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Dropping Out of College, and Paying the Price
Published: June 25, 2013 New York Times.com
David Beltrán has a solid understanding of the benefits of a college education. The 22-year-old from Queens — a journalism major at Brooklyn College — has seen too many friends drop out only to find themselves working at a fast-food counter or at a construction job. “They are getting by, but they are not very happy.” And yet Mr. Beltrán says he probably wouldn’t have gone to college full time if he hadn’t received a Pell grant and financial aid from New York State to defray the costs. He has also heard too many stories about people struggling under an unbearable burden of student loans to even consider going into debt. Honestly, I don’t think I would have gone,” he said. “I couldn’t have done four years.” And that would have been the wrong decision. His reasoning is not unusual.
The rising cost of college looms like an insurmountable obstacle for many low income Americans hoping to get a higher education. The notion of a college education becoming a financial albatross around the neck of the nation's youth is a growing meme acr oss the culture. Some education experts now advise high school graduates that a college educationmay not be such a good investment after all. “Sticker price matters a lot,” said Lawrence Katz, a professor of Harvard University. “It is a deterrent.”
College graduation rates in the United States are continuing to slip behind, according to a report published on Tuesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, failing to keep pace with other advanced nations.
In 2000, 38 percent of Americans age 25 to 34 had a degree from a community college or a four-year institution, putting the nation in fourth place among its peers in the O.E.C.D. By 2011, the graduation rate had inched up to 43 percent, but the nation’s ranking had slipped to 11th place. This from perhaps the first nation to try mass college education, graduating more students from college than anybody else. Graduation rates in the United States among 55- to 64-year-olds are higher than in any industrial country except Canada and Israel — reflecting the nation’s head start.
What’s most troubling, perhaps, is that Americans are actually enrolling in college and then dropping out halfway through — when they’ve probably already incurred a bunch of debt and won’t benefit from the better job prospects that come with a degree. More than 70 percent of Americans matriculate at a four-year college — the seventhhighest rate among 23 developed nations for which the O.E.C.D. compiles such statistics.
But less than two-thirds end up graduating. Including community colleges, the graduation rate drops to 53 percent. Only Hungary does worse.
And the most perplexing part of this accounting is that regardless of cost, getting a degree is the best financial decision a young American can make. According to the O.E.C.D.’s report, a college degree is worth $365,000 for the average American man after subtracting all its direct and indirect costs over a lifetime. For women — who still tend to earn less than men — it’s worth $185,000.
College graduates have higher employment rates and make more money. According to the O.E.C.D., a typical graduate from a four-year college earns 84 percent more than a high school graduate. A graduate from a community college makes 16 percent more. A college education is more profitable in the United States than in pretty much every other advanced nation. Only Irish women get more for the investment: $185,960 net.
What’s to be done?
Democratizing higher education is an urgent challenge. A study published Wednesday by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington underscores how inequities in education are hampering social and economic mobility, contributing to entrenched income inequality.
The study points out that half of Americans in the top fourth of the income distribution have a college degree. Among the poorest fourth of Americans, fewer than one in 10 graduated from college. And the gap is growing. The college graduation rate of high income Americans born in the 1980s was 20 percentage points higher than in the 1960s. Among low-income Americans, it advanced only 4 percent.
Every year federal, state and municipal governments spend a total of more than $9,200 per student in college, the O.E.C.D. estimates. Perhaps they could do more. According to the O.E.C.D., they make a profit of $231,000 on each American who graduates from college — mostly through higher income taxes and lower unemployment payments. Increasing financial aid can increase the odds of keeping a student in college. But it can be expensive and not very cost-effective. Some students getting aid wouldn’t graduate anyway, and others would have graduated without it.
Eric Hanushek, a professor at Stanford University, argues that there is something inherently unfair about subsidizing students only when they reach college. “Subsidies to higher education are bonuses for the people who already are coming out ahead,” he told me in an e-mail. “These bonuses are paid partially by the people who were not the winners — the ones who did not attend college. Therefore, transfers are made from the less well off to the more well off.” Other ideas look promising.
A study by Caroline Hoxby, a professor at Stanford University, and Sarah Turner, a professor at the University of Virginia, concluded that providing high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds with personalized information about their college options would cost only $6 per student but could vastly increase their applications and acceptance to high-end colleges. Reconfiguring college loans — for instance by making debt repayments contingent on wages after college — might help young Americans overcome their fear of an enormous pile of debt.
Yet if the problem is not getting more Americans to enroll in college but to get those enrolled to finish it, we need to understand why it is that Americans drop out at such disproportionate rates — despite the promise of a high payoff at the end. Getting more Americans successfully through college requires ensuring that once they get there, they can reap the enormous profits of the experience.
And that looks likely to be a more complicated task than providing more college grants. Many students are arriving in college without the needed preparation. In 2009, American 15-year-olds scored in 17th place in international reading tests — among 65 nations rich and poor. They scored in 27th place in math and 23rd in science — well below top achievers in other advanced countries. Studies have found that American students are disproportionately disadvantaged, compared with those of high-performing nations on international tests.
The pattern suggests that the main obstacle keeping Americans from a college education emerges long before they reach college.
“As we have larger proportions attending college, we are undoubtedly dipping down further in the preparation of students for college,” Professor Hanushek said. “This, in turn, leads to greater proportions of students dropping out before they complete a B.A. degree.”
This may call for a different approach to improve the nation’s college graduation rates. The best policy may require taking the money spent today to subsidize public higher education and using it to better prepare students before they get there.
E-mail: email@example.com; Twitter: @portereduardo
This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes
Researchers observe the brain patterns of literary PhD candidates while they're reading a Jane Austen novel. The fMRI images suggest that literary reading provides "a truly valuable exercise of people's brains."
Photography: L.A. Cicero
Researcher Natalie Phillips positions an eye-tracking device on Matt Langione.
The inside of an MRI machine might not seem like the best place to cozy up and concentrate on a good novel, but a team of researchers at Stanford are asking readers to do just that.
In an innovative interdisciplinary study, neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars are working together to explore the relationship between reading, attention and distraction – by reading Jane Austen.
Surprising preliminary results reveal a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for "executive function," areas which would normally be associated with paying close attention to a task, such as reading, said Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project.
During a series of ongoing experiments, functional magnetic resonance images track blood flow in the brains of subjects as they read excerpts of a Jane Austen novel. Experiment participants are first asked to leisurely skim a passage as they might do in a bookstore, and then to read more closely, as they would while studying for an exam.
Phillips said the global increase in blood flow during close reading suggests that "paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions." Blood flow also increased during pleasure reading, but in different areas of the brain. Phillips suggested that each style of reading may create distinct patterns in the brain that are "far more complex than just work and play."
The experiment focuses on literary attention, or more specifically, the cognitive dynamics of the different kinds of focus we bring to reading. This experiment grew out of Phillips' ongoing research about Enlightenment writers who were concerned about issues of attention span, or what they called "wandering attention."
Phillips, who received her PhD in English literature at Stanford in 2010, is now an assistant professor of English at Michigan State University. She said one of the primary goals of the research is to investigate the value of studying literature. Beyond producing good writers and thinkers, she is interested in "how this training engages the brain."
Photograph: L.A. Cicero
Test subject Matt Langione, a doctoral candidate at UC-Berkeley, leisurely reads Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park' in the mock scanning room.
The researchers found that blood flow in the brain increases during such leisurely reading, but in different areas of the brain than when the subjects read the novel more closely.
Pioneering in a number of respects, her research is "one of the first fMRI experiments to study how our brains respond to literature," Phillips said, as well as the first to consider "how cognition is shaped not just by what we read, but how we read it."
Critical reading of humanities-oriented texts are recognized for fostering analytical thought, but if such results hold across subjects, Phillips said it would suggest "it's not only what we read – but thinking rigorously about it that's of value, and that literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people's brains."
Though modern life's cascade of beeps and buzzes certainly prompts a new kind of distraction, Phillips warned against "adopting a kind of historical nostalgia, or assuming those of the 18th century were less distracted than we are today." Many Enlightenment writers, Phillips noted, were concerned about how distracted readers were becoming "amidst the print-overload of 18th-century England."
Rather than seeing the change from the 18th century to today as a historical progression toward increasing distraction, Phillips likes to think of attention in terms of "changing environmental, cultural and cognitive contexts: what someone's used to, what they're trying to pay attention to, where, how, when, for how long, etc."
Ironically, the project was born out of a moment of distraction. While sitting on a discussion panel (which happened to be one of the first on cognitive approaches to literature), Phillips found herself distracted from the talk by the audience's varieties of inattention: "One man was chatting to his neighbor; another person was editing their talk; one guy was looking vaguely out the window; a final had fallen asleep."
The talk inspired Phillips to consider connections between her traditional study of 18th-century literature and a neuroscientific approach to literary analysis. Phillips was especially intrigued by the concept of cognitive flexibility, which she defines as "the ability to focus deeply on one's disciplinary specialty, while also having the capacity to pay attention to many things at once," such as connections between literature, history of mind, philosophy, neuroscience and so on.
Phillips delved into the project during her time as a Mellon Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center in 2010-11. Her first stop was the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging (CNI).
Photography: L.A. Cicero
MRI facility manager Laima Baltusis, left, observes the scan with Natalie Phillips.
Samantha Holdsworth, a research scientist specializing in MRI techniques, recalled an early conversation about the project when two scientists were trying to communicate with three literary scholars: "We were all interested, but working at the edge of our capacity just to understand even 10 percent of what each other were saying."
After working through the challenges of disciplinary lingo, the team devised a truly interdisciplinary experiment. Participants read a full chapter from Mansfield Park, which is projected onto a mirror inside an MRI scanner. Together with a verbal cue, color-coding on the text signals participants to move between two styles of attention: reading for pleasure or reading with a heightened attention to literary form.
The use of the fMRI allows for a dynamic picture of blood flow in the brain, "basically, where neurons are firing, and when," said Phillips. Eye-tracking compatible with fMRI shows how people's eyes move as they read. As Phillips explained, the micro-jumps of the eyes "can be aligned with the temporal blood flow to different regions in the brain."
When participants are done with a chapter, they leave the scanner and write a short literary essay on the sections they analyzed closely. The test subjects, all literary PhD candidates from the Bay Area, were chosen because Phillips felt they could easily alternate between close reading and pleasure reading.
After reviewing early scans, neuroscientist Bob Doherty, director of CNI, said he was impressed by "how the right patterns of ink on a page can create vivid mental imagery and instill powerful emotions." Doherty was also surprised to see how "a simple request to the participants to change their literary attention can have such a big impact on the pattern of activity during reading."
The researchers expected to see pleasure centers activating for the relaxed reading and hypothesized that close reading, as a form of heightened attention, would create more neural activity than pleasure reading. If the ongoing analysis continues to support the initial theory, Phillips said, teaching close reading (i.e., attention to literary form) "could serve – quite literally – as a kind of cognitive training, teaching us to modulate our concentration and use new brain regions as we move flexibly between modes of focus."
With the field of literary neuroscience in its infancy, Phillips said this project is helping to demonstrate the potential that neuroscientific tools have to "give us a bigger, richer picture of how our minds engage with art – or, in our case, of the complex experience we know as literary reading."