Posts by Busra Ozturk

Threat to the American Dream? Colleges are failing to recruit low-income students

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With high school seniors looking to make important decisions regarding their college choices in the upcoming weeks, a fascinating study has emerged analyzing the effects of socio-economic status on college acceptance and performance rates. The numbers are staggering; 34% of high achieving low-income students make it into any of the U.S’s 238 most selective schools, while that figure is 74% for top students in the highest income bracket. While the racial gap is large but has been decreasing over the past two decades, what’s interesting is that income gaps continue to increase. It has become apparent that colleges are failing to admit or even reach out to applicants of more diverse backgrounds, not only racially but also socio-economically.

A comprehensive study by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery reveals that 69% of those high achieving low-income students are white. It’s unfortunate that poor and white doesn’t count as “diverse” enough for Ivy League schools, especially in an environment like Harvard where:

“Approximately 45.6 percent of Harvard undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000, placing them in the top 3.8 percent of American households. Even more shockingly, only about 4 percent of Harvard undergraduates come from the bottom quintile of U.S. incomes and a mere 17.8 percent come from the bottom three quintiles of U.S. incomes.” (Crimson, 2013)

Perhaps universities aren’t as diverse as they are claiming to be, rather, they are defining diversity simply in terms of ethnicity and race instead of taking a holistic approach and creating opportunities for bright but under-privileged students and really making a difference in the power of social mobility. According to researchers Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski, 30 years ago there was a 31% point difference between rich and poor Americans with bachelors degrees. Today that gap has risen to 45 points.

One might blame the gap on the inability of lower-income students to thrive in a competitive college environment with a diverse population, suggesting that perhaps they would do better at a local community college. However, the study found that 89% of these students who went to selective schools graduated, whereas only 50% of them graduated from non-selective schools.

Students already living in bad neighborhoods who attend under-performing schools will not have the same information or access to well informed guidance counselors or teachers who can help them make decisions regarding their future. The finest college guidance counselors are recruited to work at schools with the highest masses of high-achievers, and for those few high-achieving students living in rural areas, it is unlikely that admissions staff will come to visit each and every school across America. (Hoxby)

If uninformed guidance counselors and visits from admissions staff at colleges isn’t the most effective way of reaching high-achieving low income students, then what is? Whose responsibility is it to reach out to this portion of “America’s future”? Should colleges let them continue to slide through the cracks or finally own up to their claims of diversity in all regards by allocating funds toward recruiting students from a wider socio-economic backgrounds?

Hoxby and Avery created the Expanding College Opportunities Project (ECO-C), which “combines semi-customized information and low-paperwork fee waivers on students’ application, admissions, and enrollment.” This low-cost (only $6 per student!) form of outreach proved to cause students to submit 19 percent more applications and to be 27 percent more likely to submit at least five applications”. The ECO-C intervention had its greatest effects on high achieving low-income students.

A project like this shows how momentous and useful different forms of outreach can be. If this were applied across the country, tens of thousands more students would have the guidance necessary to make more informed decisions about attending college. If all higher education institutions distributed something similar to ECO-C, perhaps it would aid in making the entire country more prosperous.

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Turkey’s Private Tutoring Sector Shutdown: Blessing or Chaos?

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On September 9th, 2012 Turkish Prime Minister R.T. Erdogan announced his proposal to shut down all after-school private tutoring institutions within a year, and possibly turn them into publicly funded private schools. There are over 4,000 institutions that offer private prep courses, known as the dershane sector, which serve over 1.2 million students every year. The dershanes employ over 100,000 people, over half of them being teachers, and bring in an estimated revenue of $2 billion annually. (Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, 2011).

This announcement, of course, generated a heated debate amongst the educators and broader public across Turkey. Interior Minister Nihat Ergun commented on the issue saying, “the dershane system has become unsustainable, and has almost replaced the regular school system” (Hurriyet, 2012). During the last year of high school especially, in order to prepare for the Access to Higher Education Exams (YGS-LYS), students will often only worry about their dershane studies, and neglect their regular school work. In fact, it is quite common for students to stop going to school a few months before the exam just to make more time to cram and memorize as much as they can. Students usually begin going to these private tutoring centers as early as middle school, to begin preparing for high school entrance exams for prestigious high schools. 

In response to this, the Ministry of Education had announced in 2004 that high school GPA’s would have a larger significance in the amount of points added to the final exam score. This was done in hopes to increase the significance of formal schooling in a setting where private tutoring takes priority. Unfortunately, this move didn’t do much in terms of lessening the pressures of the YGS exam, nor did it really affect student’s attendance levels during the second half of the school year.

So how exactly did Turkey’s educational policies come to be this way in regards to exam-driven learning and this push toward private tutoring facilities? There are many facets to this issue, but one way to look at it is by questioning the quality of the public education system in place.

“In the developing countries, deficiencies in the educational system such as inadequate number of universities, large class sizes and low public educational expenditures are often cited as the reasons for the high demand for private tutoring. As such private tutoring can be regarded as a market response to the mediocrity in the public school system” (Kim and Lee, 2001). Because the public school curriculum does not provide adequate tools to prepare students for the selection exam, students who wish to attend college are forced into private courses, assuming they can afford it. While nearly 2 million students take the YGS every year, less than 300,000 are awarded spots in schools. Of the students who take the exam, over 50,000 receive a zero. We can deduce the intensity of competition when taking these figures into consideration. When looking at PISA levels, it was found that in Turkey there is a “high level of correlation between the student’s socioeconomic background and her/his achievement in the test. This is the highest value among OECD countries after Hungary and Belgium.” (Blanchy & Sasmaz, 2009) If there is a persistent lack in the system in supporting students who come from underprivileged backgrounds, those students will continue to remain at the bottom of the spectrum, lacking the skills and competencies necessary to succeed. 

If the government chooses to close down the dershanes, won’t students who come from higher socio-economic backgrounds still find ways to obtain private lessons, turning these prep courses into some sort of underground ordeal? Perhaps they wouldn’t be to the full extent of 15-20 hours/week lessons that the dershane provides, but either way shouldn’t it be up to the family to decide whether or not to send their child to prep classes? While I agree that dershanes do create inequality in opportunities, it should be taken into consideration that perhaps they aren’t the cause of the problem, rather the result of the bigger underlying problem that is the quality of education in public schools. Students who live in less economically advanced regions and have limited access to educational resources will have even less of an opportunity to attend college if dershanes are shut down without an effective system in place to narrow the educational gap.

It is obvious that the issue is much deeper than the inequalities that may arise from the dershane system; rather, the issue is with the failure of the public education system across Turkey in and of itself. Without fixing the foundations upon which the public school system stands, the need for after school prep classes will not subside. Taking away the choice or freedom to educate your children, however you see fit, certainly isn’t the solution, not in the short term, at least. If public schools cover the topics necessary to pass the college entrance exams, over time students will rely less and less on after school private courses. Eliminating them altogether without a serious plan to reform public school curricula would only bring about chaos.