Schools, Culture, and Politics: David Brooks’ “The Widening Opportunity Gap”, and Washington State’s College Bound Scholar Program.

Summary: Can incentive scholarship programs such as Washington State’s College Bound Scholar impact the growing economic gap between low and upper income groups, and reestablish mobility into the middle class?

How refreshing it is to find a conservative who laments the growing opportunity gap in today’s educational and job market between those who grow to maturity in low income families and those who grow up in relatively more affluent surroundings. “Economic opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern,” intones David Brooks, the New York Times scribe. He labels the shrinking of opportunity for lower income folks a “potential national suicide,” in his recent column, “The Widening Opportunity Gap,” (The Seattle Times, July 11, 2012).

As such he brands himself not so much a bleeding heart liberal (God help him were he such), but as a patriot concerned about the future of the nation, presumably because a fundamental ideal upon which the nation was founded, opportunity for all, is being ground under by the current character of our national politics and cultural standards. He is hardly the first to comment on the growing “bifurcation” in our society, and credits other writers, among them Charles Murray and Timothy Noah, who have raised similar alarm.

In my own state, Washington, the same concern, amplified by the sluggishness of low income students’ standardized test scores, has given birth to the College Bound Scholars program, which guarantees college or university tuition for qualified low income students. More on this program and its promise shortly.

In the simplifications of current presidential and Congressional politics, the widening income gap is being played out around tax cuts, and for whom, within the struggle around what to do about the burgeoning national debt. In the background lurks federal activity from Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, into the New Deal, and extending through the Great Society – all of which has alleviated economic and opportunity gaps between the strata of American society.

Republicans seem to ignore the issue, unless should count the discredited argument that cutting taxes for the wealthy will accelerate the trickling down of wealth to the masses. Democrats seem more to get it (moderate Republicans used to), and are after all the champions of the downtrodden in relatively recent history, but are stymied on the budget issue by both parties’ inability to forge much compromise, and the apparent belief among Republicans that intransigence on their part forms the pathway back to the White House.

Brooks’ concern about the issue is refocused by research out of Harvard, and the political scientist Robert Putnam, who has looked at the consequences for children and their horizon of opportunity if they have the misfortune to be born to a family on the lower end of the economic scale. Much of the Brooks article relentlessly catalogs the findings of the Putnam group.

College educated parents spend on average an hour more a day with their children than do their lower income counterparts. Lest we be in danger of suspecting some superiority on the part of more affluent parents, we are reminded that the changing mores of American society have left many in low income circumstances as single parents, who scramble to put bread on the table in an economy that rewards skill and education, and so are left with less time to spend with children. This was less so of lower income families, with both parents intact, as little as forty years ago, when the amount of time low income parents spent with their kids was only slightly less than time spent by more affluent parents.

More affluent parents now spend substantially more on tutoring and enrichment activities for their kids, by comparison with low income families, including sports and a variety of extracurricular options. Here again the gap used to be significantly less forty years ago.

It should not be surprising, then, that lower income youngsters have become “more pessimistic and detached” by comparison with their wealthier school mates.

As a consequence, we already know that test scores and progress in school lag for low income kids, and are a chief group whose progress on No Child Left Behind measures has proven most resistive to change.

All this is very depressing news, so I am pleased to be able to report good news on the low income educational opportunity front locally in my own high school, as derived from the College Bound Scholars initiative mentioned above.

Beginning in the 2007-08 school year, low income students in eighth grade were invited by the Washington legislature to sign up for the College Bound Scholars program, which promised that anyone so registered and who met other criteria would have all tuition paid at Washington State public universities and colleges. Tuition was promised to Washington State private colleges and universities to the limit of the corresponding public tuition. Beneficiaries would still need to qualify as low income after graduation from high school in or after June, 2012, maintain a cumulative 2.0 grade point average in high school, be accepted into a Washington university or college, and not have a felony conviction.

A heck of a deal, and an intervention aimed squarely at stagnating low income youth.

Low income students in my school, at least, seem to have responded resoundingly. I assume when full figures are released by the state program itself (if they have not already), the results will be confirmed more broadly. Though the numbers below are the efforts of an amateur statistician (me), I have confidence they reflect the underlying results fairly accurately.

87% of the original College Bound (80 of 92) who remained with us graduated in June of this year. By comparison, the overall class graduation rate, based on the number who entered in ninth grade, was 73%, which is also the approximate overall graduation rate nationally. Nationally, the graduation rate of low income students appears to be a little above 50%, by a quick internet search of reliable web sites.

71% of the original College Bound group applied to college or university this spring. This in a school where the official overall application rate is around 40%.

Other statistics are also intriguing. Ten of fourteen African American students enrolled in the program, or 71%, graduated. Fourteen of twenty-two Hispanics/Latinos, or 64%, graduated. (Nationally, according to US News and World Report, approximately 57% of both African Americans and Hispanic/Latinos graduated on time, but another important comparison would be the statistical history in our particular school, which I do not have.)

Finally, slightly more young men than young women among the College Bound group graduated, which suggests that under-motivated males, a chronic problem in our culture, appears to have been addressed in part by the opportunity inherent in the College Bound Scholar program.

It is hard to escape the lesson here – show low income students the door with a payoff on the other side, and they will walk through it.

Parenthetically, student response in the College Bound Scholar program is reminiscent of several schools played up in the media over the last ten to fifteen years or more. Wealthy person offers free college tuition to elementary students who graduate from high school and move on to college; the normal number of years later the promise is met for significantly more students than would have been expected in a similar school that lacked the same incentive.

As numbers enrolled in the College Bound Scholar program go up, we expect the success rate will go down, as happens in any larger sample. Graduation from high school and acceptance in college does not guarantee success on the higher level, particularly since little in the numbers cited address skill levels of the students we are talking about, but they do suggest perseverance and a goal oriented behavior that is correlated with college success.

Finally, there is the issue of money. If I understand correctly, part of the College Bound Scholar program only repackages federal and state financial aid that has already existed, but more state monies were committed by the legislature. This class in my high school has 92 College Bound Scholars. That number will burgeon to over two hundred in the class after next; I assume similar increases will happen all over our state. Will the exchequer still be able to provide?

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Money, that recurring topic, as encapsulated in the College Bound Scholar story. As innovative as we can make our programs, as efficiently as we design our systems, as hard as we can work, we also need deepened student access to mentors who care about their progress, particularly for at risk kids. Bottom line, relationships make a difference; relationships mean more teachers; more people in the school house cost more money; the realities of tight economic times do not change that equation. The story of the College Bound Scholar program only highlights the fiscal imperative from a different direction, which is the elephant in our collective room.

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