Saturday, December 12, 2009

college students today....

College professors have always complained about college students. The complaints usually starts with the phrase "the trouble with college students today..." and usually also contains the phrase "when I was a student..."

The fact is that college students today are different from the past, in a whole host of ways. Let's look at the demographics: in 1966 the total number of undergraduate college students of all ages was 6,085,000 which represented 3% of the total U.S. population, in 2008 the total number of undergraduate college students of all ages was 14,955,000, which represented 5% of the total U.S. population ; in 1966 39% of college students were 18-19 years old, 15% were age 25 or older, 94% were white and 5 percent were black, 38% were women and 62% were male; in 2008 22% were 18-19 years old, 37% were age 25 or older, 77% were white and 13 percent were black, 55% were women and 45% were male. In the year 1970 (first year for which the government collected data on this) the percent of all undergraduate students attending community colleges was 27%, in 2008 that had risen to 36%.

As discussed this past week in the Chronicle of Higher Education most of the increasing numbers of college students in the last couple of decades have gone into the community colleges, and to a lesser extent into less selective four year colleges (public and private). More selective colleges and universities have used the increased numbers of students applying to become more selective, more choosy.

Family income which impacts college choices due to rising costs, also has a strong positive correlation with standardized test scores and to a more moderate correlation with high school grade point average. Other aspects of social class, such as parental educational levels influence students' selection of or assignment to courses of study in high school. [The college educated parent is more likely to know that taking algebra in summer school before high school can put their child on a fast track to advance math classes in high school making him or her more attractive to selective colleges and universities.]

As a result of the confluence of increased selectiveness and rising costs, social class and income stratification between colleges has increased steadily over the past twenty years. Students from poor and working class families are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of elite, selective colleges and universities, while community colleges become the primary educational institutions for poor, working class, and even lower middle class families.

The flood of new college students into community colleges and less selective four year colleges, is made up primarily of poorer, working class and lower middle class students who are the first in their family to go to college. Educational pundits have pointed out the impact of this on the level of college preparation -- a large percentage of these new students were shunted by their high school advisers into non-college preparatory tracks or classes. They did not take the mathematics, science or even English, history, etc. usually taken by college bound secondary students. Pundits have also made much about the lack of monetary resources of these students, and the high percentage of them that have jobs (all of these things have been discussed extensively in The Chronicle of Higher Education in recent weeks and over the last few years).

One thing that has not been discussed at all, that is painfully obvious among our poorer and working class student body at my Kentucky community college, is the impact of poor health and health care problems on students. Our students themselves have a very high level of health problems, including diabetes and its complications, heart disease, other obesity related conditions, back problems, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and a frighteningly high level of cancer for a relatively young population. As many health problems as my students have, their families -- spouses, parents, grandparents, mothers- and fathers-in-law, siblings, aunts and uncles, have even more. Because in lower income communities, people are highly dependent on family and kin for aid during crises, students often are primary care-takers for ill family members, providing emotional support, transportation, and nursing care at home or in the hospital. [These days with nursing staffs stretched so thinly -- especially in poor rural areas like this -- some one needs to be present in the hospital with a patient to insure proper nursing care.]

This semester I had one student providing physical, household, medical/nursing, and emotional support for her mother with cancer and her mother-in-law with congestive heart failure (the mother-in-law died just before the end of term). An other student spent weeks in the nearest research hospital (3 hours away from her home) providing support for her long term partner who was dying, and then came home to her own diagnosis of heart disease and need for heart surgery. At least a dozen other students in my classes (I only teach about 75 students a semester) had serious health issues for themselves or family members this term, and this was not an unusual semester.

All these forms of illness have a higher incidence among lower income and working class populations. On top of that, are the burdens imposed by lack of good health coverage. Many of them have the additional struggle of having to worry about mounting medical bills that they may never be able to pay off. If they have assistance from Medicaid or from the local public health department, they often have very little control over the times of appointments and have to invest more time than some one with insurance would have to invest.

Just this week as I was getting my mammogram I overheard the following situation -- a woman with a suspicious lump had been referred by the public health department to a private physician to order a diagnostic mammogram and had authorized payment for that mammogram. The physician however, had decided that an ultrasound would provide him with more information and wrote an order for an ultrasound. The woman showed up at the radiography department for her appointment, only to be told that she would have to return to the public health department, so that they could write a new authorization for payment for the ultrasound, and then go back to the physicians office for a new order to go with it, and have to reschedule the mammogram for a day later in the week. It was obvious from the conversation that her husband who accompanied her, had taken off from work and was losing pay, and would have to take off yet another day later in the week to accompany her for the second go-round.

Poor health and poor health care are huge obstacles to successful college completion for lower income and working class students.