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College Transitions and Persistence

Concerns About Downward Mobility Among Students of Color 

What impact do concerns about downward socioeconomic mobility have on college students’ academic experiences? IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin, graduate research assistant Josiah Rosario, and their colleagues conduct two studies addressing this question in Social Psychology of Education. In their first study, the researchers found that when students had stronger concerns about the possibility of falling down the socioeconomic hierarchy during their lives, they also expressed more academic avoidance goals, which means that they were more focused on avoiding negative goals like bad grades than achieving positive goals like earning honors. This was especially true for students of color. In an experiment, the second study randomly assigned students to momentarily focus on the possibility of downward mobility, upward mobility, or a control condition. Building on the findings from the first study, students of color who were led to focus on downward mobility became more focused on avoidance goals than other students in the study. Prior research shows that over time, this type of sustained focus on avoiding mistakes rather than learning and improving can lead to lower effort, achievement, and well-being. The researchers conclude that broader societal risks of downward mobility for students of color can contribute to challenges that they face in pursuing their goals. 

Enrollment Changes at Community Colleges During the Pandemic

During typical recessions, post-secondary institutions experience an increase in enrollment as young adults try to gain skills to be more competitive in the labor market. In a working paper, IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Sarah Turner, of the University of Virginia, study how supply disruptions led to a drop in community college enrollment during the pandemic-induced recession, despite high unemployment rates. The researchers examine community college administrative records in fall 2020 representing about half of national community college enrollment. The researchers focused on assembly, repair, and maintenance (ARM) courses that require hands-on training, which were particularly disrupted during COVID because the training was harder to move online. Overall, they find that between 2019 and 2020, enrollment at community colleges dropped by 9.5%, mostly because fewer men enrolled. Furthermore, community colleges that typically enroll a higher share of students in ARM programs saw a larger drop in enrollment compared to other schools. The researchers suggest that because fewer workers have been trained in ARM skills, the flow of workers to local markets may be disrupted. This disruption could also encourage hands-on programs to adopt a hybrid model of teaching in the future using simulation technologies and learning tools to save money and allow for self-paced learning. Schanzenbach is the Margaret Walker Alexander Professor of Human Development and Social Policy.