Category Archives: economic equty

The Academic/Financial Nexus of College Completion

The Academic/Financial Nexus of College Completion

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide


For years the common wisdom cited often in places like the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education was that low-income, first generation and students of color in particular dropped out of college for financial reasons. Certainly as the cost of college—even public colleges –has risen dramatically and the weight of debt has taken its toll in a straitened job market, the economics would seem to be a daunting challenge to overcome. Now however, comes a report from “Community College News Now” (May 2, 2012) of a study by the Louisiana Board of Regents showing that academics play a greater role in college attrition than finances. And I am not surprised.

It has for some time been my contention that academic problems were masquerading as financial problems. My evidence is purely anecdotal based on 20 years of student conversations as a dean and senior administrator in a wide range of institutions.

First, not to fully discount the purely financial, I have been very glad to see the rise of programs about financial literacy and have written part of the curriculum for one called “Winning Play$” myself. Students come to college and take on debt without understanding it. They do not understand the implications of interest rates for one. There are students whose families are culturally averse to taking loans but will put tuition on a credit card not realizing that it is, in fact, a very high interest compounding loan. They do not think to correlate the amount of debt to the profession they may end up pursuing. They do not or– if in the gray economy- cannot take advantage of tax breaks for education. They may not know they exist. These same populations may not be able or willing to fill out the FAFSA giving them access to federal financial aid programs.  They may not know about loan forgiveness for certain careers or programs like teaching in high risk or underserved areas. Students try to pay as they go, dropping in and out while deferring higher earnings and often complicating their academic progress.

This takes us to the key point. First generation, low income and students of color, especially coming from urban or poor K-12 systems do not understand the ways in which their academics affect the financial side. Therefore, there has begun to be recognition that required remedial courses most often taken in Community Colleges and public institutions chew up valuable credits that are needed for degree completion. Pell funds only allow for 8 semesters of full time attendance at college. So if a student has both general education requirements to meet and then major requirements the additional remedial work may add credits and time to degree completion which would then use up some of those 8 semesters, leaving some to be then paid out of pocket. Obviously, it would be better if high schools actually graduated students college ready but that is a whole other matter. Given the current reality that students are primarily entering state and city colleges under-prepared we should be able to offer the remediation as non credit bearing in some way or as part of a specially funded summer experience so as to not use up the valuable federal or state funds.

Most students however, do not know that they only have 8 semesters of Pell funding or that the new rules are that they may not use them during the summer. Further they do not know that they are being accessed on the basis of normal progress to a degree. Therefore, if they fail too many classes, have GPAs below 2.0, or drop to part time status they cease to be making normal progress to the degree and risk loss of Pell funds (and often state funds.) If they are lucky enough to have private scholarships those also have rules and usually stipulate that a GPA in the area of 3.0 is a requirement. Now the academic problem becomes the financial problem.

Additionally, when students for whatever reason—work demands, poor grades, being overwhelmed—decide to drop out either from a course or school all together they can create a bigger problem. Legions of financial aid officers, advisers and registrars can attest to the numbers of students who just walk away from a class or a school thinking of themselves as having dropped out. But unless they have told a dean, professor or registrar they are still technically on the rolls and what they get next will be an F (or several) and a bill for courses they think they did not take. The academic again becomes a financial problem. Unless these bills are paid or resolved the student cannot progress further.

Given that the price tag of college keeps going up, students need to be very savvy about how their college dollars are spent. There are ways to address this problem to some degree within our colleges. First is to expand the idea of financial literacy such that students are made very clear about all the processes within a school that can have financial impact and the ramifications and the ways to approach these processes and procedures. This can be part of orientation, on the financial aid website, and in materials designed for this purpose. There can be reminders at key times—the drop/ add period or after midterms or when FAFSAs are due, for example.

Without becoming financial aid experts, which would not work, there is still a role for faculty in helping students navigate financial mine fields. Just knowing where students can find financial information is key. Each professor can also create a relationship with  one financial aid officer to whom they feel they can refer students when the issue seems to be financial.

In discussions with struggling students professors can ask questions that may  uncover financial issues underlying a surface problem such as absences that are job related. The goal is to use one’s instincts to try to avoid a student’s dropping out before the student does it. It has been very helpful to me when students were referred to the dean or advisor’s office because the professor noted danger signs like a lack of engagement or frequent absences. Often we have been able to salvage the academic situation before it became a financial crisis.

Advisers, deans and faculty can offer solutions to academic problems that protect students financially—maybe more forbearance in an absentee policy, offering incompletes, suggesting drops before the drop/ add period ends so a student can change courses, suggesting pass/fail when appropriate, being sure a student is placed properly in courses like math or languages, getting students help like tutoring so they don’t have to drop classes. We need to let them know that we  know the risks they bear so they are more likely to approach us.

Having a more strategic approach to financial literacy that connects the dots between academic performance and actions helps create more willingness for students to get the support and help  they need. College completion is about a complex web of interrelated issues and the financial/ academic nexus is a key one.  Academics may be, in fact, the financial side of college completion




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Teaching to the workplace: A paradigm shift for faculty

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

Students now come to college not to get a degree or even knowledge, but to get a job. That is all students—whether at Yale or Phoenix. Vocationally oriented community colleges and for-profit schools have got this piece very right. This reality is driving much of their popularity. This is especially true for first generation, low income and students of color. Their families want them to get the traditional job—doctor, lawyer, businessman.  I  remember one student at Princeton who grew up in the Bronx and was getting his doctorate in bio physics at Columbia and his parents kept asking when he was going to get a real job. They could not understand that his job was to spend time in the library and to sit waiting for his experiments to gel or whatever they were supposed to do. This is not the vision of work that most  families have.

Large research universities and liberal arts colleges are creators of knowledge, but are often slow to adapt to new things themselves.  They create the  trends and then may be the last to jump on the train.  So while the world has changed in term of the workplace and career paths and the financing of education and even who goes to college, the faculty in these institutions have not necessarily caught up. So they may not appreciate the vocational focus and anxiety that students and their families are now bringing to the academy. Part of it is driven by the vocational uncertainty that is now part of the work landscape in ways it was not in the past.

It used to be that if Uncle Joe was hired by IBM  in 1955, he worked there until retirement—maybe moving up along the way—and then got his gold watch after 50 years and went home to play golf. Now when somebody graduates  from college it is likely that they will have as many as 15 jobs and several careers, maybe even one after retirement and maybe a period of unemployment.

My own story is a bit like that. I graduated with a degree from Bryn Mawr in Political Science. I first taught middle school for a year. After that I landed a job in advertising, went on to a position in corporate public affairs and then marketing.  I spent 15 years advancing in the corporate world in jobs I had never envisioned in college.  A pretty typical scenario. Then in my late 30s I switched totally. I took a job at NYU, earned my doctorate there and have been a professor, senior administrator and dean at 4 different schools and  am now consultant and author.

People move around even more now and into fields that did not exist years ago—like social media marketing – hard to believe but 10 years ago there was no facebook or twitter.

How did Ken Chenault, history major, get to be CEO of American Express? Or Gerald Levin, former head of Time Warner, get there as a Religion major. Jamie Dimon CEO at JP Morgan Chase was a Psychology major. Carly Fiorina studied philosophy and medieval history.  The folks in power positions typically have liberal arts degrees and varied majors.  Even college presidents come from diverse majors– Princeton President Shirley Tilghman is a biologist and Brown’s Ruth Simmons did comparative lit—but they all use the same skill sets.

Both faculty and families—key influencers for students,  don’t necessarily understand that people change jobs and careers over the 50 or so years that most people work. If they did not go to college families may not get the translation of skills like critical thinking to the skills that lead to career advancement.  But because the work that faculty do is in the academy they may not appreciate the ways in which the skills they teach translate to the external workplace. And they have not until now been challenged to defend what and how they teach relative to student (and family) vocational aspirations and needs.

Families and students do not realize that employers do not expect students– other than those at entry level in fields like medical data entry–to come in with specific job knowledge. Those hiring at the entry level of the management ranks don’t expect graduates to know  how to do particular processes in a particular firm or field. They do want to know that a potential employee is smart and teachable (good GPA) and can learn the processes and procedures of that firm or industry and of new jobs as one moves up.  They also want to know that a candidate has basic skills like communications, critical thinking, research, problem-solving,  human relations, and organizational/ time management. Those are the skill sets of a liberal arts degree in a well rounded college program.

Some faculty may  understand these things but may not have shared it explicitly.  But today faculty have to be the change agents – different kinds of professors for a different kind of student in different kind of world.

They will have to be the ones who understand that students today need to know how to relate education to work and how to justify the price tag for a philosophy major in a world where college comes at a higher price than it ever has.  They will have to explain that knowing dates and data have merit but that knowing how to find information and analyze that data and write and present a stellar report are going to be the critical skills for getting ahead.

The bottom line is that we will need the teachers who make college relevant– the ones  who will have students know why they are paying for the experience, the ones  who will liberate them to enjoy the learning because they will see that it has some purpose  relative to their vocational aspirations regardless of the discipline.

Here are three strategies to consider for faculty to become the teachers students need now—especially those students who are first generation to go to college at all.

  • First.  Teaching  vocationally  — explaining how skills get applied in  the workplace. It is important to engage students in experiential, applied  and community based learning opportunities to show how disciplines are  applied in the  “real world”.  Students today learn differently.  They learn online, they have shorter  attention spans and so the pure lecture format is not always the best. One  course I taught did not come together until the students had to go into  the community to do projects that helped them see for themselves how the  disparities of social class really functioned beyond the texts I had  assigned.  This  is especially useful for adult learners  who can relate better to experiential learning.  And adult learners or returning students  is a growing number – maybe the majority of students now entering college.

Part of teaching vocationally is to be interdisciplinary and to use teams. Collaboration  with colleagues in different  departments  to team teach is exciting.  Take an example—Civil Rights. What if that were team taught by professors from Economics, History, English and Art.  How cool would that be for a student.  It is how the real workplace functions— in teams of people coming from many different perspectives. Students should be given team based projects where they bring their own diversity of skill and experience to problem-solving on an assignment and they should see this as a workplace simulation.

Teaching vocationally also means using technology  to build technology  skills among students. Students use technology every day.  Those skills can be pushed  in the work assigned. Employers not only check to see if students have an online presence on facebook or linkedin (a clean one) but also how adept they are at using varied forms of social media like tumblr, or doodles to schedule meetings, or powerpoint, or video conferencing, or researching on lexus/nexus  or using excel and other tools as a baseline for employment.

  • Second,  partner with  other college offices –career office, counseling services, even the library.  Faculty can help students to take  advantage of the resources they may not on their own. They  can encourage students to go to events   (often under-attended regardless of how much pizza we serve) where high  profile individuals or alumni will be speaking. This is a networking  opportunity for students. Sometimes  faculty can take the class or make it  part of an assignment.  I used to  make one class session meet in the library prior to assigning final  papers.  Professors can direct a  student to the writing center.  Professors should ask the Career or  Alumni office for a list of alumni who majored in their field and what they have done with their degrees so they can answer the “what to do with  this major question” with real stories.
  • Finally,  we have to make fewer assumptions about  what students know. For example, we cannot assume they know what a      syllabus is. Students may come from backgrounds where asking questions or  asking for help is not valued. So it is important to spare them the pain of having to confess that they don’t know and anticipate the things they may not know. That is one of the things I do in my book, I CAN Finish College. I give the answers to questions students may not even know to  ask. We need to let students know they can come to a professor. One friend  of mine was a graduate student in sociology and still did not know what a  variable was and fortunately the professor was very wise and realized from  the glazed expression on my friend’s face that she was in trouble and  invited her to come meet with her. My friend went on to earn a doctorate and  head a division of a major federal agency. But the key is to take the onus  from the student and spare  them the embarrassment. Further it gets them into the habit of asking questions and seeking collaborators which is what the smartest leaders do in the  workplace.

The term vocation is often a dirty word in higher education.  But  we won’t really  help our students today unless we can connect school work with job work, especially now that the public considers jobs to be the rationale for education.  It is essential that  faculty take up the challenge to make college  vocationally relevant and clear to students who will mostly be working outside the academy.

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Winning the Economic Equity War One Book at a Time


By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

Reading has been on my  brain of late. Not that it is anything new.  I am a voracious reader and have always been. As a child I was one of those obnoxious kids who won the summer library reading competition year after year. On the other hand it masked my huge shyness. I could hide in a book and not interact with others. Fortunately, I got over that. I can talk to folks and curling up with a good mystery is still fun but not the center of my life. But what has been like breathing for me is clearly not for far too many. And it is that which has been occupying my thinking.

But as a child I was read to from infancy. And my grandkids are now reading books in the 3rd generation. Sendak’s A Hole is To Dig was a favorite for me, my son and my granddaughter.  Two of my grandkids are in a school district where from toddlerhood they were able to take out packets of 10 books each with a goal of reading 1000 by first grade. One made it to 600. That of  course means that her parents had to read them 1800 times and we can all pretty much recite “When You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” She is reading Harry Potter at 2nd grade.

There are the statistics that say that a student reading below grade level at 3rd grade is far more likely to drop out of high school. So we know now who will be hanging out on the street, in jail, on welfare. It is the kid who at 5th grade reads at 2nd grade level. That strikes me as really short sighted and stupid.

There was an appalling (to me) story in the NY Times Education section on Cliff Notes videos which  totally massacre Shakespeare in every way in an attempt to be colloquially accessible to current students. So Lady Macbeth is exhorted to “Turn that frown upside down”. That is playing to a dumbing down rather than a raising up. It does not move the skills set forward. It is a form of defeatism or worse, a form of sabotage.

This week I heard several stories about students– young men especially– who will not read. They ask what is the point and why are there so many words and why does it take so long to get to the point.

Then there are the kids who have no books at home, no library they can get to easily and for whom television is their only entertainment. In the game of life who is likely to win.

Employers tell us that communications skills are essential– the ability to write presentations, reports, speeches, memos all move work forward, make sales, advance careers. A student getting to college is likely to have to read hundreds of pages a week. (Not anymore the 700 or so that we were expected to read back in the day when I was an undergrad at Bryn Mawr and walked to school barefoot up hill in the snow both ways.) College students should be writing 10, 15, 20 page papers with ease. A powerpoint is not the same as a well structured, well supported thoughtful prose argument. Not to say that being able to condense material and present it well are not valuable skills. They are essential. But even a powerpoint has to begin somewhere and that is likely to be the written word, a report summarized, research produced, texts of some sort that have been digested and interpreted. That is to say that someone had to do some reading.

In a recent panel discussion among college alumni about how their majors affected their stellar and diverse careers, all noted that the biggest asset (from two English majors, one Classics major, one economics major) was the work they did reading and writing. Being able to absorb and process lots of information was the product of voluminous reading. Being able to communicate cogently in writing had been essential to their advancement to law partner, head of a state dept of health, HR Director, and Assistant Director of Education for a state government. Everyone of them was grateful for their language skills born of reading and writing.

My son, an advertising executive, uses books all the time to reflect on management theory, consumer behavior, trends in the marketplace, and interesting ideas floating around in Malcolm Gladwell’s brain.  But he did not love reading until college when he discovered the tomes of Tom Clancy and devoured them regardless of their heft.

Just hanging out with colleagues or watching movies and television involves some degree of awareness of literary canon. I note all the time quips on TV that reference works of great literature that should be common to all educated students. If you miss it then you have missed part of the entertainment. You are not an insider, in on the witty joke. Not being an insider can be death to a career. In management ranks it would be assumed that you have a glancing awareness of the New York Times and/ or the Wall St. Journal. Maybe to hitch it up a notch you might reference the New Yorker or the Economist. You are assumed to be a reader.

But perhaps more important than the vocational which  is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, is the sheer human power of opening the mind to the world of reading and writing. It is a space where you can connect with others literally and figuratively, find your own identity mirrored in the experiences of others across history, ethnicity, nationality or religion. A clear example is in the powerful new documentary called “Stories from an Undeclared War”. You may remember Erin Gruwell’s story from the Freedom Writers movies tarring Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell. The documentary of this incredible story features Gruwell’s 150 at-risk students from Long Beach, California. The film follows their story from the first day of freshman year in 1994 to present day.

What Erin Gruwell did was help students to find their voices and then to connect in their humanity with Anne Frank, or victims from Sarajevo, appreciate literature as a vehicle to understand and engage experience and give credence to their own feelings and their own power.

So if those who are low income are not taught how to read–indeed why to read and value it then we have immediately cut off their access to a better life in every respect.. And I am not suggesting that everyone has to love the Brontes. Boys may prefer illustrated novels, or action heroes as my son did. Romance is fine, mystery or vampires are fine. Bless Harry Potter– or Tom Clancy or Twilight (all now also captured in film.) The best films are often wonderful books first. If you want to be a film maker you need to read. If you want to have a voice you have to be able to communicate and the best way to learn to write is to read.

I have been excited by work I have been doing. I just joined the board of the READ Alliance which connects pre- third graders and teen tutors. The teens are paid to teach adoring little ones to read and love it. The little kids are coming up to grade level so that they can achieve this make or break skill. The teens reinforce their own skills, make some money and maybe find a career.  The Eagle Academy for boys where I chair the advisory board is planning an event for this spring that will put two books in the hands of thousands of young men and have them exposed to lively discussions by authors and celebrities and others who love these texts.  I start every day by turning on my computer and by clicking on the child literacy link on the hunger site. ( I feel like I am putting a book in a child’s hand. If we lose the literacy war, we lose the education war, and then the economic equity war. We just lose. Didn’t Shakespeare say something about for want of a nail… Oh, you never read that one.


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