As back-to-school season approaches, incoming freshmen nationwide eagerly anticipate their first semester of college. For students from low-income families, college represents a golden opportunity to end the generational cycle of poverty.
But for too many would-be scholars, the dream of earning a post-secondary degree is short-lived. Roughly half of entering college students from low-income families drop out empty handed.
Financial pressure is certainly a factor, with astronomical rises in higher education costs partially to blame. But money and family obligations aren’t the only barriers to college completion.
TakePart spoke with Jean Twenge, San Diego State University psychology professor and author of Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic, to learn about other factors that influence the dropout decision.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING
Since 1966, a national sample of nine million students entering four-year colleges and universities participated in the ongoing American Freshman survey project.
Twenge, along with colleagues W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile, used that data to examine generational differences in self-evaluations.
According to their findings, published in the journal Self and Identity, when recent American students were asked to rate their own abilities, they were more likely than previous generations to rate themselves above average on attributes like academic ability, drive to achieve, leadership ability, self-confidence, and writing ability.
This added boost of self-esteem would be justified if today’s freshmen actually performed better than their predecessors. But researchers found that objective measures of achievement, like average SAT scores and NAEP scores, remained level over the past several decades.
The only achievement measures that increased were high school grades, suggesting the possibility of grade-inflation.
Researchers also noted an interesting relationship between effort and self-evaluation: Groups of students who reported studying for fewer hours tended to rate themselves higher in achievement drive.
Taken together, these findings suggest that today’s incoming freshmen studied less in high school, earned inflated grades, and were unjustifiably confident in their own abilities.
As Twenge recently shared with TakePart, higher self-esteem isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“Research shows that high self-esteem doesn't cause success,” she explained. “Any correlation between the two is caused by outside variables like family background, or by success causing high self-esteem, not the other way around.”
Twenge added that having a high opinion of one’s own abilities can actually interfere with academic achievement. “High self-esteem becomes problematic when it's unrealistic, crossing from confidence to overconfidence,” she said. “That can lead to poor outcomes if, for example, students overestimate their abilities and fail to study enough. This is exactly what we've seen recently, with more self-confidence but no corresponding increase in objectively measured performance.”
PERCEPTION VS. REALITY
In addition to being overly confident, many incoming freshmen have a second strike against them: they lack the basic skills they need to succeed in college.
The ACT’s newly released annual report found that 75 percent of 2011 high school graduates who took the ACT were not prepared for a university education in one or more core areas, including English, reading, math, and science.
According to The New York Times, more than one million students are forced to take remedial college classes each year.
What happens when overly confident college students come face to face with the reality of their skill deficits?
Economics professor Todd Stinebrickner, at the University of Western Ontario, and his father, Ralph Stinebrickner, professor emeritus at Berea College, examined this issue using multiple surveys of low-income students taken throughout their college careers.
When freshmen first started school, they predicted they would obtain a GPA of 3.22. But their actual first semester GPAs averaged only 2.88. On subsequent surveys, they became more realistic about their abilities and downgraded their predictions.
As time went on, increasing numbers of students began to realize they weren’t as prepared for college as they originally thought. Discouraged and lacking the motivation needed to persist through four years of challenging coursework, they began to drop out.
The Stinebrickners discovered that 40 percent of students who left did so because of poor academic performance. The researchers concluded that college recruitment efforts should take a back seat to policies that better prepare high school students for college-level coursework.
Twenge told TakePart that today’s public school educators have an especially difficult time motivating students who “on average, are less willing to work hard. They study less, say they are less willing to work overtime, and are more likely to say they wouldn't want to work if they had enough money. Another study found that recent students are less likely to say they find their high school classes interesting.”
However, Twenge added, this information enables teachers to understand their students’ generational perspective: “They want to be successful, but don't always have a realistic picture of how to get there. Teachers, counselors, and parents can help students see a path to their goals. It may not be an easy path, but it will get them a lot further than simply feeling self-confident.”