Point/Counterpoint on Elite Colleges

Two articles to contrast a bit today.

The first one is from Time, and its thesis is that people who attend state schools can end up just as successful as people who go to “elites.”

So why don’t we tell our kids the truth about success? We could start with the fact that only a third of adults hold degrees from four-year colleges. Or that you’ll do equally well in terms of income, job satisfaction and life satisfaction whether you go to an elite private college or a less-selective state university. Or that there are there are many occupations through which Americans make a living, many of which do not require a college degree.

Not wrong!

He continues:

The problem with the stories we’re telling our kids is that they foster fear and competition. This false paradigm affects high-achieving kids, for whom a rigid view of the path to success creates unnecessary anxiety, and low-achieving kids, many of whom conclude at a young age that they will never be successful, and adopt a “why try at all?” attitude. Many of these young people engage in one of the most debilitating forms of self-talk, telling themselves either, “I have to, but I can’t,” or “I have to, but I hate it.”

Also true! Not to get too personal, but I know that anxiety intimately.

The article concludes that telling students the truth – that working hard is valuable but that prestige isn’t everything – would motivate them far more successfully than fear of failure. And the author has decades of experience as a child psychologist – although, and it’s important to note, he does not provide his own data.

Yet when you look at another set of statistics, a different picture emerges.

Take a lot at this article from the NY Times, on the particular struggles of black boys attaining – and holding onto – income and wealth.

“You would have thought at some point you escape the poverty trap,” said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and an author of the study.

Black boys — even rich black boys — can seemingly never assume that.

The study, based on anonymous earnings and demographic data for virtually all Americans now in their late 30s, debunks a number of other widely held hypotheses about income inequality. Gaps persisted even when black and white boys grew up in families with the same income, similar family structures, similar education levels and even similar levels of accumulated wealth.

The disparities that remain also can’t be explained by differences in cognitive ability, an argument made by people who cite racial gaps in test scores that appear for both black boys and girls.

And so.

On the one hand, I feel like I’m possibly supporting harmful behavior, since pushing said black boys to achieve based on fear of failure surely has the same emotional and cognitive results as it does for other children. But on the other hand, it is a statistical reality that students of color – and particularly black boys – cannot fully take it easy.

In a way, black boys have to be both exceptional and exceptionally lucky to achieve the same success as their peers. And I’m not sure we have yet figured out how to motivate people to achieve exceptional results through the sort of honesty the first author espoused.

The question becomes, how do we help disadvantaged students excel, to the point that they have equal footing with their peers, since being realistic with them would entail telling the truth that they have to work harder to achieve the same results? And is there a way to do this without the fear that leads to anxiety?

I have no answers to this. But I think, while valuable, the first article leaves out a few keys factors for students outside of the norm.