Running in Neutral: a K-12 and Higher Ed Scandal

If a student hasn’t graduated from college within six years, the odds of completing a degree are extremely low.

In this month’s issue of Atlantic, Nick Ehrmann writes a perceptive article, “Solving the Mystery of Underachievement: Why work hard enough to earn an A when a D will suffice for college admission?” He tells the story of an intelligent African-American lad who was groomed to attend college — and ended up dropping out after the first semester. The article goes to the heart of one of the most pressing issues in American higher education today: the high rate of college drop-outs.

Literally millions of young Americans, disproportionately minorities, borrow money, attend a few semesters, and then drop out, never acquiring the college credential that will allow them to pay off their debt. A primary goal of Virginia higher education policy today is to reduce the number of these college drop-outs, who are all-too-prevalent in the state, as elsewhere in the country. The “retention” rate is a key metric used to measure the performance of Virginia’s public colleges and universities. (See the chart above.)

In my commentaries on the subject, I have assumed that dropping out of college could be explained by one of two factors: (1) poverty, or (2) lack of academic preparedness. True enough, poor kids can qualify for tens of thousands of dollars in Pell grants, federal loans and institutional financial aid. But that assistance rarely covers all costs, and students from lower-income families typically have to work part-time jobs, or even drop out for a semester or two to find the extra money. Once a student drops out, he or she is at higher risk of never re-enrolling. The other problem is that lower-income kids tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods, which tend to have poorer schools. The inadequate academic preparation makes it difficult to keep up with college-level work. Discouraged and demoralized, students question what they’re doing in college at all.

Ehrmann’s article suggests a third reason why kids drop out of college — the phenomenon of “running in neutral.” The article, I believe, is so important that I will summarize its contents in detail, highlighting what I deem to be key insights. But don’t settle for the Bacon’s Digest version — read the full essay yourself.

Enrollment in higher education is reaching record-high levels, just a hair below 70% of all high school graduates. But being “eligible” for higher education does not mean that students are academically prepared, writes Ehrmann. He knows from first-hand experience teaching kids in Washington, D.C. He mentored one young man, Travis Hill, who showed flashes of brilliance, and kept tabs on him through the years.

In the fifth grade, Travis was admitted into a scholarship program through the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, which guaranteed that any participating student who graduated from high school would receive a college scholarship. The idea was that removing financial obstacles to college enrollment would encourage students to achieve. “Travis, like many of his classmates,” writes Ehrmann, believed there was ‘no doubt’ he would graduate from high school and enroll in college. He did graduate, and he did enroll in Lincoln University, a historically black university in Pennsylvania. But he dropped out after a semester. Why?

In Ehrmann’s view, there are two schools of thought. One is the “culture of poverty” theory in which “low-effort syndrome” or cultural adaptations like a prejudice against “acting white” prevent young people from living up to their potential. The other is the “structural barriers” theory that emphasizes how poverty, institutional racism, segregation and lack of adequate health care stack the deck against poor, minority students.

Writes Ehrmann:

The problem is that neither story is completely right. Over the course of a decade … I witnessed a significant number of students develop a sophisticated logic of underachievement that challenged the popular accounts for how inequality in higher education is created and sustained. For many students, their pursuit of long-term educational success was grounded and strategic. Educated in environments that measured academic success primarily by enrolling in college — not necessarily graduating with a degree — they developed strategies to achieve that goal with minimal effort in school.

Travis made no effort to make As and Bs. To the contrary, he skated by with the minimum passing grades. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I work hard when I want to work hard, and that’s what a lot of people can’t do. Some people might not look at it as a skill, but to me it’s a skill.”

That message was inadvertently reinforced from other directions. During his freshman and sophomore years on overnight campus trips sponsored by his high school’s college-placement office, Travis learned that “a couple hundred” colleges and universities across the United States would offer him admission. “Everyone was telling me I could get into college with my grades,” he confided. “I don’t remember exactly how or when I heard it, but that message was seeping into my brain. If I got straight Cs, admissions would be a breeze.”

Every marking period, Travis let his grades slip, When midterm grades were sent home, his grades were typically Cs, Ds and Fs. His mother and stepfather got on his case, and he promised to get his act together. In the final weeks of the term, he approached his teachers one by one and exhibited greater effort in class. His strategem: “Just go to the teacher and act like you care.”

A fellow student who engaged in similar behavior called it “running in neutral.” DaVonte Little, who attended McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C., told Ehrmann: “I don’t like doing work. Plain and simple. I know my grades have got to come out in the end. So I say, ‘What do I need to do? …. How many [assignments] do I need to get a C? … I missed 15 assignments, and I can do at least 10 in the next four weeks and [his teacher] can promise me a D.”

Ehrmann spoke to one of Travis’ high school teachers, who admitted to a forgiving policy for make-up work, believing her practice to be rooted in empathy:

“In rich counties,” she told me, “like in Fairfax [Virginia] and all that … they’re very strict. But here, no, you give them as many opportunities, especially because you have a lot of, you know, predominantly African American children, that are supposedly having, you know, low economic issues, and so you have to give them opportunities.”

Writes Ehrmann: “The primary reason Travis said he spent minimal effort in the teacher’s class was that graduating from Hyde [High School] and enrolling in college — two objectively measurable goals — could be achieved via the low levels of performance that she and her colleagues were enabling.”

In 2009, Travis was admitted to Lincoln University, a school with 2,000 undergraduates, all of them African American. Travis’s transition was difficult. He decided right away that he was at the wrong place. One of the five classes he found absolutely useless:

The Reading Acceleration Program [was] a remedial course focused on basic skills that should have been mastered in elementary school. During the first few weeks, Travis, over $8,000 in debt, watched his peers recite compound words written on cut-out pieces of cardstock. He was apoplectic. “Those people I was in class with, they didn’t know shit. I mean, how did you walk across a high-school stage without knowing this? I was sitting in the wrong class doing work I already knew out to do.”

The need for remedial education is widespread. Ehrmann cites a National Center for Public Policy and Education report identifying key issues associated with the college-readiness gap. Every year, nearly 60% of first-year college students nationally discover “they are not academically ready for postsecondary studies.” They are required to take remedial classes in English or mathematics, which don’t count for college credit. At community colleges, the percentage requiring remediation approaches 75%.

“I expected to be challenged, to sit up and read, study, stay up all night like what you see in the movies: complicated trigonometry … sleep at your desk,” Travis said. “But once I got here, it was nothing like that. It was like a [housing] project. Dorm here, a couple of buildings in the front. … I don’t know. It’s savage.”

He began skipping classes. By the end of the semester, he had two Cs, two Ds, and an F. Dropping out of school, Travis returned to Washington and took a job at T.J. Maxx.

Bacon’s bottom line: This story is full of ironies. The “I Had a Dream” program might have proven as much a hindrance as a benefit to Travis. Sure, it alleviated him of financial worries, but the knowledge that he was guaranteed a college acceptance sapped him of his drive and initiative. His college trips reinforced the sense of painless destiny. Knowing that colleges and universities were stumbling over themselves to compete for qualified African-American students, he could skate by with minimal effort. He received the same message at school where his teachers, out of a misguided sense of empathy and compassion, let him off the hook for sub-standard work. The sum of his experiences taught him that he needed not exert himself, and he calibrated his efforts to get by with minimal expenditure of effort. Unfortunately, the inertia of those experiences carried into college.

Others may draw different conclusions from Ehrmann’s essay, but here’s what strikes me. There is a massive disjuncture between high school and college. High schools are failing millions of American students by deluding them into thinking that they are prepared upon graduation to attend college. Likewise, colleges are failing them by accepting them regardless of whether they are actually academically prepared. Colleges have no skin in the game — the federal government that extends hundreds of billions of dollars in loans is the entity exposed to bad student debt — and many are so desperate to maintain their enrollment numbers that they are willing to accept almost anyone.

The end result is wasted effort, wasted tuition, and broken dreams for the students — a national tragedy. Both America’s (and Virginia’s) high school systems and higher education systems are complicit. If conservative policies led to such disastrous results, there would be a national outcry and accusations of structural racism. But when the results come from misguided compassion, what do you call it? Perhaps the soft bigotry of low expectations.