it. We can point to Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which focuses primarily on reading, but previous Title I and Head Start evaluations show middling (at best) outcomes for students. About 12 years ago, I served as the Principal Investigator of an early reading project which focused on K-2 reading. The program had a promising impact. Unfortunately, as soon as the program ended, students regressed back to where they were along the reading scales. Participation in a one-time intervention is a good start but does not adequately change the game. Still, our policies and practices focus mostly on interventions rather than changing systems.

We need more people who can offer up new responses to age-old social problems. Education is only one of them. We also know that health care matters in youth learning, as does consistency of parental employment and ability to move outside of government assistance without falling back in. These are not liberal agendas or solutions, by the way. In fact, I argue that providing assistance through systemic policy feeds the conservative desire to “pull up the bootstraps” so people need either less or no government assistance.

But if we keep on pushing people who have different ideas to the curb, we have no hope of getting there. Our current pathway is not solving the problem. Status quo is not working, but our K12 and higher education systems are doing things as they always have. A real challenge is that our K12 institutions are so overburdened in terms of content and regulations that they are largely handcuffed from change. We must continue to provide safety nets for youths and teachers, but we must push forward with different systemic thought in how we teach students. We must reconstruct what we’ve built over the past century to meet the needs of a diverse population in a more connected world. Alabama isn’t competing so much with Connecticut anymore: we are all competing with our peers in China, Germany, and Korea. I think, globally, this is a good thing as it allows us to “sharpen our saw,” for those that get the Stephen Covey reference. But it amps up the need to think clearly about how we can collectively come to agreement on how to push forward.

Right now, we aren’t even approaching this scenario. We are simply pressing the same buttons and expecting different results. We continue to speak different languages and talk past each other. We need the extremes to listen to each other, and those in the “middle” 85 percent to do the same. Just because “we” aren’t extreme does not mean that we aren’t part of the problem.

We all are.

I’m very interested in your thoughts. This is heady stuff and there is no right answer. However, if you wish to comment and share, please do so constructively with tolerance and decency.


[1] https://review42.com/resources/welfare-statistics/#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20people%20on,security%20needs%20to%20be%20increased.

2 thoughts on “College Access, Equity, and the Tower of Babel

  1. I suggest you’ve left out the most important issue.

    The real problem with higher education is that too many graduates enter the job market with credentials that are not valued by the economy. This is why such a large number of graduates are under-employed. If you don’t believe me, check the data published by the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

    Exacerbating this underemployment travesty are the extraordinary levels of student debt that burden so many in this quandary. The resulting debt-trap of poor earnings and high debt load is especially egregious for the very students you seek to help.

    The best way to help these students is not to expand ways to stuff more of them through the pipeline, but to first pause and ensure that the pipeline we offer them consistently yields the results they seek: a prosperous occupational trajectory commensurate with the cost of their degree.

    Moreover, if we can’t offer a reasonable level of certainty regarding occupational results, suggesting to students that they assume life-changing debt loads borders on fraud.

    If you counter this augment with the tired old “on average, college graduates earn more than non-graduates” then you are part of the problem. Tyranny resides in these averages because they tell half-truths. Indeed, averages may be factual but the argument deceptively ignores those graduates who completed a degree that has little market value and are now stuck in the debt trap. All student should be assured of a reasonable return on their college investment, not just those above the mean.

    When the prosperity promise of higher education is more certain, that is an apt time to turn attention to better throughput. In the meantime, being concerned about equity, access, and completion is a tired teapot tempest that needs to be on hold until the real problem with higher education is solved for those who most need our help.

    1. You are not wrong. We absolutely over value a four-year degree. We are a credential-based society, not a competency-based economy. That is a problem.

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