Education Inequality

I happen to be the faculty advisor for the Honor’s Program in our college.  These are, by far, the best and the brightest students I have ever worked with.  Many of them have perfect 4.0 GPAs.  We go through an interview process to make sure that we are getting students who are committed to going above and beyond the normal college experience.  These are the exceptional students who will succeed no matter what we do.

As part of the Honor’s Program, we hold seminars for the students.  In fact, I am in charge of one of the seminars that starts next Monday.  These seminars offer assistance to the students on topics like how to prepare for interviews, how to write resumes, and thinking about ethics and morals.  They are really great seminars and the students get a lot out of them.

Malcolm Gladwell (and probably a lot of others) pointed out that our society is pretty nonlinear.  The wealthy end up having more opportunities to make money, because it takes money to make money.  This is probably pretty obvious.  If you wanted to start a business, it would be much easier if you had free time and some extra cash laying around, than it would be to start it if you were trying to work two full time jobs in order to pay the rent.

Our education system is like this.  Kids who go to good K12 schools get a better education and therefore are more likely to get into a very good university.  Kids who go to not as good schools have less opportunity to go to good universities.  And, if they get into those schools, it is harder because they might not be as prepared as the students who have attended better high schools.

At the university, there are typically programs for students who are completely failing, and students who are exceptional.  There are not many programs for the not quite failing students or the average students.

In this NYTimes article, U.T. Austin started a program where they took students from  lower income households and put them in a special program.  It was not a special program that tutored them or anything, it was a special program where they felt like they were actually important.  For example, making them student ambassadors, and having them help other students who are struggling with their school problems.  Basically, encouraging them to be leaders and and having confidence in them.  These students ended up performing significantly better and did not drop out of school at nearly the same rate.

I find this type of program amazing.  We are, in essence, doing this exact same thing for our best and brightest students, but imagine what would happen it we did this for students who struggled.  Could we reduce the nonlinearity in our specific college?

By investing in these types of programs, it may be possible to significantly increase the education level of many students who may be falling through the cracks right now.  These are not bad students.  They just lack confidence and the skills that they need to succeed in the pretty competitive environment of the university setting.

We, as college educators, should try to level the playing field, instead of tipping it even further towards the successful.

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About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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