Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: the middle class

February 29

The Heinous Difficulty in Understanding What Works

The empirical consensus on the question of barriers to access in Canadian education is pretty clear: and among those few secondary school graduates who don’t go on to post-secondary education, affordability is very much a secondary issue (not non-existent, but secondary). The primary issue is that most of these young people don’t feel very motivated by the idea of spending more years in a classroom. It’s a vicious circle: these students don’t identify with education, so they don’t work at it, so they receive poor grades and become even more demotivated.

The problem is that it is easier to identify problems than solutions. Big national datasets like the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS) can help identify relationships between inputs and outputs factors, but are useless at examining the effects of interventions because they simply don’t capture the necessary information. What is needed is more small-scale experimentation with various types of interventions, along with rigorously-designed research to help understand their impacts.

This, by the way, is the tragedy of Pathways to Education. It ought to work because it ticks nearly all the boxes that the literature suggests should ameliorate access. But for some reason there has yet to be any serious attempt to evaluate its outcomes (my bet is that Pathways board members prefer anecdotes to data for fundraising purposes – and given their fundraising success to date, it’s hard to blame them). That’s a shame, because if they are on to something it would be useful to know what it is so that it can be replicated.

Now, one shouldn’t pretend that these evaluations are easy. In the United States, a top-notch research company’s multi-year, multi-million-dollar evaluation of the Upward Bound program is currently the subject of intense controversy because of a dispute regarding how data from different intervention sites was weighted. Do it one way (as the evaluators did) and there’s no significant result, do it another and a significant effect appears.

The Upward Bound controversy is a shame because of its likely chilling effect on research in this area. Governments might well question the point of funding research if the results are so inconclusive. But the nature of social interventions is such that there are hundreds of factors that can affect outcomes and hence research is always going to be somewhat tentative.

So what’s the way forward? Research can’t be abandoned, but probably needs to go small-scale. Having lots of small experimental results aggregated through meta-analysis will in the end probably yield far better results than will mega-experiments or more large-scale surveys. It might take a little longer, but it’s both more financially feasible and more likely to deliver durable results.

February 28

Changing Cultures

A few months ago, HEQCO put together an interesting conference called Fear of Finance which examined the subject of financial literacy and PSE. Now, take this term “literacy” with a grain of salt: the evidence that improving students’ ability to understand compound interest or student aid rules is going to improve access to education is basically zero (though it might make those that do go to PSE better off during and after their studies, which is a good in and of itself). But if you expand the term to include getting students to better understand middle-class concepts of “investment,” then we’re into some potentially quite promising territory.

One speech by my colleague Andrew Potter apparently created some controversy. He made the point that improving access to PSE through programs like Pathways to Education and the Harlem Children’s Zone are essentially attempts to give young people from deprived areas some of the benefits of a middle-class upbringing in the hope that they will then “act middle-class” and get a post-secondary education. This, he said, bore a significant resemblance to “nation-building” in places like Afghanistan in that both involve external interventions to try to inculcate a more positive “culture” in an attempt to get people to better invest in their own futures.

Not everyone thought this was a great analogy, and I suspect Potter’s inclusion of the term “counter-insurgency” in his simile might have had something to do with it (who would we be “fighting,” exactly?). That quibble aside, I think Potter’s analogy is excellent and thought-provoking. Both efforts are attempts to change culture by creating an alternative set of social structures. And in both cases, the state of our understanding about what works and why is very weak.

Take Pathways to Education for instance. Let’s ignore the fact that it has still never undergone anything resembling a program evaluation, and grant that they seem to have had considerable successes in their original home in Regent Park, if nowhere else. Do we know how much of this has to do with mentoring, how much with tutoring, how much with payments for bus passes to get to school, etc? Do we know how much had to do with the specific mix of students they were helping or the specific people delivering each intervention (i.e., would there be different results with a different group of mentors and tutors)?

The answer to all these questions is no. We have some guesses, but no more than that. As with nation-building in Afghanistan, we’re trying to change something as unbelievably complex as “culture” and flying essentially blind with respect to what works.

So, how can we change this? More tomorrow.

February 27

Getting to Middle Class

Rick Santorum made a jibe the other day about President Obama being a snob “because he wants everyone to go to college.” Coming from a man with three degrees and whose 2006 Senate re-election platform said he wanted every Pennsylvanian to have access to a college education, it came across as less heartfelt anger than as a weird attempt to pander to working-class sentiment.

Cynicism aside, it should be granted that college in the United States – well, everywhere really – is seen as being an irretrievably middle-class cultural activity. But it’s not just attending PSE which is middle-class; you can make an argument that wanting to go to PSE is itself a sign of middle-classness.

There is a large body of research which has established the difference in time-preferences between the long-term poor and the middle-class; basically, the poorer one is, the more likely one is to believe that consumption now is better than consumption later. I came across this research about eight years ago when I was working on problems of student debt, and found that it sat uneasily with the generally accepted notion that the poor were debt averse. If poorer people prefer immediate gratification to the deferred type, then surely they would love loans because the benefits are immediate and the drawbacks delayed. Until it hit me – poverty doesn’t create debt-aversion but investment-aversion. And since post-secondary education is a very big investment, requiring years of work and deferred income, it’s pretty obvious why it might deter people with a short-term time preference.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to have this insight. Renowned scholar Michael Sherraden, the pioneer of asset-based poverty reduction schemes (Canadian examples include the Canada Learning Bond and Learn$ave programs), had it twenty years earlier. But think about the implication for a moment: the pre-requisite to universal PSE must be a universalization of middle-class attitudes about money and investment.

Now, pace Santorum, not everyone on the American right thinks this is a bad thing. It’s essentially what Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve) recommends in his new book Coming Apart: The State of White America – rich people can best help poor people by getting them to adopt their values. Putting it that way may make you feel a little queasy, but in realty there’s less distance between Murray and, say, Pathways to Education than you’d think.

I don’t think we can totally discount Santorum’s insight that proselytizing middle-class values might create resentment in some quarters, even if we deplore his attempt to make political hay out of it. But there’s another question here: do we even know how to inculcate these values? More tomorrow.