Who Gets to Graduate?

A riveting New York Times Magazine article, Who Gets to Graduate, gave me a lot of food for thought.

Did you know that of the students who enroll in a 4-year college, more than 40% haven’t earned a degree after 6 years? And that while 90% of the first-year students who come from families in the top income quartile finish their degree, among students born to the bottom half of the income distribution only 25% will graduate?

Current study of education shows that many students believe intelligence is a fixed quality that cannot be improved through practice or study. And when they experience cues that suggest they weren’t academically able — a bad grade on a test, for example — they interpret them as a sign that they can never succeed. Before long, the nagging doubts become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Among other experts, the article focuses on David Yeager, a 32-year-old assistant professor who is emerging as one of the leading experts on the psychology of education.” He conducted a number of experiments with staggering results; here’s one example:

“In the experiment, 288 community-college students enrolled in developmental math were randomly assigned, at the beginning of the semester, to read one of two articles. The control group read a generic article about the brain. The treatment group read an article that laid out the scientific evidence against the entity theory of intelligence. “When people learn and practice new ways of doing algebra or statistics,” the article explained, “it can grow their brains — even if they haven’t done well in math in the past.” After reading the article, the students wrote a mentoring letter to future students explaining its key points. The whole exercise took 30 minutes, and there was no follow-up of any kind. But at the end of the semester, 20 percent of the students in the control group had dropped out of developmental math, compared with just 9 percent of the treatment group. In other words, a half-hour online intervention, done at almost no cost, had apparently cut the community-college math dropout rate by more than half.”

I found the implications of this profound – we are much more “plastic” than many of us believe, and incredibly small intervention can have incredible effects. The article explores this topic at length – I highly recommend you read it.

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