Social Capital and First-Generation Students

blog-16117I recently had a conversation with an alumnus who was generously sharing his time and treasure to help underserved first-generation high school students in his area make their way to and through college.  He told me that he had generally been recommending that students go to mid-tier public institutions because of the lower cost and debt burden.  I was a bit surprised at this advice coming from a Johnnie who had had a very good experience at SJU that had contributed to his significant professional success.

While certainly there is a place in higher education for a full range of public institutions—flagship research 1 schools, like the University of Minnesota, mid-sized publics, like St. Cloud State University, public liberal arts schools such as the University of Minnesota-Morris, and many two-year community and technical colleges—but private institutions like CSB and SJU can be especially good places for first-generation students.

We are much more affordable than many people – even our alumni – understand.  At Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, we work very hard to provide financial aid packages to make our education as affordable as possible to all students.  With the generous help of our donors, we package scholarships, work-study awards and loans so students graduate with manageable debts that do not limit their job choices.

But beyond the financial issues, small private liberal arts institutions offer an additional and under-appreciated benefit to first-generation students: mentoring.  As the Gallup-Purdue Survey reported, having a good mentor in college was the key to “thriving” personally and professionally after college.  This mentoring can be especially important to first-generation students who often do not have the social capital that comes with growing up in a middle class, college educated household.

This issue of social capital is discussed in higher education but has recently been talked about more widely because of the memoir Hillbilly Elegy written by J.D. Vance, a Yale law school graduate from a dysfunctional family in Appalachia.  The story describes his life as a Marine who deployed to Iraq, then returned to go to college at Ohio State and then on to law school at Yale, where his lack of social capital became more apparent and presented challenges.  Among the things he did not know prior to going to Yale Law School: sparkling water is just carbonated water, which fork to use at a formal dinner, that his belt and shoes should match, that finance was an industry.  More importantly, he did not know the rules and processes for networking to get summer internships and eventually full-time jobs.


Richard Feynman, The Nobel Foundation

This kind of social capital is taken for granted by most students from middle class backgrounds but needs to be addressed directly and openly with all students.  At Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s we offer Etiquette Dinners for students who will soon be partaking in job interview dinners.  Career Services educates students about how to dress for interviews.  We have a great alumni network that helps students of all backgrounds prepare for internships and the job market.  But most importantly we have staff and faculty who take issues of mentoring and social capital seriously from day one and are especially attentive to the needs of our many first-generation students.  Our staff and faculty understand that a holistic education is about more than classroom learning.  Openly addressing the disparities in social capital does not make them go away, but it is the first step in eliminating these often unspoken norms that can be a barrier to students’ success in the classroom and beyond.

Writing about this topic reminded me of an amusing story told by Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman:

Feynman had attended MIT as an undergraduate, where social etiquette was not high on the value scale. He went to Princeton University for his master’s degree in physics. The new students were invited to tea at the Dean’s house. Feynman was told to wear a jacket and act properly. He was worried a bit, because the Dean’s wife had the reputation as being a starched-pants dragon lady.

She appeared with a tea pot in her white-gloved hands. She poured. He thanked her, thinking he had passed a test. But it was only the beginning.

“And how do you take your tea, Mr. Feynman?” she asked.

“How do I take it?,” he asked, probably thinking, I’m from Far Rockaway, New York. We don’t take our tea anywhere, because we never drink the stuff back home.

“Do you take your tea with milk or lemon?” she asked.

He had to think about this a moment, and answered bravely, “Both!”

The society smile froze on her face in a horrified rictus. “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”

The story led to a book of amusing Feynman stories entitled Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!  Readers can laugh with Feynman years later with his Nobel Prize in hand, but I suspect Feynman was not laughing the day of the tea.  For first-generation students, the lack of social capital can be painful, as well as a real barrier to their academic and professional success.

By |November 8th, 2016|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Access, Human Potential and Administrators

One of the most common questions I get asked by alumni, parents and friends of Saint John’s is why the rate of increase in tuition over the past few decades has been so much higher than the general rate of inflation.  This is an important question that one could write a whole book on and, if you’re inclined to read about it, I’d recommend Why Does College Cost So Much? by economists Robert Archibald and David Feldman, but one important part of the answer has to do with the changing population of students that higher education now serves.

As college has gone from an optional post-high school path to an almost necessary experience for entry into the middle class, assuring access to the widest range of possible students has become a central part of the mission of most colleges.  Furthermore, the related issues of retention and completion have taken on more significance as colleges have both an economic incentive and, arguably, a moral obligation to help the students they admit to graduate.

As a greater percentage of high school graduates enrolling in college has grown from under 50% in 1975 to 66% today, many of the Millennials that schools are enrolling are different in important ways from the Baby Boomers.  As a group, they have more learning disabilities, mental health issues and are less prepared academically.  This is not to say the current generation of students is less well-educated or less healthy, but, rather, that as schools have increased their enrollments over time, they are admitting students they would not have admitted a generation earlier.  If a student had serious dyslexia in the 1970s, college simply would have been an unlikely path.  Or, if a student had mental health issues during that era, colleges would not have been prepared to deal with them, and students and parents knew that attending college was not a possibility.

A recent Wall Street Journal article examined this important change.  In “Students Flood College Mental-Health Centers,” reporter Andrea Petersen writes:

Ohio State has seen a 43% jump in the past five years in the number of students being treated at the university’s counseling center. At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the increase has been about 12% each year over the past decade. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, demand for counseling-center services has increased by 36% in the last seven years.  Nationwide, 17% of college students were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems during the past year, and 13.9% were diagnosed with or treated for depression.

Colleges have acknowledged this change in students’ needs and are working aggressively to respond, which would not have been true a generation ago.  Left to sink or swim on their own, most students with these issues would not have attempted college and, the few that did, typically dropped out.

The responses to the challenges of student mental health issues and learning disabilities have resulted in at least three significant changes in higher education:

  1. Costs.  The addition of highly educated professionals to support students has undoubtedly increased the costs of education.  As the WSJ article notes, “To handle demand, Ohio State’s counseling center hired 12 additional staff members last year, bringing the total providing clinical services to 65.”
  2. Administrative “Bloat”?  As the number of counseling professionals grows to meet changing student needs, some professors legitimately wonder if the balance between faculty and administrators is moving in the wrong direction.  Some observers of higher education believe the whole professional counseling enterprise is inappropriately coddling students and failing to prepare them for life, as can be seen in many of the comments following the WSJ article.
  3. New Students.  There is no doubt that the availability of support services has increased access for many students who were not considered “college material” a generation ago and, once they enroll, these students are much more likely to graduate than they would be absent these services.

shutterstock_485161411-1Is it possible that colleges overdo the support services–simultaneously driving up costs and potentially hurting students’ educational experience at the same time?  Maybe.  But I still recall a poignant conversation with a mother at commencement a few years ago.  She said, “I cannot thank Saint John’s enough for helping my manic-depressive son get through college.  I was not sure he would even go, and here he is successfully graduating in four years thanks to the support of your staff and faculty.”

It is hard to argue against investing in the human potential that went untapped in previous generations.

By |November 3rd, 2016|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments

Country Music and the Liberal Arts

Each spring the Joint Events Council (JEC) sponsors a wildly popular concert for students at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University and their friends.  Known as XX Pines, where the XX is the years of the event (so this spring’s event will be 17  Pines), the student run and funded JEC picks a performer or group to come to our campuses and perform.

Almost invariably I have to ask the young men working in my office to tell me something about the year’s choice, as I am a hopelessly unhip middle-aged guy, but the performers are naturally selected to be known by and of interest to a wide range of our 18-22 year old students.  I don’t know how fraught these decisions are, not being privy to the discussions and negotiations, but it is not surprising that the usual artists are what can broadly be called “pop” musicians.  (I know that is probably an insult to performers, but too bad.). The three most recent performers on campus for JEC sponsored concerts were Nico & Vinz, Timeflies and Andy Grammer.  (Just to defend my honor, I should state that I had actually heard of more than one of these.)

But here is a fact that says something interesting and maybe even important about CSB and SJU.  Because these concerts have become so popular, the JEC will sponsor a fall concert this weekend.  The performer will be Craig Morgan, a country singer (that I had not heard of).

autograph-vertical-smThis selection caught me a little by surprise because, based on 30+ years in the academic world, I had come to believe that college students generally thought of country music as tragically unhip.  I had assumed that if the JEC was selecting a performer for our campuses and “pop” was not the chosen genre, that the next options would be alternative or hip hop or blues or world music.  I never imagined that country would make the cut.

Now the first hypothesis I considered was that there are a lot more country music fans on our campus than I had imagined.  I do suspect we have a lot more country fans than other campuses I am familiar with, but I think this choice reveals that something more important is going on here.

There are three things that a country concert at CSB and SJU suggest to me:

1.  We have a very diverse community of students–diverse in ways that are not necessarily obvious to the naked eye.  Diverse musical tastes might well serve as a proxy for other important kinds of diversity–political, world view, family background, geographic, etc.

2.  We have generous, thoughtful students in our community.  Regardless of the actual number of country music fans on campus, I think it is not a stretch to say that they are not a majority and would not even be a plurality.  If students voted on their single favorite music genre, I believe that country would come in no better than 4th or 5th, depending on how one classified genres.  Therefore, the student decision makers on the JEC, who presumably try to reflect the views of the broader student body, decided that it was the right thing to do to bring a country singer to campus because there is a significant number of country fans whose interest had not be met in previous choices. Rather than going for the natural, and easy, pop choice, they reached out to that minority of country fans and made an inclusive choice.

3.  We have open-minded, intellectually curious liberal arts students on our campuses.  As the JEC made their decision, they surely had to consider how the large majority of non-country fans would react to their choice, since they were spending their student activity fee dollars and turnout at these events matters.  It appears that they had confidence that their peers would be supportive of this choice.  They clearly believed that the turnout would merit the costs and energy that would be required for this show.  Specifically, they believed that lots of non-country fans would be interested enough to go to the show to support their country loving peers and to have a musical experience that they would typically have.

Maybe I am reading too much into this, but I think this concert and the events leading up to it say something important about the CSB/SJU community, about our hospitable, welcoming, open-minded and intellectually curious ethos.

As we approach an election that has been decidedly lacking in these characteristics, I think this is cause for hope and makes me proud to be sending such Johnnies and Bennies into the world.

By |October 28th, 2016|Categories: Kudos||0 Comments