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Commencement

The “Toxicity of Low Expectations”

Radcliffe Class Day panelists on higher education's responsibility to boost economic mobility

5.27.22

From left: Martha Minow, 2022 Radcliffe Medal recipient Sherrilyn Ifill, Leslie Cornfeld, Donna Shalala, Raj Chetty, Pam Eddinger, and Tomiko Brown-Nagin

From left: Martha Minow, 2022 Radcliffe Medal recipient Sherrilyn Ifill, Leslie Cornfeld, Donna Shalala, Raj Chetty, Pam Eddinger, and Tomiko Brown-Nagin

 Photograph by Tony Rinaldo


From left: Martha Minow, 2022 Radcliffe Medal recipient Sherrilyn Ifill, Leslie Cornfeld, Donna Shalala, Raj Chetty, Pam Eddinger, and Tomiko Brown-Nagin

 Photograph by Tony Rinaldo

At a time when less than 50 percent of Americans grow up to earn more than their parents, how can higher education help move the needle, especially for low-income students? This was the overarching question in the Radcliffe Day panel discussion moderated by Ackman professor of public economics Raj Chetty.

Today, less than one percent of American students go to highly selective colleges, and an even more miniscule percentage of those students are from low-income backgrounds, said Chetty. Public universities and community colleges are educating the bulk of Americans and have the greatest chance of improving aggregate mobility. However, highly selective schools do generate upward mobility for their low-income students. Particularly because of the elite network associated with these schools, low-income students experience “high-tail upward mobility,” becoming some of the nation’s top leaders. “Diversifying access to these universities is essential,” he said, “if we want to have a diverse set of leaders in America.”

Educators must “understand the population they’re trying to serve,” said Donna Shalala, former president of the University of Miami and Clinton-administration U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. “The traditional way colleges support students are too cookie-cutter. You have to have targeted ways of recruiting and retaining students.” For instance, when Shalala was president of University of Wisconsin-Madison, she noticed many Native American students were dropping out (“they weren’t using campus resources available because in their culture they did not ask for help”) so the university hired Native American counselors to provide individualized support. Shalala said that providing “wraparound support”—services such as counseling and economic support to students—is critical, “but you need to get the students to those services, first.” 

The ideal education system has a “telescoping” view of students’ needs, said Bunker Hill Community College president Pam Eddinger. It should zero in on short-term policies and practices to help students and zoom out to address the larger systems impeding their success. While Eddinger acknowledged that vocational training is often an important step for her BHCC students to obtain good jobs, it shouldn’t be the only path. If most students were shuttled into that path, society might have a plethora of allied health workers and IT specialists, but “God forbid you’re looking for teachers, early childhood workers, or anything in the human services field.”

“I know what the most lucrative major is at Georgetown and it ain’t Classics, I’ll tell you that,” said director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce Anthony P. Carnevale. He repeatedly stressed the importance of “transparency” in higher education, asserting that postsecondary institutions must give parents and students information about the likely outcome of choosing one degree path over another. “Higher education will resist its connection employment, which ultimately is the only source of upward mobility in the system,” he said, and schools must be realistic with students about which of their programs will generate good returns.

“We need to be careful about this argument if what it does is channel low-income kids into training programs,” said Shalala. These programs are often out-of-date and do not give students the generalist education they’ll need if they decide to switch jobs. “I worry about the unintended consequences of steering students when they’re early in their careers,” with dour predictions of their potential earnings as, say, a classics major, and that “the people around them are going to push them into worrying about their first job, as opposed to using higher education to find something they’re passionate about.”

“We have to be aware of the toxic impact of low expectations in this country for students that are in these communities,” said Leslie Cornfeld ’81, J.D. ’85, the CEO of the National Education Equity Lab, which brings free top-college courses to historically underserved high schools. When Cornfeld was part of the Obama administration, a school administrator once laughed at her interest in improving schools like McKinley High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—a historically black high school so underfunded and underperforming that many teachers kept their expectations of students low, not even enforcing deadlines for papers. “We say that we know talent is evenly distributed, and opportunity is not. We have to be committed to doing everything that we can to try and overcome that,” she said, starting by not implicitly underestimating the skill level and work ethic in underserved communities. 

Vocational programs may not have the economic longevity of a well-rounded education, according to Chetty. While it is still critical for students to obtain technical skills, recent research by Black professor of economics David Deming has found that many of today’s most highly compensated jobs hinge on having social skills. Chetty said, “Being trained to do one particular thing that might get automated or outsourced can be a risky strategy, whereas if you have a more versatile skill set, your job is less likely to be replaced by machines and will be a path to better mobility.”

The panelists outlined several concrete federal policies they believe could boost upward mobility. Shalala and Eddinger proposed tripling the amount of money available to students with Pell Grants and making those funds accessible year-round. Right now, Pell Grants are not available for summer classes, which can make it difficult for working learners to finish their degrees. Student debt is one of the main problems facing higher education, according to Cornfeld. “The idea that we tell students, ‘college is the best engine to get to the middle class, now pay us this extraordinary price tag,’ is counterintuitive to everything this country stands for.”

Eddinger also cited problems with state policy. Right now, Massachusetts gives 50 percent of the education “pot of money” to the University of Massachusetts system, 25 percent to state universities, and 25 percent to community colleges. But “most students are in those 25 percent schools.” The pathway for students to transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions also must be smoother. Four-year institutions often do not accept certain community college courses for transfer credit, Eddinger said. “English 101 is English 101, and yet somehow, I think our idea of meritocracy, even within public institutions, is making second- and third-class citizens of our [community college transfer] students.”

All panelists agreed that society must contend with the deeper societal injustices at hand. This lack of economic mobility for low-income students does not come from thin air. “The total average assets of a black family in Boston is eight dollars. For many in the audience today, that number is about a quarter of a million dollars. That is not okay,” Eddinger said. She added that we must confront the shortcomings of our supposed meritocracy and “tackle the basic root cause of injustice. It is our value system and the narratives that we tell ourselves.” Her final call to action for educators, policymakers, and everyone in between: “Solve poverty. That’s the ask.”

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You Might Also Like:

Law students at the Commencement exercises

Law graduates wield their gavels

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Conferring and Confirming

Urbanist William Julius Wilson and the ever-activist Gloria Steinem

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Honoris Causa

Graduates-to-be read the student newspaper, absent a University Gazette

Absent a printed Harvard Gazette, the Commencement crowd devoured The Crimson.
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Commencement Confetti