Achieving the College Dream

August 25, 2020   •   By Johann N. Neem

Won’t Lose This Dream

Andrew Gumbel

I TEACH HISTORY at Western Washington University, the kind of school that most four-year college students attend. I have many first-generation students. They are tenacious. But they struggle. They often keep their hardships to themselves, but a recent student admitted to sleeping in his van. Another, who came regularly to my office with her arms piled high with books, has run out of money to pay for food.

These students are not exceptions. The United States’s colleges have created a vast sorting machine. Children of wealthier, better-educated parents get accepted disproportionately to the nation’s most prestigious institutions, while first-generation students, many nonwhite, attend community colleges or regional four-years until a financial or personal crisis leads them to drop out. They are burdened with debt but get no degree.

This is unconscionable. And that is why Won’t Lose This Dream: How an Upstart Urban University Rewrote the Rules of a Broken System is worth reading. Journalist Andrew Gumbel offers a fast-paced narrative celebrating Atlanta’s Georgia State University (GSU), a school with more Pell grant recipients than the Ivy League, for closing the gap in graduation rates between first-generation and other students. In 2003, GSU graduated a third of its students, but by 2018 that number doubled, even as GSU increased dramatically the number of low-income students admitted. GSU, Gumbel writes, “erased all achievement gaps, without lowering its standards or misinterpreting or falsifying the results.”

The moral significance of this fact cannot be underestimated. Won’t Lose This Dream charts the reforms implemented by GSU president Mark Becker, with the encouragement and support of vice president for student success Timothy Renick, and Allison Calhoun-Brown in the student advising office. It is a top-down inside story of a school that refused to allow some of America’s most hardworking and deserving students to fail. Gumbel calls this the “student success revolution.”

I.

Despite the author’s claims of a revolution, this book actually demonstrates how small changes yield large results. At a time when some reformers dream of “disruptive innovation” in higher education, Gumbel shows that what is really needed is an emphasis on understanding students. Administrators and professors often assume that first-generation students drop out because they cannot meet academic standards.

This book proves otherwise. At GSU, “academic ability is almost never the factor causing a lower-income student to drop out.” Poring through student data, GSU leaders discovered that many students about to graduate dropped out with good GPAs. They just ran out of money. They were one crisis away from losing it. The most important lesson to be taken from this book, therefore, is that when students are offered the financial and advising support that they need during a crisis, they will continue their studies. They have proven they can get by on little, but because of their precarity, one push the wrong direction upends years of work. Most students’ cash needs were small, usually under $1,500. Under Renick’s guidance, GSU reached out to these students before they left. Instead of filling out complicated forms, the school would “zero out the students’ accounts, pure and simple.”

Their next decision was to reach students in good academic standing but unable to pay tuition, identify their issues, and provide financial support right there and then — what came to be called “Panther Retention Grants,” after GSU’s mascot. These small grants vastly improved graduation rates and cost the school almost nothing since, when students remain enrolled, they also continue to receive their grants and scholarships and to pay tuition and fees.

GSU’s leaders then turned to students who struggled academically. They realized that the challenge facing these students “wasn’t lack of potential” but difficulty adapting to college. Instead of offering remedial courses for no credit, GSU invited students with lower GPAs and SATs to start in summer “to engage in college-level work and take advantage of the quieter time on campus to bond with each other and get a head start on their peers.” They received guidance on how the university works, something more privileged students know or can intuit. They received academic support. They were prepped for success; almost 90 percent of the first summer cohort remained enrolled sophomore year and graduated at a higher rate than the university average.

The secret to these changes was that GSU leadership assumed that students were capable of making it. In turn, students knew that the institution believed in them. “What we were giving them,” Renick said, “was the mindset that they can do college work.” And it paid off for students and GSU. Speaking of the summer program, Renick stated, “The more we retained, the more revenue we were generating.”

These important changes combined with smaller ones — such as a chatbot to interact with students via text, or a “bio-bus” to provide students shots when they couldn’t locate their immunization records — offered students what Gumbel calls a net. But it was more than that. It was a platform. GSU refused to believe that students dropped out because they weren’t good enough — and the data was on their side. They left because they were poor, because they didn’t understand how college worked, and because it was too hard to get the help that they needed when they needed it.

But when students’ academic, financial, and personal needs are taken care of efficiently and openly, first-generation students, like other students, can focus on learning. And they will flourish.

II.

College is about more than degrees. It is about education. Like their more privileged peers, first-generation students often arrive seeking a degree. Unlike Ivy League students, they are not imagining their degree as the ticket to a Wall Street job or federal clerkship. They simply want financial security for themselves and, often, their families.

In my experience at Western, if many students come seeking a degree, many also learn to value their education. I cannot name the number of first-generation students I have known who did not believe that they had minds worth taking seriously until a professor in one of their classes did so. When students are respected, they realize that one does not need to be at Harvard to think profoundly about the world. Indeed, I’d wager, one of the joys of teaching at a school like mine is that, unlike elite students, when my students light up, they are free to pursue ideas precisely because they are not worried about every grade.

My experience as a professor shaped how I read this book. Gumbel’s book inspired me to ask more of myself and of colleges. It also frustrated me because of the author’s dismissal of professorial work and the deeper purposes of scholarly life to which my colleagues and I are devoted.

Won’t Lose This Dream is “an authorized account […] initiated” by Becker and Renick. Perhaps that’s why the heroes are administrators and staff while almost all the villains are skeptical professors. There is no sense that professors care about anything other than themselves. Gumbel offers little awareness of the hours most professors devote to students. There is little about the commitments that animate our work. Many professors could have gone to Wall Street or worked for McKinsey. We didn’t. We chose scholarship because we believe that what we teach and write about matters. And it does.

Gumbel’s failure to recognize the purposes of academic life weakens the book. Too often, it leads him to misrepresent issues. For example, the author dismisses shared governance as a way for professors to protect their interests. He offers nothing about its history nor why, in its absence, academic freedom is threatened by the centralization of power. In 1940s Georgia, for example, Governor Eugene Talmadge pressured universities to dismiss professors he thought insufficiently anticommunist or who favored racial integration. As Henry Reichman, author of The Future of Academic Freedom, reminds us, academic freedom “is essential to fulfilling the mission of colleges and universities.” Without it, “colleges and universities will not be able to explore new ideas, advance science and the professions, and promote the arts and humanities to the benefit of all.”

These issues never arise for Gumbel because, I think, he sees the primary purpose of college as getting out of college. He is less concerned with how colleges are organized, nor even what students learn. Thus, he writes dismissively of the “tendency to load the first-year curriculum with courses that had little or no application to any other field of study,” burdening students with “unusable credits.” Unusable in what sense? These are general courses. They offer a broad foundation prior to specialization. They might be the most important courses on campus. After all, they are the only ones all students must take, whether they major in chemistry or marketing. Instead of wasteful, why are they not fundamental?

Gumbel considers them wasteful because he shares with administrators the premise that students need to get into majors as fast as possible. Choosing a major may encourage retention, but there are reasons to resist asking students to choose a path too early. To Gumbel, students who don’t know their major when they arrive are doing something wrong. I would argue that they are doing something right. College is for exploration. As a department chair, I know that every major I sign up secures more resources for my department. Nonetheless, when a first-year student comes to my office to declare their major, I ask them to come back in a year. I worry that if I sign them up too soon, they’ll treat their other courses as irrelevant since, after all, they are “unusable” in their major. But that would be a mistake.

III.

The most important chapter in this book, the one on which the plot pivots, is called “Moneyball.” Like the managers of the Oakland A’s, the subject of the book Moneyball, GSU administrators and their advising staff decided to “track students’ progress by computer and lay out a map of which courses they should take in what order to graduate on time.” The first step was to get the data. The next step was to use it to guide students with predictive analytics.

There are two advantages to GSU’s approach. First, the data can be used to generate “flags” that allow advisors to reach out to students when they stumble but before they fail. Second, data can be used to improve instruction. For example, if a certain course is consistently correlated with future student success, how can professors ensure more students master the material?

But the danger is that the data can be used in ways that threaten the above two goals. For example, in GSU’s nursing program, data showed that first-year chemistry was correlated with success in the program, whereas first-year physiology was not. Why ask students to take it? Renick urged professors to remove the requirement. Perhaps that was the right decision. On the other hand, perhaps there are good reasons for wanting students to study physiology. We don’t know because Gumbel doesn’t think to ask.

And by refusing to consider this question, we see where the Moneyball approach to curricula becomes less appealing. The Moneyball approach is about winning, but not how the game is played or, for that matter, the development and well-being of the players. With the single metric of improving graduation rates, GSU did not use student data to support students and professors, but to predict what students should or shouldn’t do.

Instead of directing students to professors who might help them, staff advisors sat down with students, shared the data, and let them know their odds. No doubt, we’re not all destined to become engineers or literary critics. The reality principle has a function. But the Moneyball approach treats all course credits and all classes as fungible. But credits, like money, mediate between unlike things.

This book therefore must be read alongside Jerry Muller’s The Tyranny of Metrics. Whereas Gumbel presumes that anyone who questions data-based decision-making is self-serving and “unscientific,” Muller reminds us that “metric fixation” is itself an ideology that leads to “unintended negative consequences,” not just because all important things cannot be counted, but because “most organizations have multiple purposes, and that which is measured and rewarded tends to become the focus of attention, at the expense of other essential goals.” Far from being unscientific, scholars have found that “[t]rying to force people to conform their work to preestablished numerical goals tends to stifle innovation and creativity” and encourages the “valuation of short-term goals over long-term purposes.”

We know that the U.S. News & World Report rankings skewed universities’ priorities. One does not need a vivid imagination to assume the same incentive structures could be at work here. Maybe pre-nursing students need introductory physiology and maybe they do not. But if efforts to maximize degrees is not balanced by other values, students might be pressured to choose some majors over others, while faculty will be pressured to alter curricula to raise metrics in ways that will threaten educational quality.

One particular concern is that if data are used to guide first-generation students away from challenging majors, it could increase degree attainment through greater internal stratification. This would exacerbate preexisting inequalities. To Gumbel, my worry is unfounded because at GSU, “the number of African American men obtaining science degrees shot up 60 percent” in two years. If that holds over time across the arts and sciences, this would be welcome news.

IV.

This book’s primary villain is a GSU business professor and longtime dean who considered the business school the most prestigious in the university and wanted to keep it that way by maintaining high admission standards and weeding out weaker students. This attitude reflects the worst of contemporary academic culture. That same attitude was present among Becker’s predecessors, who sought to improve GSU by recruiting students with higher SAT scores and bringing in research dollars to raise their U.S. News standings. Such attitudes are barriers to the student success revolution, Gumbel rightly argues.

What Gumbel fails to see is that the old guard was making the same mistake as the new guard. Both are driven by a singular focus on a small number of outcomes — SAT scores and rankings in one case, degree production in the other. Both ignore the ways in which the metrics they favor can pervert the culture, values, and academic quality of their institutions.

We need a third way. What gets lost in this book is that college is not a place for degrees, but for education. It is a place for contemplation. Colleges should consider intellectual inquiry their highest ideal. Colleges may prepare leaders, but they should not be committed to flawed visions of meritocracy. What matters are not rankings and credentials but teaching, learning, and research. Most professors are devoted to students, but professors are human beings and we, too (I include myself), can get caught up with external measures of success — status, prestige, money — that threaten our core values. Colleges need a reformation, but one true to the academy’s purposes. If we believe that everyone who is capable of learning deserves a great education, we together must foster a culture of student success that pervades the entire institution.

I am grateful that GSU took seriously their students’ potential and challenged economic and racial inequality. GSU has proven that students struggle for reasons having little to do with academic ability or intellectual potential. That fact alone is enough to demand better of our institutions.

Ultimately the product of college education is not degrees but people. I recall the wisdom of a first-generation student in my seminar on contemporary American thought. He worked evenings at a local grocery store, a good union job. His co-workers teased him for wasting time studying history. But he told me that history gave him perspective on a complicated world and inspired him to want to keep learning. My student received a degree, but he valued his education more. Won’t Lose This Dream recounts how one institution confronted roadblocks students face. The next step is to ensure we do so in ways that encourage students to receive the kind of education that they deserve.

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Johann N. Neem is author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America. He teaches history at Western Washington University.